How to talk to someone who is vaccine hesitant as the COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out
MONTREAL -- The promise that some Canadians will soon have access to COVID-19 vaccines brings with it a sense of relief -- but also some trepidation.
On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada will get its first batch of vaccine by next week if it is approved by Health Canada.
Quebec will receive 4,000 doses of that first shipment and there will eventually be enough doses to vaccinate 650,000 Quebecers by the end of March.
The concerns being raised about the vaccine come as much from some members of the public as they do from some members of the medical community -- but for very different reasons.
Those who are vaccine-hesitant might have questions about the “safety and efficacy of a variety of vaccines,” says McGill science communicator Jonathan Jarry.
“We’re living in a time of heightened anxiety, the pandemic has been very scary for all of us,” Jarry said, adding that it’s normal for people to have reservations and anxieties about them.
As a scientist, Jarry says what concerns him, however, about the high-stakes vaccine rollout, is that vaccine-hesitant people will decide to forgo the vaccine if their fears aren’t addressed properly.
Tackling the issue is important, he said, “because if we want to get out of this pandemic, one of the main ways will be with a successful vaccination campaign, with a safe and effective vaccine.”
But there can be no meeting of the minds when the experts answering the questions or vaccine-friendly friends turn conversations into polarizing debates, similar to the vitriol-filled posts found on social media.
“As we like to say, when was the last time you changed your mind after being called stupid,” said Jarry, who is with the McGill Office for Science and Society.
He said being antagonistic and demonizing people who are uneasy about being inoculated and calling them anti-science doesn’t help the discourse.
“It doesn’t help to convince these people. I think we need to do a lot more active listening” to understand what the misgivings are, said Jarry, and then provide them with the best information available.
Jarry describes those who fall under the category of ‘vaccine-hesitant’ as people who might still get all the recommended vaccines, but with some level of worry.
Or, they might pick and choose the ones they’re comfortable with for themselves, and extend their children’s vaccination schedule.
Jarry suggests that while there’s a highly vocal but smaller group of people who are anti-vaccine in Canada, there is a “significant contingent” who are vaccine-hesitant.
The results of an Angus Reid poll released on Nov. 20 bear that out. The poll surveyed a random sample of 1,578 people across the country.
Just 40 per cent of Canadians said they “would be comfortable getting the vaccine as soon as it is freely available to them,” according to the analysis.
That figure held for Quebecers as well. The data also suggested that nine per cent of people surveyed in the province said they weren’t sure they would get the vaccine, 15 per cent said they would not get it, and 35 per cent said they would get it eventually but would wait a while first.
HOW TO BUILD VACCINE TRUST
If you’re in a position to be able to allay someone’s vaccine worries or debunk some myths, what’s the best way to go about it?
A Twitter thread on the subject authored by an epidemiologist at the Ontario Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences offers some suggestions.
Maria Sundaram’s advice for “epidemiologists and humans in general” is to take a pragmatic and sensitive approach.
Among her ideas: address individual concerns, raise common goals and acknowledge that some in underserved communities could have good reasons for having less faith in the system.
Sundaram says try not to be a “science robot” feeding information into an empty vessel, instead relate with them as a person and talk about your own life and choices.
And it’s a good idea to step back if you determine you’re talking to someone who’s not interested in hearing you, the epidemiologist said, since “you may not be able to change their mind.”
KEY COVID VACCINE WORRY
One of the main concerns expressed by those who are hesitant has to do with the type of vaccines that are being tested, and the historic speed of development.
“Some people believe these vaccines were rushed -- well that’s not really the case,” Said Jarry.
He explained that typically, vaccine development and clinical trials take years to complete because so much time is spent on securing funding and recruiting participants.
“In this particular case, because of the urgency of the situation, the recruitment was very easy and the money was there because companies and governments realized how important this was.”
Helping to also move things along, Jarry says, is that some phases of the trial could overlap because researchers “didn’t have to wait for all the results of the first phase, to assess whether they should risk financially, moving forward into a second phase.”
Also expedited was the wait to find out who became infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus after either receiving appropriate doses of the experimental vaccine or a placebo, “unfortunately because the virus is rampant and quite common,” he said.
Finally, Jarry says the RNA vaccines being developed to fight transmission of the current coronavirus use a different technology that speeds up the process, compared to standard protein-based or live but attenuated vaccines, “that take a lot more time to cultivate.”
Still, it will be important for companies, manufacturers and governments to be consistently transparent with the public about the data they gather, and any possible side effects or adverse effects of the vaccines, experts say.
Just as helpful for people weighing all the information, Jonathan Jarry suggests, is to take into account that if they choose not to get a vaccine they expose themselves to the risks associated with catching the virus.
"There are long term risks of COVID-19, there’s a risk of hospitalization and death, so it’s important when we talk about risk to talk about the alternative when we’re considering what to do.”
The Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey from Nov. 12 to 16 among a representative randomized sample of 1,578 Canadian adults who are members of Angus Reid Forum. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Discrepancies in or between totals are due to rounding. The survey was self-commissioned and paid for by ARI.