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COVID-19 Vaccine Conversations

How to Talk to Hesitant Loved Ones

Published September 2021

Having conversations about COVID-19 vaccination can be uncomfortable. But with the proper information and preparation, you can have healthy, productive discussions with family, friends and peers, regardless of their vaccination status.

Kenzie A. Cameron, PhD, MPH, a research professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who has studied vaccination communication, shares guidance for understanding vaccine hesitancy and having beneficial conversations.

It is not going to be one magic conversation.
— Kenzie A. Cameron, PhD, MPH

Start the Conversation

To start the conversation, it can help to explain why you are asking about vaccination status and give context to your concern, Dr. Cameron says.

Some sample statements that you might use include:

  • "I would like to know if you are vaccinated because I have an immunocompromised person in my home, and I want to protect them."
  • "I have unvaccinated children in my home, so it is important to me that people who come into our house are vaccinated."
  • "I would like to invite you to dinner, but for my own peace of mind, I am asking for everyone to be vaccinated."

Do Not Assume

Not every unvaccinated person shares the same concerns when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, explains Dr. Cameron.

"The best thing we can do is not assume why someone is hesitant to being vaccinated," she says. "It can be frustrating, but you need to be non-judgmental and try to identify what the underlying concern is that they have."

If you are legitimately concerned about someone's vaccination status, then ask in a non-judgmental way why they do not want to get the vaccine. Dr. Cameron suggests that you keep these tips in mind as you discuss:

  • Have a "Yes, and..." attitude. Acknowledge the concerns that you hear. Do not dismiss them. This allows for a conversation, and not a lecture. Even if the concern raised is not one that you ever had, acknowledging it and expressing that you hear the person is incredibly important.
  • Establish understanding and empathy. You will not inspire someone to get vaccinated by simply telling them that they are wrong. Connect with them emotionally. If you had similar concerns at any point, share that. Use that mutual understanding to build trust and explain how your attitude has changed.

Take a Break

If your conversation is not proving to be productive despite your open and honest communication, Dr. Cameron recommends stepping back to see if there is another route you can take.

"It is not going to be one magic conversation," she explains. "It is more likely to be an ongoing series of discussions that recognize their concerns. We have to check our own feelings and emotions, because we do not get to tell people what they should or should not feel."

However, Dr. Cameron says it is equally important to recognize that your own feelings, which might include anger and frustration, are valid. But the targeted expression of that anger and frustration will not lead to a productive conversation; it will only make the other person react defensively. At that point, the tone and goal of the conversation will change, and you likely will not see the outcome you hoped for.

By keeping the lines of communication open and separating your feelings from the interaction, you can establish yourself as someone who can be trusted. This will help the person feel comfortable coming back to you with questions in the future. On the other hand, if you are pushing and nagging, or expressing anger and frustration, they will only close the door to future conversations.

Debunk Myths

Sometimes, conversations find you. Misinformation around the vaccines' efficacy and creation might impact someone's decision to get vaccinated. The fact is that COVID-19 vaccines work, and they are doing what they are supposed to do: fighting the virus and helping to prevent severe illness, hospitalizations and death.

Here, Dr. Cameron models how to respond with facts to some common myths that you might hear around vaccination:

  • Myth: The vaccines are not reliable because they were made too quickly.
    • Dr. Cameron's response: The technology behind these vaccines has been in development for decades. The reason the COVID-19 vaccines were created relatively quickly was because it was an all-hands-on-deck effort, involving leading scientists, governments and pharmaceutical companies across the globe, united with the common goal of developing a vaccine. Then, the vaccines went through clinical trials and ongoing safety monitoring to make sure they were safe and effective before being granted initial Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This monitoring is continuing, which is what led to the full FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in August 2021.
  • Myth: It is a HIPAA violation to ask someone if they are vaccinated.
    • Dr. Cameron's response: Asking someone about their vaccination status does not violate HIPAA. The person you are asking always has the option not to respond. And, HIPAA only applies to healthcare providers, health plans and healthcare clearinghouses. The act does not apply to most people or organizations.
  • Myth: The vaccines are supposed to completely prevent COVID-19 illness. Because some people are still getting sick, they must not work.
    • Dr. Cameron's response: The vaccines are extremely effective, but being vaccinated does not mean you cannot get sick. If you are vaccinated and become infected with the virus, the vaccine triggers an immune response to help your body fight back. The vaccines are working: They are reducing the risk of COVID-19 and severe illness, hospitalization and death from the disease.

Keep Perspective

"It's a difficult place to be in if you have held a strong belief, such as being opposed to or afraid of vaccination, and then change your opinion to one of acceptance," Dr. Cameron says. "If someone changes their mind and gets the vaccine, express your gratitude that they did so, even with the concerns they expressed. To get past that fear and change a strongly held attitude is challenging for anyone to do."