Experts offer up facts for combatting misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine, plus tips for having a constructive conversation with family members about why it's important to get it.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
February 17, 2021
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You may be anxiously awaiting the date when you can roll up your sleeve for the COVID-19 vaccine, but not everyone is so eager. According to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about one-third of Americans say they are unlikely to get the vaccine or aren't planning to get it altogether, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declaring that all available COVID-19 vaccines are not only safe, but also an extremely important tool for getting life back normal.

Credit: Illustration: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

With the country divided, it's no wonder disagreements between COVID-19 vaccine supporters and naysayers are also creating a sharp divide in families. Maybe your parents are worried about side effects, or your brother doesn't believe it's been researched enough. Cue many prickly debates on Zoom calls or around the dinner table.

The bottom line though? While some question the vaccine's safety or effectiveness, "it's our best way out," says Namandjé N. Bumpus, Ph.D., a professor of pharmacology at Johns Hopkins University. The vaccine prevents people from getting sick with COVID-19 and decreases the potential severity of it if they do, she said.

Here are six common concerns about the vaccine and six things to say to loved ones who are hesitant to get vaccinated or plan to reject it entirely.

They say: "I'm not getting it because it's not been tested enough."

You say: It's passed all the same tests that other vaccines we take go through.

The vaccine rollout was fast, compared to other medications, but it still has been rigorously tested. "They've gone through all of the same phases of clinical studies that drugs we take all the time went through," says Dr. Bumpus. "Not one corner was cut."

At the same time, while SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is new, researchers have been studying other coronaviruses that cause SARs and MERs, for years. Same goes for the mRNA technology used in vaccines, which prompts an immune response that helps to shield us from infection. "It seems quick, but it's really just a lot of knowledge coming together around a very important problem," she says.

They say: "I'm not getting it because I may want to have another child."

You say: All signs point to it being safe, but talk to your doctor if you're worried.

More work needs to be done here, Dr. Bumpus acknowledges. She recommends women talk to their health care providers. But all signs,so far, point to the vaccines being safe for people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or plan to become pregnant. Studies done on animals indicate that there is no effect on pregnancy outcomes, she said. And there is no scientific reason for mRNA technology to impact fertility.

They say: "I'm not getting it because I don't want to be injected with a microchip."

You say: That's a conspiracy theory and there's no truth to it.

Dr. Bumpus has studied HIV for two decades, so she's familiar with virus-related conspiracy theories. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, there is, indeed, no microchip involved. When confronted with these rumors, she likes to bring the discussion back to what drives the people who are developing the vaccines. "The conspiracy theories are hard. People have them, and they are hard to refute," she says. "We need to look at the actual people who are doing the work, and it's really scientists and physicians who have dedicated their lives and careers to understanding, treating, and preventing disease. This is really the life work of these people."

They say: "I'm not getting it because vaccines have made me sick in the past."

You say: What you felt was your vaccine working, not getting sick.

When people feel achy or feverish after a vaccine, it doesn't mean they're sick from the shot. It means the vaccine is working, and their body is mounting an immune response, says Dr. Bumpus. Common side effects of the COVID vaccine include pain and swelling around the injection site and the potential for fever, chills, tiredness, and a headache. The side effects are mild to moderate and go away within one to three days, says Dr. Bumpus. "It's something we would often expect from a vaccine," she says. "You're not getting sick with COVID."

They say: "I'm not getting it because I have allergies, and I'm worried about an allergic reaction."

You say: Check with your doctor if your allergies are a concern.

People with allergies to certain components that are used in vaccines should not get it. Most people know they are allergic to these substances because they've had reactions to other medications before, says Dr. Bumpus. But people with allergies to certain foods or latex, for example, don't need to worry about experiencing a reaction, she explains. And, as a safety measure, people must wait for 15 minutes after getting vaccinated to make sure they suffer no ill effects.

They say: "I'm not getting it because the one I'm being offered is not as effective."

You say: The best vaccine to take is the one you're offered because they all work.

As new vaccines are introduced, they come with a confusing collection of numbers about their efficacy. Some appear better than others. But we shouldn't compare those numbers side by side, says Dr. Bumpus. The trials were done on different people and at different times and locations where new variants of the virus may have emerged. "What we need to take away is that they work, and that's amazing," she says.

Tips for Seeking Common Ground

Vaccine refusal, of course, is hardly new, and it's something families have grappled with before. Keith Holyoak, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at UCLA, who has studied vaccine skeptics among parents, recommends finding common ground with today's vaccine critics.

"One approach is saying, roughly, 'Can you imagine anything that might convince you that it would be good to have the vaccine?'" he says. If they can come up with scenarios that would prompt them to get vaccinated, that might demonstrate that they could eventually be persuaded to get the shot.

As you have these conversations with family members, Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas, recommends taking a compassionate approach. Don't start the conversation angry and ready to challenge Grandma or Uncle Bob at every turn. Remove any threats and anger. And, remember: As more people get vaccinated, they may be more inclined to get it.

"It's not a matter of making someone else wrong or proving yourself right," she said, "but just letting people know in a very respectful way that this is how we feel."

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