This week, the U.S. reported that 70% of eligible adults had received at least one vaccine dose. So how do we convince that last 30% to pull up their sleeve and get vaccinated?
From what virologist Benjamin Neuman has seen, vaccine hesitancy has different causes, some easier to address than others.
“The easier group to convince seem to be people who are worried about side effects, or how effective the vaccines are,” said Neuman, who’s head of the biology department at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.
“It’s usually just a matter of connecting people to very good information from scientific papers that answer their questions,” he explained.
It’s considerably more difficult to reach people who mistrust scientists and are very resistant to outside information, Neuman said.
“I haven’t had much success making inroads with people with a baked-in anti-science point of view, but I suspect they might be convinced by someone they already know and trust,” the virologist said.
If you know a vaccine-wary person who trusts you, you just might be able to persuade them ― and it’s crucial to do so as we continue to fight the highly transmissible delta variant.
We recently asked readers who successfully talked their friends and family into getting vaccinated to share their convincing arguments. Below, we break down three approaches that worked for them, along with some advice on empathizing and understanding from Kate Hanselman, a mental health nurse practitioner with Thriveworks in Stamford, Connecticut.
Listen respectfully to their reasoning and then address those reservations, ideally with information from experts.
Americans cite a wide range of reasons for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine, from uneasiness about how quickly the vaccine was seemingly developed, to medical distrust among Black Americans. (After decades of maltreatment on the part of medical researchers and the health care system, the last concern isn’t surprising.)
If you’re trying to convince someone to make an appointment, you first have to understand, as empathetically as possible, why they’re so uneasy.
“While it can be challenging to seek understanding when you have a goal in mind, it is essential to listen fully and openly before piling on suggestions and solutions,” Hanselman told HuffPost.
Find out what information they do have. Dig a little deeper to find out what they’re afraid of and try to understand what their current position does for them.
“Ask gentle, non-accusatory questions ― for instance, ‘I hear how distressing this is for you, what are your concerns?’ instead of, ‘What are you even worried about, this vaccine is safe, how can you believe that?’ ― and wait for them to finish before continuing on,” Hanselman said.
Once you’ve listened with an open mind, hopefully you’ll have the chance to offer some expert-backed counter-information to quell those concerns.
Shay, a commercial real estate manager in Houston, Texas, has convinced two people to get vaccinated: a neighbor who dabbles in conspiracy theories “for the entertainment value, as he put it” and a work friend in her late 30s who’s “not a fan of medicine.”
“I told them that if most of the population does not get vaccinated, we’ll never eliminate COVID-19,” said Shay, who like a few others in this story, asked to use her first name only to protect her privacy.
To counter misinformation about the vaccine’s overnight development, Shay also shared with them The New York Times article about Katalin Kariko, one of the pioneering scientists behind the mRNA vaccines who spent decades researching the science.
“I believe these facts, coupled with the fact that both of them hold me in high regard, convinced them to get the vaccine,” she said.
Jean Moorjani has a leg up in her attempts to convince folks to get vaccinated: She has a medical degree. Moorjani is a pediatrician at Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and posts frequently on Instagram about her and her family’s vaccine experiences.
“I shared on my Instagram story when my 12-year-old son got his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and received multiple messages from friends saying that they felt more comfortable vaccinating their children because I had vaccinated my own,” she said.
Parents in Moorjani’s friend circle often slide into her DMs with questions about side effects for kids and teens. Recently, she’s had questions about the vaccine and impact on fertility in girls; her go-to response is sharing the statement from the American College of OB-GYNs that explains why the vaccine does not impact fertility.
“I don’t think it’s one thing that I said that gets people to change their mind, I think it’s more of me modeling ‘good pandemic behavior’ on social media,” Moorjani said.
Shaqueal, a mother of two who works in a law firm in Los Angeles, convinced her two parents to get their shots in the spring and early summer.
“My mother, who’s in her early 60s and works as shuttle bus driver for LAX, was told that that vaccine is not for us by some other employees,” Shaqueal said. “We’re Black and there’s a fear among some people that the government is using us as guinea pigs and that the side effects would be much worse than protecting us from the virus.”
Shaqueal’s dad, a truck driver supervisor in his 60s, had similar fears. The conversations were exhausting and Shaqueal’s mom often felt like her daughter was rushing her (“I was!”), but eventually, they opted in.
Shaquel’s strongest argument was simply pointing out all the other times in history where vaccines were required and effective.
“I reminded them that my mother had made us get vaccinated, no questions asked, to attend public school but here they were, hesitant to get vaccinated,” she said.
Express your concern for them but don’t be afraid to set boundaries.
If you’re addressing vaccine hesitancy with someone, it’s presumably because they’re someone you care about. In moments of high stress like this, it can be helpful to remind both you and the person of your connection, Hanselman said.
“You might say, ‘It’s important to me that we talk about this because I care about you and I want you to be safe and healthy,’” she said. “If you’re finding it challenging to access your caring for the other person, it’s likely a good time for a break.”
It also might be an OK time to put up some boundaries. If the person refuses to get vaccinated, you’re well within reason to want to keep a little distance from them, to protect you and your loved ones.
And sometimes, establishing a boundary is just the push a vaccine-hesitant person needs to go get the shot.
That was the case for Heather, a journalist in Toronto, Ontario, whose healthy 28-year-old sister wouldn’t get vaccinated out of fears about long-term side effects.
“My argument was COVID can kill you and that’s a much worse outcome,” Heather said.
Eventually, Heather made a rule that no one, not even family, could visit her newborn baby unless they’d received their first shot.
“She was quite upset about it but I was firm,” Heather said. “She and her boyfriend got one and I believe it was because of my mandate for visitors to be vaccinated.”
Other forms of tough love have worked for others.
“My 30-plus son became so frustrated with me asking, he angrily went to get his first vaccine,” Sherry Carruth wrote on HuffPost’s Parents Facebook.
On the same thread, Wendy Kaplan Smith talked about how she persuaded her mom to finally get vaccinated after months of begging her.
“I told my mom I had better talk to her every day because I figure she won’t be around for much longer, since she is 88 and refused to get vaccinated,” she said. “Finally, about a week later, she got the vaccine.”
Samantha Dimock, a photographer in San Diego, also used a little subtle family peer pressure to persuade her dad.
“I told him, vaccines have been an integral part of our society for so many years, for good reason!” she said. “Then I also kept telling him that there’s still people getting COVID and ending up in the ICU, especially with the delta variant. I was like, get it because who the hell can afford an ICU visit? We aren’t Kylie Jenner and Jeff Bezos!”
Remove any barriers to access that you can.
Don’t forget that it’s not so easy for some Americans to get the vaccine: Barriers to access to vaccine sites include not owning a vehicle or not living near public transit, language disconnects and a lack of paid time off.
Sometimes, a busy schedule coupled with even mild vaccine hesitancy are persuasive enough reasons for someone to put plans to get vaccinated on the back burner. If that’s the case for someone you know, try to find some time to help them out. Assist in making that appointment at CVS or Walgreens online or offer to drive them there if you’re going on an errand run anyway.
For Katie, who lives in the Indianapolis metropolitan area, accompanying her unvaccinated sister to a site made all the difference. Katie’s sister and kids live about three hours away in a smaller city and were visiting in July.
“At the time, I asked her if she was vaccinated and she was embarrassed to tell me no,” Katie told HuffPost. “Her reason was that a lot of her co-workers who got vaccinated had to miss a day or two of work with each shot due to side effects. She already misses a lot of work due to migraines and didn’t want to miss more because she gets so few days off working in retail.”
Katie’s sister’s plan was to get the Johnson & Johnson shot, to reduce the amount of missed work, but the county she lives in didn’t have it in stock. So while she was in the city, Katie took her to a nearby pharmacy that had J&J on hand, with no appointment necessary. Katie’s husband offered to stay home with all of their kids.
“I think she just needed someone to remove obstacles for her,” Katie said. “Her boyfriend wasn’t with her to talk her out of it, the kids were taken care of, and availability of the vaccine was easier.”
Removing barriers was ultimately how Maggie Sadoway of Turners Falls, Massachusetts, convinced her neighbor to get vaccinated.
It took some time, though. First, he vehemently refused.
“I listened to him. A lot. I pushed back on misinformation,” Sadoway said. “I teased him about smoking while being skeptical about vaccine ingredients. He listened some more.”
After about 10 weeks in, Sadoway noticed her neighbor was softening. She made him an appointment, gave him a ride and slipped him $50 of her own as a promised reward. “The next day, he said he gave $20 to his brother to get him to go ― and he took his wife, too.” When it comes to persuading the unvaccinated, Sadoway has been on a bit of a roll lately. “For another one of my neighbors, the turning point was when I explained the research that went into the vaccines was a decade in the making so it wasn’t rushed into production, which she hadn’t heard,” Sadoway said. When Sadoway took her second neighbor to Walgreens, she offhandedly asked a stranger near the line if he was also there for a vaccine. “Well, no, but I’ve been thinking about it,” the man told her. “I said, ‘Look, you don’t need an appointment, just join that short line there and it’s free, too’ ― and he did!” she said. Later, the second neighbor’s partner, also a holdout, heard Sadoway talk about the high numbers of infections for the delta variant, which convinced him to go get his shot. “I count that as six hesitaters in my ‘win’ column,” she joked.