As COVID-19 numbers rise (again) and we hear countless news stories about the deaths of unvaccinated people, a lot of us are wondering what we can do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. The clear answer is that eligible folks should get the vaccine—and share their experiences with others who aren't ready to get it yet.
Vaccine hesitancy can be incredibly frustrating, but there are respectful, impactful ways to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine with friends and family without alienating them or having the convo descend into a screaming match.
"One of the best ways to convince those who are skeptical is by establishing a trusting relationship where you can be a true listener, friend, and confidant without judging, overtalking, or being dismissive," says Samira Brown, MD, a board-certified primary-care pediatrician and member of the Black Coalition Against COVID. "By listening closely, you will be able to tailor your conversation to their specific concerns and make your argument more compelling."
We talked to several medical experts about how to have this conversation with your loved ones. Here's what they suggested.
Before you talk to anyone, brush up on your facts.
Because the news, numbers, and public health guidelines are constantly changing, it's important to make sure you're armed with the latest info. Read up on what's happening—like the current transmission rate in your area—from reputable resources like the National Center of Health Statistics as well as state websites and regional outlets.
Open the conversation respectfully.
How you want to start the conversation is up to you. You can wait until your loved one mentions vaccines, or find a low-stress time to ask if they're open to having a discussion about it. If they aren't interested, let them know you're available to speak about the topic at any time—then leave the ball in their court.
If your loved one does seem interested in speaking, make sure the conversation starts with what they are worried or confused about. Ask some open-ended questions to try to understand how they feel. Preeti Parikh, MD, medical director at GoodRx, suggests saying, "I know it can be overwhelming with all the different information circulating. What are your particular concerns?"
Hear them out and keep it respectful.
It can be really tempting to interrupt or talk over someone—but don't do it. Listen first, then speak.
"Before you jump into the list of reasons why your loved one should get the vaccine, pause and let them share their position," says Michael Richardson, MD, a family medicine physician at One Medical. "Try not to dismiss their opinion and instead explore it in an unbiased and nonjudgmental way. No matter how rational or irrational you feel their reasoning is, it's important to value these concerns to form a relationship of trust and respect."
Be sure to keep your tone calm and don't escalate things.
"Try to come from a place of concern, love, and support versus bullying, guilt trips, and control," says Miyume McKinley, LCSW, a licensed mental health therapist and creator of the Healing Black Intergenerational Trauma Center. "Avoid judgment and sarcasm when listening to the reasons they are hesitant to get the vaccine. Judgment and sarcasm lead to feelings of disrespect, and when people feel disrespected, the last thing they want to do is listen."
Ask where their info is coming from and then point them to reputable sources.
This can be especially helpful if you find yourself needing to debunk myths. "Ask them where they are getting their information, and recommend sources such as the CDC, WHO, and other government or scientific sources," Dr. Parikh suggests. "Find community or trusted messengers to point to, such as church pastors, physicians, rabbis, or other community leaders they trust to help be another messenger."
You can also encourage them to speak to a doctor they trust. "Some people tend to better receive and accept medical information and health recommendations when it comes from their doctor rather than family," says Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, MD, an internist and media health expert. "I've had concerned vaccinated patients refer their unvaccinated family members to me simply for consultation to discuss and debunk some myths surrounding the vaccine that may be derailing them from moving forward with vaccination."
Share your personal experience.
You can talk to your loved one about your own experience getting vaccinated and how you dealt with any concerns prior to making that decision. Express how much you care about this person and why you wanted to broach this topic in the first place.
"This is not the time to prove that your point of view is right, but instead share what it would mean to you if your loved one became vaccinated," Dr. Richardson says. "Get personal. Explain why you care about that individual family member and your fears of what will happen if they get COVID-19. Try to land on the common ground that you both care for one another and want the best for each other."
Be clear about the science...including what we don't know.
"The next step is to remain fully transparent about the science, to avoid coming across as hyperbolic," says Aubry Alvarez-Bakker, PhD, a licensed and board-certified behavior analyst and psychologist. "Exaggerating the science or aligning the facts with your own agenda will likely result in more distrust, which is perhaps the biggest difficulty we all have when communicating about vaccines."
If you're not well versed in scientific jargon, recommend some resources where your loved one can do additional research on their own. Robert Lahita, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine and clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, advises sharing a message like, "The vaccine is safe and will protect you. Even if you do get COVID-19, it will be a mild infection and you won't end up in the hospital or dying. Even if you get a breakthrough infection, it will only produce a mild infection. But if you aren't vaccinated, it can wreak havoc, and this virus is highly transmissible."
How to respond when they say…
"We don't know the long-term effects of these vaccines."
- Aubry Alvarez-Bakker, PhD: This is true—we don't know the effects of these vaccines. But we do know that vaccines tend to result in side effects that emerge within the first 60 days, so we already have an understanding of what these risks are. What we don't have any understanding of, however, are the long-term side effects of contracting the virus itself. Studies are already showing that cognitive decline is a potential side effect.
"The vaccine isn't effective. I’ve seen news about breakthrough infections with the Delta variant."
- Samira Brown, MD: Breakthrough infections are expected; no vaccine is 100 percent...The vaccine reduces the chance you will become infected, the chance that you will spread it to others, and the amount of time you are contagious. If you do get infected, it lowers the risk of your experiencing any symptoms of infection, and you're 20 times less likely to be hospitalized or to die from COVID-19.
"The vaccines give you COVID-19."
- Aubry Alvarez-Bakker, PhD: I can see where you're coming from, because flu-like symptoms can be a side effect of the vaccines. But the vaccines don't actually infect you with COVID-19. They supply your body with "memory" cells that will help your immune system specifically remember how to protect you from the virus in the future. These kinds of cells are actually healthy, natural, and important parts of our immune system that tend to make us feel sick when they are working to protect us.
"I already had COVID-19, so I don't need the vaccine."
- Aubry Alvarez-Bakker, PhD: You are correct, recovering from COVID-19 does provide some future protection. Research shows, though, that this protection isn't as strong as what the vaccines provide. This is because when you become infected, only a relatively small number of your white blood cells are designed to specifically offer you protection. But when you receive a vaccine, all the new white blood cells are designed specifically for protection purposes. That is probably one of the reasons why those who have recovered from COVID-19 are more than twice as likely to become infected again versus someone who is fully vaccinated.
Keep the door open for further conversations down the line.
"There are some people you will convince the first time around. However, many need several conversations before changing their minds," Dr. Brown says. "Try to view the conversation as an opportunity to help inform their decision and don't take it personally if they choose not to follow your advice. This leaves the door open so they feel comfortable coming back to you to continue the discussion."
And if you get to the point where your loved one tells you they're ready to get the vaccine, ask if they'd like help setting up an appointment or a ride to the vaccine location. Let them know you’re there to support them however they need.
If you'd like to learn more about how to have these conversations, you can find further resources at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UNICEF, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
MORE COVID-19 VACCINE INFO:
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.