For Dr. Gabriel Lockhart, a pulmonologist and critical care intensivist at National Jewish Health in Denver, the question of how best to approach loved ones who are vaccine hesitant hit very close to home.
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Lockhart, who is also the director of the ICU for National Jewish Health, has been on the front lines of the pandemic since the beginning, traveling to New York a few times to help out during the peak of its COVID crisis. "I had a lot of first-hand experience with the disastrous outcomes of COVID," he says.
That, plus his background in pulmonary critical care medicine, has led to his working with Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado as part of the Governor's Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee medical advisory group in collaboration with the Colorado Department of Public Health to address the pandemic in Colorado. "My specific focus was on vaccine distribution," he says, which is a "very personal topic" for him because he's African-American and Hispanic.
Communities of color have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic, and deploying vaccines to populations that are more vulnerable has been a key component of public health messaging.
But many people in these (and other) communities are hesitant to take the vaccine. And for good reason – there's a long history of mistrust between communities of color and American health institutions.
For some people of color, there are deep-seated and legitimate concerns that this could be a repeat of Tuskegee, Lockhart says, referencing the infamous "ethically unjustified" Tuskegee study, which intended to study untreated syphilis in Black men and involved misinformation, lack of informed consent and outright manipulation of participants.
Fearing this situation might be similar, with communities of color being misled in the name of medical studies, some people expressed to Lockhart that they felt like "lab rats." These responses caused the advisory committee in Colorado to take a step back and evaluate how they would encourage people in these communities to take the vaccine.
Lockhart says his own mother was initially resistant to getting the shot. "She finally just recently got her second dose, but that took six to eight months of me pestering her to finally get that to happen," he says.
For his part, Lockhart was cautious too. "I wasn't going to take the vaccine and promote it to my family and friends and patients unless I was completely confident in its safety and efficacy."
When the clinical trials concluded, he reviewed the data and soon felt 100% comfortable about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. He got his shots in December, among the earliest wave of health care personnel who were able to access the protective inoculation.
Making the Case for Vaccination
Since then, Lockhart has gone on to spread the message that the vaccines are safe, effective and everyone who's able should get inoculated. He's also learned that there's a distinction between people who can be swayed and those who can't be.
"When I approach people who are hesitant about the vaccine, I think it's first important to distinguish between those who are vaccine hesitant and those who are anti-vaxxers. Because those are two different things, in my opinion," he explains.
"Vaccine hesitancy means they're open to hearing information and making an educated decision based on good quality information they receive. They may not be wanting to go blindfolded into taking the vaccine. But if they're willing to hear that information, then they can make an educated decision from that point."
On the other hand, he says "anti-vaxxers are going to be dead set, no matter what information you tell them. They're always going to be coming up with a firehose of misinformation and leading you down a rabbit hole of tangential information that isn't really useful, accurate or helpful when it comes to vaccines. I don't typically engage that much with purely anti-vaxxers because there's really not going to be a lot of gain from that population."
However, educational efforts can go a long way toward convincing those who are hesitant but open to learning more to take the vaccine to protect themselves and their communities, Lockhart says.
Dr. Julita Mir, a practicing internist and infectious disease physician and chief medical officer of Community Care Cooperative (C3) in Boston, urges patience and compassion when talking with others about taking the vaccine. “For most people, it’s a matter of time. We all move at different paces and accepting others’ pace is key.”
Find Out Their Concerns
Because there can be so many different, highly personal reasons why someone might be hesitant to take the vaccine, "it's best to approach people in a supportive and respectful manner, and make it clear that your goal is to understand what their concerns are," says Dr. Richard Seidman, chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan – the largest publicly operated health plan in the country.
"We can't assume what others are thinking or feeling, so it's best to ask. Once we understand others' concerns more clearly, we're better able to engage in a meaningful discussion to explore how to best address their concerns."
Dr. Lisa Doggett, senior medical director for HGS AxisPoint Health, a care management services company based in Westminster, Colorado, and a newly appointed fellow with American Academy of Family Physicians’ Vaccine Science Fellowship, recommends asking “if there’s anything that might change their mind. If they say, ‘absolutely not,’ it’s probably a good idea to stop and agree to disagree. By continuing you’ll often force them to dig into their beliefs with even greater conviction.”
But, she adds, that if they show some glimmer that they might be willing to consider an alternate view point, “offer to provide one,” but first, “ask for permission. If they agree, proceed with care, stay calm and offer information that’s likely to be meaningful to that particular person.”
He recommends saying something along the lines of: "'I'm concerned about your reluctance to get a COVID vaccination because I care about your health and safety.' And before going directly to examples of who you know who's gotten the vaccine and had no or minimal problems, try to ascertain from where the reluctance originates."
Ask questions like: "'What in particular makes you hesitant to get vaccinated at this time?' Phrasing it in this way provides room for a subsequent change in their decision later as more information comes to light and/or more consideration has occurred," he explains.
Lockhart recommends "really making sure it's a two-way conversation" that involves specific reasons. With a full explanation of where that hesitancy comes from, he says it's possible to provide the accurate and correct information that can help move people toward getting the vaccine.
Mir also recommends “leading by example” and getting vaccinated yourself. “People tend to trust and be influenced more so by those in their close circles.”
Doggett adds, “at all costs, avoid insults and demeaning language, which would be counterproductive. And have realistic expectations. Not everyone can be persuaded.”
Countering Common Vaccine Concerns
There are a wide variety of legitimate reasons why some people may be hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine. These may include:
For some people, the concern is the speed with which the vaccine was developed and how "new" the mRNA technology being used in two of the three shots currently available in the U.S. seems. But Lockhart notes, this approach to developing vaccines "isn't that new. We've had experience with mRNA technology for the last two decades."
Primarily, it was studied for use in cancer treatment and has also been investigated for use in vaccines against influenza, rabies and Zika. With all this scrutiny, scientists have developed "a good sense of the side effect profile when it comes to mRNA technology."
The speed with which these vaccines were made available stems from that past experience with mRNA technology and the all-hands-on-deck approach that global health authorities took early on to bring this burgeoning crisis under control.
Lockhart uses an analogy to explain how it all came together so quickly. "It's like having six different construction companies that were all employed to build separate skyscrapers. They're told a skyscraper typically takes two years to build. But then they're all told, 'Hey, we need all of you to focus on the same skyscraper and expedite the production. Pivot your focus all on the same skyscraper.' So, yeah. It's gonna happen a lot faster when you already have infrastructure in place that all comes together for a common cause."
Despite this fast-tracking, Bailey notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have been clear from the beginning that "no short cuts in safety were taken" in bringing these vaccines into use this quickly. "The rapid development was facilitated primarily by massive governmental investment in private-sector pharma companies as well as liability protections."
All the normal safety steps were taken in developing these vaccines, and because this was such an urgent need and highly scrutinized, all the trials were conducted to the most stringent standards. All three currently available vaccines in the U.S. have been found to be safe and highly effective.
The numbers may paint a clearer picture. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trial included more than 43,000 participants. Of the group that received the vaccine (rather than a placebo) only eight individuals developed COVID-19. That’s compared to 162 in the placebo group. Of those infections, 10 were severe, but only one of those occurred in the vaccinated group, and the other nine were in the placebo group.
The Moderna vaccine trial included more than 30,000 people, and only five cases of COVID-19 were reported in the group that received the vaccine versus 90 in the placebo group. Of those 90 cases, 30 were severe. There were no severe cases of COVID-19 reported in the vaccine group.
The Johnson & Johnson one-dose adenovirus vector vaccine was trialed in nearly 44,000 people in eight countries. There were 116 cases of COVID-19 in the vaccine group and 348 in the placebo group at least 14 days after vaccination. Of those, only two were severe among the vaccine group, compared to 29 in the placebo group. Seven people in the placebo group died of COVID-19, while none died in the vaccine group.
For all three vaccines, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization because they were “at least 50% more effective than placebo in preventing COVID-19,” which is consistent with the organization’s guidelines for granting authorization. “A vaccine with at least 50% efficacy would have a significant impact on disease, both at the individual and societal level,” the FDA reports.
Some of the testing steps happened in tandem, which is part of how these companies were able to condense the timeline. There was also unprecedented collaboration across pharmaceutical companies. This helped move everything along faster.
"Just because they happened faster doesn't mean it's not a quality product," Lockhart adds.
Concerns about safety are also common, Seidman says. For example, concerns about very rare blood clots caused the FDA to pause distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for 11 days in April to reevaluate the data. Putting a pause on a new vaccine or medication is not unusual, and it’s an example of the system working exactly as it should.
In this case, there were six reported cases of blood clots and one death related to the J&J vaccine. More than 6.8 million doses had been administered when the pause was initiated in mid-April. In other words, the chances of developing a blood clot from the J&J vaccine were observed to be quite literally less than one in a million. However, in an abundance of caution, the FDA paused use of the vaccine to reevaluate the data and found that "it's a very, very small concern, and compared to the risk of blood clots with contracting COVID, it's extremely small," Lockhart says.
A November 2020 study conducted at UC San Diego Health and involving more than 8,000 patients diagnosed with COVID-19 noted that 20% of people hospitalized with severe COVID-19 will develop blood clots. For patients in the intensive care unit, the rate was 31%. The study also noted that blood clots led to an increased risk of death by 74%. So the risk of getting a blood clot from the vaccine is miniscule in comparison to the risk of getting a blood clot from COVID-19 itself.
Doggett notes that “nearly everything we do in medicine, and in life, carries some inherent risk. Medications have side effects; treatments and procedures can have unintended consequences. Sometimes the risks and benefits are nearly equal, and choosing the right path is difficult. However, with the COVID-19 vaccine, the risks of vaccine refusal are clear and are substantially greater, for almost everyone, than the very small risk of the vaccine.”
Physicians are constantly weighing the risk versus benefit of any intervention, and the COVID vaccines have been found to be very beneficial with exceedingly small risks.
Plus, there's reassurance in numbers, Seidman says. "The fact is that nearly 150 million people have been vaccinated in the United States alone with very few serious side effects." This is excellent evidence that the vaccines really are very safe.
“All approved vaccines have an excellent safety profile, which is regularly tested,” says Dr. Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at the Sheba Medical Center and a clinical associate professor in Tel Aviv University School of Medicine in Israel. This means safety testing isn’t just a one-and-done situation. These vaccines are constantly being monitored and evaluated. Any adverse effects are being carefully recorded, and if a safety concern does arise, as did with the J&J vaccine, use will be halted until further investigation can be conducted.
“Medicine in general and vaccine safety assessment specifically are scientific disciplines,” Leshem adds, and the science is showing these vaccines to be extremely safe and effective.
"If misinformation is fueling the reluctance, simply supplying accurate information may dispel the nonacceptance," Bailey says. To dispel some of these myths:
- These vaccines can't give you COVID-19. The vaccines do not include any live virus and thus cannot give you COVID-19. The vaccine triggers the immune system to manufacture antibodies against the disease.
- They can't affect your fertility. The CDC reports that there’s currently “no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems.”
- They don’t contain other substances or materials that are harmful or controlling. Several bizarre conspiracy theories floating around the internet have suggested that the vaccines contain microchips or other nefarious ingredients that could be used to control people. These ideas are completely false and not based in science or reality.
- You should get vaccinated even if you had COVID-19. That’s because while having had the disease offers some protection against future infection, there’s not enough data about that level of protection to know when it tapers off or how protective it is. If you've recently had COVID-19, you can receive the first dose of the vaccine four weeks after the onset of symptoms. The second dose can be administered after you’ve completed your isolation period (about 10 days). If you received certain treatments for COVID, including convalescent plasma or antibody infusions, you’ll need to wait 90 days before you can take the vaccine.
- These vaccines can’t change your DNA. Some people have misunderstood what mRNA is and how it works and believe that this approach can alter your DNA. But that's not true. "There's no interference of your DNA. The vaccine doesn't affect your DNA at all," Lockhart says.
The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines both use mRNA to stimulate the body to create the antibodies it needs to fight off infection from the coronavirus. mRNA is messenger RNA, and in this context, it refers to a piece of the virus’ spike protein. This molecule contains a a piece of genetic code that instructs your cells to create antibodies against the coronavirus. To do this, the mRNA doesn't even enter the nucleus of the cell – the cell breaks it down and removes it after it's finished using the instructions.
For some people, it's a prior negative experience that's driving their reluctance. In this case, whether the concern is a bad reaction to another vaccine or concerns about side effects that someone else has experienced, Bailey says discussing the facts around the statistics can help dispel some of that hesitation. He notes that the risk of severe side effects from the COVID vaccines is very low and much lower than the risk of getting COVID if you don't get vaccinated.
Many people experience no side effects from any of these vaccines. But for others, after having one or both shots, they have reported experiencing:
- Soreness, redness or swelling at the the injection site.
- Mild, flu-like symptoms, including a headache and body aches.
- Low-grade fevers.
Most of these side effects are mild and resolve quickly – within a day or two for most people. They’re also normal and signs that the vaccine is working to get your immune system ramped up to better meet the challenge if you're exposed to the coronavirus in the future.
The most common side effects are also likely to be far less intense than if you were to get infected with COVID, so it's worth it to feel a little lousy for a few hours – or even a couple days – after your shot if it means protecting yourself – and others – from a potentially far worse outcome if you caught the disease.
In very rare cases, some people have experienced more intense side effects including:
- Severe allergic reactions including anaphylaxis. This has been observed in approximately two to five patients per million people vaccinated. This reaction also almost always occurred within 30 minutes after vaccination, which is why recipients are instructed to wait 15 to 30 minutes after each shot for observation.
- Thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome. Also called TTS, this condition involves blood clots with low platelets. This very rare syndrome has occurred almost exclusively in adult women younger than age 50 who received the J&J/Janssen vaccine. According to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, as of May 11, 2021, more than 9 million doses of the J&J/Janssen vaccine had been given and 28 reports of TTS had been confirmed.
It’s important to underscore that these effects have been observed in a very small proportion of patients.
In addition, the CDC reports that there’s currently no evidence that there’s a causal link between the vaccine and any deaths apart from a “plausible causal relationship between the J&J/Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine and a rare and serious event – blood clots with low platelets – which has caused deaths.” The CDC and the FDA are continuing to monitor all adverse events and deaths and are reporting such to the VAERS.
Seidman also notes that "many people just don't like being told what to do, especially if the message is coming from the government." This is where community-based initiatives to educate and provide vaccines to people where they are can be especially useful.
"I've been working on talking to several community groups and leaders so they can answer questions and disseminate this information to their communities," Lockhart says. Talking with a trusted adviser, such as a church elder or a barber, may offer more reassurance to hesitant people than speaking with a doctor, he adds. "If I can get buy-in from those folks, I think that's the best efficacy. We can get people to accept the true information about these vaccines" because it's coming from a trusted community leader.
Doggett adds that “for those who are concerned about personal liberties, a message that will sometimes resonate is that vaccinating more people will help encourage the government to lift restrictions and increase freedom in the long run.”
Leshem notes that this has already happened in Israel, where as of May 10, 2021, nearly 63% of the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. “As we’re now experiencing in Israel, when most of the population are vaccinated disease spread declines and it is possible to go back to living a normal life.”
Barriers to vaccination such as the long history of racism and, as Seidman explains, "government-sanctioned experimentation on low-income people of color that has eroded trust" may be more difficult to combat. Lockhart says that while these are very legitimate concerns, avoiding the vaccine is only going to worsen the disparity in outcomes between white communities and communities of color.
Again, community-based, grassroots outreach efforts may be better for convincing people who have this as their primary concern. There needs to be a re-establishment of trust with agencies and entities that purvey medical information and care. "My advice is to get the facts from a trusted source of truth, like your doctor or from your faith-based leaders. And be careful not to accept what you might hear or read in biased media sources," Seidman says.
“Many people tend to trust their primary care doctors, and building on that trust to overcome vaccine hesitancy is important,” Doggett says. And across the board, she adds that “the medical community needs to communicate effectively and consistently about the safety of the vaccine to help improve vaccine acceptance.”
For some people who are pregnant or have medical conditions, such as cancer, there’s been a lot of fear and confusion surrounding whether it’s safe to take a COVID-19 vaccine.
- Cancer. The American Cancer Society reports that for most people with cancer or a history of cancer, the vaccine is safe and should be accepted, but individual cases may have other factors to consider, so talk with your oncologist.
- Pregnancy. Though there has been some hesitation among pregnant people in taking the vaccine, studies have found that it’s safe and could actually protect your baby from contracting the virus after birth. The CDC’s V-safe COVID-19 Vaccine Pregnancy Registry is monitoring deployment of the vaccine in pregnant people. As of May 10, 2021, more than 110,000 pregnant people have been vaccinated. Talk with your obstetrician for advice tailored to your specific situation.
- Immune disorders. If you have a chronic immune disorder or are taking medications that suppress the function of the immune system, you are eligible to get the vaccine. But you should talk with your health care provider about your situation.
- Negative previous reactions to vaccines. If you’ve had a previous severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) you should not take the vaccine. If you have severe allergies to certain medications, latex, pets, foods or other environmental triggers, talk with your health care provider about whether it’s safe for you to take the vaccine.
“Referral to a family physician, nurse specialist or an infectious disease doctor can further help in more complicated cases, such as immune compromise, severe allergy or pregnancy,” Leshem says.
Why Vaccination Matters
The sooner everyone gets vaccinated, the better our chances of putting the pandemic completely behind us. "The COVID-19 vaccines are the best tool we have to get the pandemic under control, allowing us to get back to doing all of the things we need and want to do as individuals, families, business owners and as a community," Seidman says. "Every additional person who gets vaccinated gets us one step closer to getting the virus under control."
Still, as Doggett notes, “over a quarter of U.S. adults say they won’t get vaccinated. Their refusal makes it harder to stop the spread of the coronavirus, increasing infection rates and health care costs, and raising the risk of new, more dangerous variants. It also makes it more difficult for us to achieve herd immunity and effectively end the pandemic.”
This ongoing hesitancy to get vaccinated will drag out the pandemic and make it more difficult to resume life as usual, she says, because “the pandemic is far from over.”
In countries where vaccination rates are high, such as the UK, Israel and some parts of the U.S., cases are declining. “But rates of COVID-19 remain dangerously high in many parts of the world,” Doggett says. The higher these rates of infection, the more likely the virus will mutate into more dangerous strains that can undermine all the efforts over the past year to stamp out the pandemic.
“Even in the U.S., we’re still seeing tens of thousands of new cases every day and hundreds of deaths. The faster people get vaccinated, the faster we can stop the virus from spreading, and the sooner we can safely resume activities that many of us have given up during the pandemic, like travel, indoor dining and visiting family.”
The bottom line, she says, “getting vaccinated is the safest way to protect yourself and everyone around you from getting sick. It’s also an important way to stop the creation of new variants of the virus, that may be more virulent, more resistant to the vaccine and could extend the pandemic.”
Vaccine refusal, on the other hand, “will lead to higher health care costs, damage to the economy, and more people living with long-term COVID-19 complications, such as damage to the heart, lungs and brain that we’ve started to see in as many as a third of COVID-19 survivors.”
"Getting vaccinated is a personal decision," Seidman notes. But choosing "not to get vaccinated is a decision that impacts everyone."
Estimates of the number of people who need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity have typically ranged from 60% to 80% or so, but there are still many open questions about how durable immunity is and when we'll have reached the threshold of protection.
In the meanwhile, getting vaccinated and convincing your friends and loved ones to do the same is our best means of moving out of this crisis. For his part, Seidman says "the COVID-19 vaccines are really a miracle of modern science. These vaccines are very safe and effective in preventing infection, hospitalizations and deaths from the worst pandemic in 100 years."