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Talking to a Loved One Who Won't Take the COVID Vaccine

A medical professional wearing gloves gives someone a vaccination in their upper arm.
Talking to your loved ones about the vaccine can be difficult. Here's how to do it.

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Key Takeaways

  • Health care professionals and residents of long-term care facilities across the U.S. are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and soon it will be publicly available.
  • Experts share tips for navigating conversations with loved ones who don't want to take the vaccine.

Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse in Long Island, New York, became the first person in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on December 14. The average American who doesn't work in healthcare might be able to get it as early as February, though some estimate it could be closer to April. Despite the fact that the pandemic has killed a staggering number of Americans, some people still remain skeptical of the vaccine.

The fact that the vaccine was "fast-tracked" has made some think it isn't safe. There is also a false conspiracy theory spreading across the internet that the vaccine has a tracking device in it. If you have friends or family who are hesitant about the vaccine or say they won't take it, know that you're not alone. You can start a conversation with them that could change their view.

"When talking with family about the vaccine who may not have made their decision yet on if they’ll get it, approach it first with a sense of genuine acknowledgement and interest, even if you already have decided you plan to get the vaccine," says Alyza Berman, LCSW, founder and clinical director of The Berman Center. "The fastest way to shut down a conversation before it starts is by not acknowledging someone else’s perspective. Approaching the topic calmly and ready to listen to others will immediately diffuse a tense situation and allow for civil conversation and communication."

How To Bring It Up

The COVID-19 vaccine has become a polarizing topic, so you should try to be strategic about how you talk about it with family, Berman says. Have empathy, and remember that everyone gets their news from different sources.

Alyza Berman, LCSW

Try to appeal to people’s senses by connecting it back to the good of their community or an inherently American value to ensure the protection and safety of fellow citizens.

— Alyza Berman, LCSW

Berman explains, "It’s more effective to show empathy first and find non-confrontational ways to appeal to family members that don’t challenge their personal choices—even if you disagree—and their sense of personal freedoms."

"For example, instead of doubling down and repeating yourself on the scientifically proven benefits of the vaccine, try to appeal to people’s senses by connecting it back to the good of their community or an inherently American value to ensure the protection and safety of fellow citizens. In many ways, getting the vaccine is inherently patriotic," says Berman.

Instead of trying to force your beliefs on a loved one, just have a conversation with them. Berman suggests using some non-aggressive phrases like:

  • “I can totally see where you’re coming from. I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about it this way…”
  • “That’s a good point. I can see why that may give you fear/anxiety about the vaccine. Can I share some new information I think will help you feel more comfortable?”
  • “Vaccinations can be scary, especially since we’ve never had to experience this type of pandemic in our lives. Are you aware of the vaccines you already have, though, and why we have them?”
  • And for people who support President Trump: “Didn’t you see that VP Mike Pence received the vaccine publicly? It was broadcasted on the news. I’ll send you the link.”

If your loved one is specifically worried about the vaccine's safety and claims that it was "rushed," tell them that the regular standards for safety or efficacy weren't changed. "I think it's important to note that the development of new vaccines moved quickly because technologies facilitated this," says Marianne Stanford, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Dalhousie University. "Scientists have understood that the globe was at risk for a pandemic and that development of a vaccine would require acceleration in that situation."

Organizations like the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations had programs in place to help develop vaccines quickly when required. "This rapid development is a result of a lot of good science coming together," Stanford says.

Marianne Stanford, PhD

"This rapid development is a result of a lot of good science coming together."

— Marianne Stanford, PhD

Just as your loved one believes there are risks from taking the vaccine, not taking it also comes with its own set of risks that you could encourage them to consider. "They will fail to protect them from a disease that has been shown to be both contagious and serious," Stanford says. Some people who contract COVID-19 die, while others have a mild infection. Some develop a long-term infection that significantly impacts their quality of life.

"By not protecting yourself, you are also putting others in your life at risk," Stanford says.

What This Means for You

If someone you know or love is saying they won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, you’ll need to rely on patience and an open-minded dialogue if you hope to convince them otherwise. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, so the trick will be to explain all the facts in a way that will alleviate their concerns and nudge them in the right direction. 

What To Do If They Still Won't Take It

Ultimately, everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the vaccine, Berman says. "The world experienced trauma," she says. "Like in every traumatic situation, every individual copes with it differently. We saw deaths, sickness, and fear."

If you feel you need to, you can set some boundaries regarding whether or how you visit with the loved who refuses to take the vaccine. If they are the grandparents to your children, for example, Berman recommends considering the mental health benefits to grandparents when they see their grandkids.

The best way to talk to them about the vaccine is to discuss the fear behind it. "It’s all about the fear of the unknown; just like the fear of COVID, it’s a trauma response," Berman says. "While it may be frustrating, be patient with your parents. You can offer outdoor meetings, tests before visitation, or Zoom dinners. Be empathetic when explaining your reasons and please do not judge or criticize one another."

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Article Sources
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  1. Otterman S. ‘I trust science,’ says nurse who is first to get vaccine in U.S. The New York Times. Published December 14, 2020.

  2. Thompson B. When will the average American be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine? WCNC. Published December 15, 2020.

  3. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Fact Sheet: Explaining Operation Warp Speed. Updated December 21, 2020.

  4. Spencer SH. COVID-19 vaccines don’t have patient-tracking devices - FactCheck.Org. Factcheck.org. Published December 15, 2020.