Conversations with Vaccine Hesitant Families
With all of this disturbing data, why are so many Tennesseans still wary of vaccinations? Dr. Berman explains that it’s important to avoid lumping in COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy with hesitancy towards vaccines more broadly. “There has always been vaccine hesitancy everywhere,” she says. “But in our neck of the woods general vaccine hesitancy is not as bad as in, say, the upper-middle class white suburbs around Memphis. In rural Tennessee, people actually remember that grandma had polio and want to protect their kids.”
“By vaccine hesitant, I mean people who are otherwise historically reasonable,” she adds. “People who are willing to have a discussion. Folks who think there are microchips in the vaccine or something like that… you just need to love on them and say, ‘see you next time.’”
While general vaccine hesitancy may be on the rise in affluent, suburban communities, rural America still lags in COVID-19 vaccine administration. The Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor reported recently that rural residents, young adults, Republicans, and uninsured people lag the most in receiving COVID-19 vaccines. The hesitancy Dr. Berman is seeing in her community is specific to the COVID-19 vaccine, and the process of developing it. She says, “Most of the hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine is that it’s too new, and was emergency approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That is the number one concern that families bring to me—families who will parlay with me in what I feel is an honest manner.”
At the time of this article, only the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine had received FDA approval. The timeline for the FDA approval of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines remains unclear. However, a long road to FDA approval is par for the course with vaccines. Dr. Berman often shares this information with families, and gives an example of her conversations with them: “See these other vaccines you’ve given your kids? Guess how long it took the FDA to approve those. Other vaccines can take ten or eleven months to approve.” Dr. Berman shares that people often do not know there is a lengthy approval process for vaccines, and can shift their perspective following deeper education. “I also tell people that while they are waiting for FDA approval, they are taking a big chance by not having the vaccine,” Dr. Berman says.
“But the biggest piece is that we must show our patients love and respect, no matter their perspective on the vaccine,” Dr. Berman says: “Shaming families is a surefire way to get them to walk out of your office.” This is where the power of the longstanding medical home comes into play. Dr. Berman values her relationships with families that have been built over time. “Trying to talk a family into something when you just met them—unless you’re super charismatic—is really hard,” she explains. “And I’m not that charismatic; I’m an overweight gal from the South with glasses and I don’t know how to dress!” Dr. Berman laughs. “But fortunately I can say, ‘Hey, I’ve known you for a long time. You know where I live, where I go to church, and where I work, and I can be straight up with you.’”
On a philosophical level, Dr. Berman works with families to help them verbalize their fears around the COVID-19 vaccine, and then go from there. “We are so much more motivated by fear than compassion,” she says. “When you have a fear and you can’t even describe it, it has so much power over you. When we can get those fears out in the open and talk them through to their logical end, people tend to shift their thinking.”
This approach, coupled with rising concerns about the Delta variant, is having an impact on vaccination rates. “Yesterday I counted 10-12 registrations for new COVID-19 vaccinations that were not from our patients. For our community size, that’s a big jump. So we see this as promising.”