I've been teaching at a New York City college for almost five years, and I'm still in touch with a number of my former students. Many reach out for career advice, or help on getting a job, or wanting a letter of recommendation, and I'm always happy to oblige.
However, I was caught off guard recently when a former student told me that he decided not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. This person reads my column and knows that I've written a lot about the pandemic during the last year, including speaking to a number of medical experts including Dr. Fauci, Dr. Mike Osterholm and science writer Laurie Garrett. The student assumed that I was the closest thing to an "expert" that they could find, and I sensed he was challenging me about his decision.
My immediate answer was, "Get the damn vaccine!" The student did not respond to my strong command, and I'm worried that I might have missed an opportunity to convince him otherwise?
I'm wondering if many of us have friends, relatives or even partners who are hesitant to get the vaccine, and when confronted with that uncertainty, are we left trying to figure out how to provide the right response?
Vaccine rates have started to fall precipitously, with the pace of daily inoculations falling 35 percent from their highest levels just a couple of weeks ago. Some still lack access to the vaccine, others have just not got around to getting one, and many are either still wavering or adamantly saying it's not for me. And many are confused, afraid or feel slighted.
The New York Timesreported this week about LGBTQ+ people feeling invisibile with regard to how COVID data is accrued.
The Times also said, "Communities of color and other marginalized groups have faced some of the most severe coronavirus outcomes, yet have received a smaller share of vaccines. L.G.B.T.Q. people could face similar problems but may be overlooked because they aren't counted."
The vaccine debate is likely to be raging for the next few months. President Biden is determined to have 70 percent of Americans vaccinated by July 4. The argument seems to be, unfortunately, a political one. Nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults have now received at least one shot, according to a recent poll, but a whopping 45 percent of Republicans say they did not plan to get vaccinated, while two-thirds of Democrats have already been vaccinated.
Why is there so much hesitancy and controversy around these life-saving and life-alerting vaccines? Is the Biden administration doing enough to convince wavering Americans to get vaccinated? And how do you go about changing the mind of someone you know who is opposed to getting the shot?
I reached out to out ABC News Medical Contributor Dr. Darien Sutton for some help getting answers to these questions. First, why all the debate and why all the waffling?
"Throughout the pandemic, there has been a consistent environment of fear and misinformation, instigated from the previous administration, and it all started at the beginning when people often felt there were too many mixed messages and too many signals. Eventually it became more and more difficult to make decisions about how to deal with the virus," Dr. Sutton explained.
"With the change in administrations in January, we have been given more straightforward information and more relevant data that has helped unionize the message. So, while things have changed, it doesn't negate where we started. All the confusion created a lot of deliberation, and increased deliberation time periods, and this has resulted in a more elongated and difficult process about whether or not to get the vaccine."
The Biden administration has been more honest and upfront, but will they be able to sell the vaccine across party lines across the country? Right now, it seems the message is that you can get back to normal sooner if you just get these shots?
"Yes, you can tell patients what they can do with the vaccine versus what they cannot do," Sutton said. "However, I think patients want to hear answers to questions about what's in it for them. Specifically, how does it benefit them in their personal lives? I think people don't care as much about going to the movies again, for example, versus getting assurance that the vaccine is safe, effective and useful."
Is that the answer then to the quandary about trying to convince someone to get the vaccine? Push its safety and effectiveness? "I think it's important to listen and 'ask' the undecided first what is the basis of their concern," Sutton believes. "Is it fear? Is it fear of reaction? Is it fear of getting sick and not having health care to get treatment."
After you've heard out the person's concerns, Dr. Sutton said the next thing you should do is "tell." "You need to tell the person that the vaccine has been proven to be effective, protective, and it prevents person to person transmission, so there's less chance to spread the virus, and as such it will keep you, and your loved ones, out of hospital and not cause financial burdens. After that, you need to just give the person space to think about their decision."
I told Dr. Sutton about my former student, who is Black, and that it seems tricky to push him on something he seems sensitive about. "I'm having the same issue with my own family," he revealed. "I come from a large Black family that remains hesitant and was raised in an environment where medicine is not trustworthy."
"Historically, you have instances like the Tuskegee experiment for example, or in Puerto Rico with women and birth control, where minorities and poorer communities were used as guinea pigs. Many Black families and people of color feel they were used for research that benefited privileged white communities, so there's a whole history there that has resulted in disinclination and unwillingness."
On top of all this hesitation, understandable in some circumstances, comes the news that a booster shot might be required later this year or early next. Did Dr. Sutton feel that was the case? That we would all have to queue up again for another round of shots?
"It's hard to say. We're still closely following the efficacy rates and ranges of the first vaccines. What we're seeing is that it has been effective in bolstering the immune system, and we're hopeful that it will remain durable and long lasting and protect against other variants."
Sutton theorized that the COVID-19 vaccine might be what's referred to as a repetitive vaccine, similar to the annual flu shot that most of us get each fall and winter.
Finally, the CDC has said that Americans could be almost back to normal by this summer, July specifically. Did Sutton concur with that optimistic outlook? "Yes," he quickly agreed. "People ask me all the time if we will have to go into lockdown again, and I don't think that will happen."
"We have done a great job of vaccinating those 65 and over, and others who were more susceptible to the disease. And we'll ramp up vaccinations for teens and children in the next few weeks. As we know, young people were commonly asymptomatic transmitters of the virus, so as they get vaccinated, we'll see further reductions in transmissions. All of this means that we will decrease the chances of our hospitals being overrun again, and that most of us will start to resume a normal way of life."