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Your mom doesn’t want the COVID-19 vaccine? Here's how you might change her mind

Kanisha Ward, LPN, gives Carlis Weathers, 60, of Belleville her 2nd dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The East Side Health District has been holding vaccine clinics at the Clyde C. Jordan Senior Citizens Center in East St. Louis as well as other locations.
File Photo/Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Kanisha Ward, LPN, gives Carlis Weathers, 60, of Belleville, her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in spring 2021.

The COVID-19 vaccine has been widely available for months, but only around half of Missouri residents are fully vaccinated. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, disagreements over whether to get the vaccine have alienated families and friends.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Sarah Fentem asked Amber Reinhart, a communications professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who specializes in health, if it’s possible to persuade loved ones to get the vaccine.

Sarah Fentem: OK, so first things first, let's say you have a loved one who doesn't want to get the COVID vaccine. Is there any hope of changing their mind? Is that something that can happen?

Amber Reinhart: I think the first thing is where they fall on that continuum of hesitancy. So I would say at one end of the continuum, you have people who were all about getting the vaccination; they ran out, they got it right away. On the other side of the continuum, we have people who say, I'm never getting vaccinated, and they're staunchly against it. And I would say, if they're on that end of the continuum, it's really hard.

But then you have people somewhere in the middle, and that’s what we call a vaccine hesitant. And I feel like if you have any kind of hesitancy, where it's not a fierce, “no, never,” there's more hope for you to make a change than if somebody is just way far over on the other end.

Fentem: There's a lot of misinformation that's out there about the science behind the vaccine, what's in it, how safe it is. If people have those kinds of beliefs, if that's what's keeping them, how do you address that? Because I have a feeling that just saying, “Hey, that's not right,” doesn't seem like an effective strategy.

Reinhart: I think what we're finding a lot with misinformation is I can find a source to prove you wrong, and you can find a source to prove me wrong. And we can just play that game ad nauseam.

But if I were to say to you: “As your grandmother, I care about you, I'm more worried about you getting ill, I want you to be with the family for Christmas, we all want to be together,” those types of things, I think, play a lot better.

I think you want to get to the root of why that's a fear for them. Have they heard a story from someone somewhere? And then you can talk about that from that root cause rather than throwing a bunch of news articles out at them. And you can say, “Well, if we look at previous vaccinations, we haven't seen these kinds of problems. And what I really want to be able to do is spend more time with you.” Talk about the things that feel more immediate.

Amber Reinhart, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says that countering misinformation with other news sources doesn't convince people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Sarah Fentem
Amber Reinhart, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says that countering misinformation with other news sources doesn't persuade people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Fentem: Have you seen that strategy work in your own life or in people that you know?

Reinhart: Yes, absolutely. My goddaughter just finally got the vaccination. And she was on the fence. She was afraid of needles. She said, “Well, I don't know. What if something happens in a few years?” And the family really took a position of taking a step back and saying: “It's your body, it is your choice. But here are the reasons why we got the vaccine.”

Nobody forced or pushed it on her. And over time she would ask a few more questions and people give her answers and finally she's kind of moved over there.

Fentem: We’ve seen the vaccine become sort of part and parcel with some people's political identity. Does it make it harder for them when it becomes kind of embedded in somebody's political beliefs and identity?

Reinhart: I think the fact that public health somehow has become politicized is making this rollout so much more difficult. And so at that point, you really have to look at what is in it for somebody to change their mind, but not have to change those internalized ideals.

I think the people who are firmly over in that end … there are some people who could move, but you're going to have to give them a face-saving measure to do so. And so they have already been on social media proclaiming that they would never get the vaccine. But if you can give them a way to say I did this for my daughter, I did this for my granddaughter, it allows them to change their mind without completely changing the values and ideals that they hold dear.

I've heard of people who say, “Well, I still don't believe in the vaccine, but I'm going to go get it because I want to go to concerts, or I want to go out to the bar or to the gym.” It forces people to have the opportunity to say: “I'm going to get it not because I believe in it. And not because I've changed my mind, because I want to go do these things.”

Fentem: And so in a way they get to keep that political identity.

Reinhart: Absolutely.

I don't think it's convinced you that it's going to work or convinced you that you believe in the vaccine, but convinced you to go out and get the vaccine. At the end of the day, it still gets us to the same goal.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.