Compassion important when talking to those hesitant about COVID-19 vaccine, Utah doctor advises

A worker prepares a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic at the North Davis Senior Center in Clearfield on Friday, March 26, 2021, as Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson toured the site

(Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah's COVID-19 cases reach a plateau, vaccination demand has also slowed down, leading health experts to encourage those delaying getting their shot to reconsider.

At this point, anyone who wanted to get a vaccine and would do anything to get the shot has done so, said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, in a recent Q&A.

Now, Stenehjem said, it's time to focus on those who are hesitant about the vaccine and help them feel comfortable with it. Individuals who are against all vaccinations have likely already made up their minds about the COVID-19 vaccine — Stenehjem said this is a minority of all people. Instead, it's people who support immunizations but are on the fence about the COVID-19 vaccine that he is referring to.

"Those are the people that we really need to impact and to convince: 'Hey we really need to get this vaccine just for the public health of Utah,'" Stenehjem said.

So what's the best way to talk to family members or friends who still might be hesitant? First, it's most important to have compassion, Stenehjem said. Approaching the individual from a place of empathy and understanding will help people feel comfortable, he added. It won't help to throw facts at someone or rant to them.

For example, someone might not perceive themselves as at-risk for COVID-19 and therefore isn't making the shot a priority. It might help in this case to share a personal story explaining that while they might not be at risk, they could unknowingly transmit the virus to someone who is.

It can also help to approach the individual by first recognizing where they are coming from and explaining that reaching herd immunity through vaccination is a community effort and their help is needed, Stenehjem said. The COVID-19 vaccines play a crucial role in ending the COVID-19 pandemic and returning everyone back to normal life, he added.

"If we want to move back to where we were pre-March 2020, it's going to take all of us working together to get vaccinated. If we're at a point where we have 40-45% of our community vaccinated, that leaves 50-55% susceptible," he said. "We're still at a high risk of seeing another surge, and a surge in patients that haven't been vaccinated."

Trials and studies have shown all approved vaccines administered in the U.S. are safe, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which lifted its temporary pause last week. Distribution of the J&J vaccine was paused after a small number of individuals developed blood clots after receiving the vaccine. The U.S. resumed the J&J vaccinations last week after health officials decided the benefits of the shot outweighed the blood-clotting risk.

To Stenehjem, the pause proved the safety monitoring system was working because the issue was investigated and addressed quickly.

In a recent survey conducted by Qualtrics, 42% of people said they would be more likely to get the vaccine if their doctor recommended it. Another 34% said a recommendation from a trusted family member would have the same effect. In the end, if people have concerns about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, they should speak with their primary care physician to get more information, Stenehjem advised.

In Salt Lake County, there are thousands of open vaccination appointments available this week, and health officials are encouraging those who haven't gotten the shot yet to do so now and not put it off anymore. If people don't get vaccinated and restrictions are lifted, it's possible the virus and the variants of the virus could once again surge and lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, Stenehjem said.

"I worry that if we don't get to that 'herd immunity' and we go back to the way we were doing things, we're going to start seeing spikes again," he cautioned.

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Lauren Bennett is a reporter with who covers Utah’s religious community and the growing tech sector in the Beehive State.


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