Addressing vaccine hesitancy with patients

Breakthrough with empathy and compassion


The COVID-19 pandemic is a worldwide tragedy. In the beginning there was a lack of testing, personal protective equipment, COVID tests, and support for health care workers and patients. As 2020 came to a close, the world was given a glimpse of hope with the development of a vaccine against the deadly virus. Many world citizens celebrated the scientific accomplishment and began to breathe a sigh of relief that there was an end in sight. However, the development and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine revealed a new challenge, vaccine hesitancy.

Dr. Gwendolyn Williams

Community members, young healthy people, and even critically ill hospitalized patients who have the fortune of surviving acute illness are hesitant to the COVID-19 vaccine. I recently cared for a critically ill young patient who was intubated for days with status asthmaticus, one of the worst cases I’d ever seen. She was extubated and made a full recovery. Prior to discharge I asked if she wanted the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and she said, “No.” I was shocked. This was an otherwise healthy 30-something-year-old who was lucky enough to survive without any underlying infection in the setting of severe obstructive lung disease. A co-infection with COVID-19 would be disastrous and increase her mortality. I had a long talk at the bedside and asked the reason for her hesitancy. Her answer left me speechless, “I don’t know, I just don’t want to.” I ultimately convinced her that contracting COVID-19 would be a fate worse than she could imagine, and she agreed to the vaccine prior to discharge. This interaction made me ponder – “why are our patients, friends, and family members hesitant about receiving a lifesaving vaccine, especially when they are aware of how sick they or others can become without it?”

According to the World Health Organization, vaccine hesitancy refers to a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccine services. Vaccine hesitancy is complex and context specific, varying across time, place, and vaccines. It is influenced by factors such as complacency, convenience, and confidence.1 No vaccine is 100% effective. However, throughout history, the work of scientists and doctors to create vaccines saved millions of lives and revolutionized global health. Arguably, the single most life-saving innovation in the history of medicine, vaccines have eradicated smallpox, protected against whooping cough (1914), diphtheria (1926), tetanus (1938), influenza (1945) and mumps (1948), polio (1955), measles (1963), and rubella (1969), and worldwide vaccination rates increased dramatically thanks to successful global health campaigns.2 However, there was a paradox of vaccine success. As terrifying diseases decreased in prevalence, so did the fear of these diseases and their effects – paralysis, brain damage, blindness, and death. This gave birth to a new challenge in modern medicine, vaccine hesitancy – a privilege of first world nations.

Vaccines saved countless lives and improved health and wellbeing around the world for decades. However, to prevent the morbidity and mortality associated with vaccine-preventable diseases and their complications, and optimize control of vaccine-preventable diseases in communities, high vaccination rates must be achieved. Enter the COVID-19 pandemic, the creation of the COVID-19 vaccine, and vaccine hesitancy.

The question we ask ourselves as health care providers is ‘how do we convince the skeptics and those opposed to vaccination to take the vaccine?’ The answer is complicated. If you are like me, you’ve had many conversations with people – friends, patients, family members, who are resistant to the vaccine. Very often the facts are not well received, and those discussions end in argument, high emotions, and broken relationships. With the delta variant of COVID-19 on the rise, spreading aggressively among the unvaccinated, and increased hospitalizations, we foresee the reoccurrence of overwhelmed health systems and a continued death toll.

The new paradox we are faced with is that people choose to believe fiction versus fact, despite the real life evidence of the severe health effects and increased deaths related to COVID-19. Do these skeptics simply have a cavalier attitude towards not only their own life, but the lives of others? Or, is there something deeper? It is not enough to tell people that the vaccines are proven safe3 and are more widely available than ever. It is not enough to tell people that they can die of COVID-19 – they already know that. Emotional pleas to family members are falling on deaf ears. This past month, when asking patients why they don’t want the vaccine, many have no real legitimate health-related reason and respond with a simple, “I don’t want to.” So, how do we get through to the unvaccinated?


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