The person who may or may not be fully vaccinated
One question causing angst is whether to ask if someone – be it a friend, relative or your dentist – is vaccinated. Short of carrying flashing “vaccinated” signs above our heads, the only way to find out if someone is double-dosed is through conversation (or, if they’ve posted a “vaxxie” on social media). But do we have the right to ask such a private question?
Yes, we do, according to The Ethics Centre executive director Dr Simon Longstaff, particularly if you’re expecting to be in close proximity with that person.
“The notion that you can make an informed decision about who you deal with and under what conditions [seems] uncontroversial,” he says. “It comes down to asking in a way that isn’t offensive or challenging.”
Dr Longstaff recommends starting by simply volunteering your own status – “Just so you know, I’ve been vaccinated” – because it signals you think it’s important, creating an expectation of reciprocation.
A friend is likely to disclose, Dr Longstaff says, but a service provider may choose not to, at which point you’re entitled to choose not to engage with them if you’re worried.
Professor Leask says that while we need high vaccination rates, we also need to have healthy social functioning for our overall wellbeing. The difficulty at the moment is many freedoms are being permitted only for fully vaccinated people, so Professor Leask says that in certain circumstances it can be important to ask someone if they’re vaccinated, to keep within the local COVID-19 restrictions.
“The notion that you can make an informed decision about who you deal with and under what conditions [seems] uncontroversial.”
Dr Simon Longstaff
While she hopes that more people will choose to be upfront about their vaccine status to reassure others, her position on asking someone is that it depends on your level of rapport or the rules about gatherings with others.
“If it’s at your discretion, you do need to broach it sensitively with friends and family,” Professor Leask says. “It might be perfectly fine to ask your mum or sister if she’s going to vaccinate, but with the clear intention that you’re concerned about her health first.”
If someone tells you they aren’t vaccinated, you’re able to tell them you can’t picnic with them just yet – after all, you didn’t make the rules.
When it comes to asking a service provider, Professor Leask says we can let government worry about the regulatory structures that will protect us, with vaccination now required in many industries.
“And remember,” she says, “if we’re fully vaccinated and wearing a mask, and your hairdresser is wearing a mask, the risk of transmission is markedly reduced.”
The person who just hasn’t gotten around to it yet
If someone wants to be vaccinated but isn’t yet, Professor Leask says that laziness is rarely a reason. Rather, it’s often because they are isolated and unaware of government advice, or they are struggling to find supply, get an appointment or use the booking system.
If someone tells you they haven’t been able to get vaccinated yet, her advice is to ask if you can help them book in.
“Practical knowledge is one of the biggest factors in driving vaccination,” Professor Leask says. “People are so confused because the recommendations have chopped and changed so much … Simply helping them figure out what they’re eligible for, where they can get it, when and how, is a great practical thing you can do.”
“Practical knowledge is one of the biggest factors in driving vaccination.”
Professor Julie Leask
Dr Longstaff adds that sometimes when people are under stress, their world view narrows, so they might not see the significance to the wider community of lagging with their vaccine booking.
“It doesn’t mean they’re a bad person, it may mean they’re really struggling to cope,” he says.
The person who is ‘waiting for Pfizer’
The advice from authorities regarding the AstraZeneca vaccine has been confounding, to say the least, with fluctuating recommendations following fears of a very rare clotting condition, known as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome. This left some people so-called “Astra-hesitant” and waiting for Pfizer despite the Delta outbreak.
When our Pfizer stocks were low, it was crucial to recommend people get their AstraZeneca vaccine, but Professor Leask says this issue is now largely resolved because the country has good supply of Pfizer and all ages are permitted to access to this vaccine.
What’s important, now, is encouraging everyone who had one dose of AstraZeneca to still get their second, Professor Leask says. They cannot simply hope to swap to Pfizer, and the risk of clotting is even lower after the second dose, while protection from COVID-19 significantly increases. “One dose is OK, two doses make a big difference,” she says.
The person who is vaccine hesitant
We must first recognise this: not everybody who questions vaccination is a conspiracy theorist or anti-vaxxer. They may have various genuine reasons, including a phobia of needles, a history of anaphylaxis, concerns for their health or a fear of the unknown.
Dr Longstaff stresses the importance of taking the views of others “entirely seriously”.
“One of the biggest mistakes when encountering someone who has an alternative point of view is to begin by trying to change their mind,” he says.
The person then starts to defend their position without ever hearing what you might have to say. This can also solidify their beliefs because they’re reciting their arguments.
On the other hand, Dr Longstaff says, sincerely hearing someone out – and letting them know you understand their concerns – will remove their need to defend themselves, and gives you knowledge to unpick under what conditions they would or wouldn’t get vaccinated.
Professor Leask recommends starting the conversation by listening and asking questions. You might want to ask straight up, “Do you think you’ll get vaccinated?” The aim is to figure out what their attitude is, rather than make assumptions.
“If you jump in with your answers too early, and you haven’t fully explored all the barriers and issues for someone … your comments won’t match where they’re at, and then the conversation will begin to fail.”
Helpful phrases when talking to someone who is vaccine hesitant
- “Do you have any plans to vaccinate at the moment?”
- “What are some of your concerns?”
- “I think it’s reasonable to be looking to get information about [insert concern].
- “I can see you’ve done a lot of thinking about this.”
- “Can I tell you about my experience?”
- “I thought a lot about this decision too. Can I tell you why I decided to get the vaccine?”
- “I’m not sure about that. Let’s look it up together.”
- “I saw a website recently that seemed to answer this really well, can I share the link with you?”
- “Can I show you how to check your eligibility and make a booking, in case you change your mind?”
- “I’d really love you to get vaccinated. I want to see you protected against COVID-19 because all of us are going to encounter it in our lives. It’s not going away.”
- “Have you thought about what not vaccinating might mean for you and your family?”
- “If you’re not planning to vaccinate, how are you going to best protect yourself and others?”
- “Let’s leave it for now, but maybe we can talk about it again later?”
It’s important to validate someone’s concerns as reasonable and ensure they know you’ve heard them, Professor Leask says. “It can be a harsh environment for the vaccine hesitant, so you need to create a safe space and build rapport.”
Next, try to gently direct them to quality information that relates to them. Ask: “Do you mind if I share what I learnt?” Or: “Can I help you find the information that might address your concerns?” The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance and the Department of Health are great places to look.
“One of the biggest mistakes when encountering someone who has an alternative point of view is to begin by trying to change their mind.”
Dr Simon Longstaff
Professor Leask also recommends trying to detect what someone’s motivation might be to vaccinate, then reinforce it. You might need to elicit what it is by asking, “What do you think the benefits of vaccination might be?” Then, say, “I agree, I’m concerned about this as well.“
You can also tell them what you’ve done, and if you’re comfortable, recommend vaccination in a respectful way. “Once you have that rapport, the recommendation is more likely to be heard and accepted.”
If you’re dealing with a more staunch vaccine refuser, it’s still worth having the conversation, Dr Longstaff says. When a person is important to you, you owe them that.
Then if they still aren’t willing to budge, park the discussion for the sake of the relationship, Dr Longstaff says, but remain prudent: “Don’t just accept they’re not going to change.”
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