Cheryl K. Lee, MD, an Assistant Professor Of Medicine at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, practices internal medicine and pediatrics at Northwestern Memorial and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital, both in Chicago, IL. She also serves on the Northwestern Medicine Covid Quality Committee and as core clinical faculty in the Internal Medicine Residency.
Dr. Lee reported no disclosures.
You have been treating COVID-19 patients since before the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency authorization to 3 pharma vaccine producers. But now you have patients, on oxygen or under observation, who have foregone vaccination. What do you think about that?
This question raises a good point that is often missed: how the unvaccinated are often portrayed. The reasons these patients remain unvaccinated are not necessarily uniform.
What we know based on attitude surveys done by the Kaiser Family Foundation1 is that people are vaccine hesitant for varied reasons. And this finding isn’t unique. The pediatric literature shows that those who are opposed to childhood vaccination do not share the same motivations.2 Yes, some are strident about their beliefs against vaccination, usually in concert with popularized myths. Many unvaccinated people are hesitant based on misconceptions, do not have access to a clinician who can answer their questions, can’t afford to lose a day of work due to the vaccine’s expected side effects, or understandably mistrust the healthcare community based on personal or historical context.
What do the unvaccinated have in common? Education levels, income levels?
We know from surveys3 that generally, more men than women are hesitant. Those who are uninsured or underinsured4 and those of lower socioeconomic status are more hesitant than their counterparts. It's changing a bit, but those who are in minority communities, Black and Latinx communities, are more likely to be unvaccinated compared to other groups. Even in Chicago, where we have a relatively good vaccination rate (59%),5 Black and Latinx communities are under vaccinated as compared to those who are White or Asian. The reasons for this are complex and include historical disinvestment in communities and decreased access to medical care. Some wonderful agencies are pairing up with community leaders in target neighborhoods to address this equity gap.
What do you say to these patients, if anything, about their status?
It’s not what you might expect. At first, I listen. I find that most are well-intentioned people trying to make the right decision for themselves and their family. It is, therefore, helpful to hear what their motivations and fears are first, before delving into facts. Furthermore, although facts are wonderful and necessary, what is more persuasive is a personal anecdote. I will tell folks my personal story about deciding to be vaccinated. I talk about how I found accurate information about the vaccine and what a relief it was afterwards to know that I would be safe, especially as a mom. I even talk about feeling tired and achy after the second shot, which means that the vaccine is working. I joke that it is the only time I’ve felt so relieved to feel sick. Last, I often say that it’s okay to feel scared or apprehensive, and that they deserve to get the best information. What’s important is that these conversations feel genuine.
Can you share an anecdote or two?
A few months ago, I took care of an unvaccinated gentleman who was in the hospital for a chronic medical condition. Before this hospitalization, his personal physicians had tried to convince him to get the vaccine over a period of several months.
It would have been easy to assume that he would remain unvaccinated and that I should put my energy into convincing someone else. However, I found him surprisingly open to discussion, and we were able to have many conversations about what he'd heard from nonmedical sources. We bonded over the sheer volume of available information and how difficult it is to know what is true. We then walked through what was truth vs fiction, and I tailored the discussion to how the vaccine could specifically improve his quality of life and his family's. He confided that what made his decision more difficult was the fact that he hadn’t met anyone who had gotten the vaccine among his friends and family. He ultimately did decide to get vaccinated, along with a family member. We made the appointment for the week after he was discharged. What a feeling it was to get a text message from his clinic physician saying that he got his first shot and that it went great!
I wasn’t the only physician who had spoken to this patient about getting vaccinated; others had done the same before he came to the hospital. It is a good reminder that each conversation can act like a gentle nudge in the right direction.
In terms of the data on the unvaccinated–reasons they stay away, what their backgrounds are and so forth–how close do those data play out in real life?
It is not advisable to assume why someone would be unvaccinated based on first impressions. I find the reasons are highly specific to that individual, ranging from false impressions about fertility to concerns about missing work. In my experience, several patients simply wanted to get more facts from a healthcare worker directly before signing up. Pregnancy is particularly important to talk about, considering how devastating the Delta variant has been to this group of women. One gentleman that I spoke to was worried about affecting his wife’s pregnancy with the vaccine. We know now that vaccines are safe and prevent pregnant patients from getting seriously ill and dying, but that knowledge isn’t widely known to the public. So many kind and well-meaning people have foregone vaccination because they're concerned about doing anything to upset the pregnancy.
How long, generally, does it take for unvaccinated patients to discuss the reasons for their choice?
It takes time, and that's a real barrier for many healthcare professionals, especially in a clinic setting where the luxury of extra time is nonexistent. How much time differs for everyone, and usually a change of heart takes more than one conversation.
Truly, the first conversation is just to listen, to understand their hesitation, and to develop trust. For anyone to really hear what I have to say, they must trust that what I'm saying is solely motivated by caring about what happens to them and their family.
One gentleman said something pointed during our first conversation: Thank you for listening. When I tell people I am not vaccinated I can feel them judging me, that they've already decided what to think of me.
I always tell people that they have good questions because they do. I respect the fact that they're feeling open enough to share what they're hearing or what they're afraid of. It's a privilege for me to be involved in that conversation.
What advice would you give other hospitalists in terms of treating and counseling patients who are unvaccinated?
Every hospitalization, whether it’s COVID-related or not, is an opportunity to speak with those who are still unvaccinated. Every encounter can be used to further the conversation about vaccines, by increasing their trust in the healthcare community, answering their questions, and providing facts in place of confusion. Using those opportunities is the best way to get us out of this pandemic.
That said, it's been a long two years, so it's okay if physicians don't have the emotional bandwidth or the time to have these discussions. Maybe save that conversation for another day. But for some providers, perhaps knowing that those who are unvaccinated can change and that anxiety could be preventing some from getting their shot will motivate them to start these conversations with their patients.