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How to Talk With People Who Are Not Vaccinated Against COVID-19

As COVID-19 Cases Rise in Los Angeles and Across the US, Experts Discuss How to Best Address Vaccination Hesitancy

Even though she has asthma, putting her at higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19, Angela Reeves-Flores, 33, waited until a week ago to get vaccinated.

She delayed because she had been working from home and wasn't going out too much, she said. And yes, she also was nervous about side effects.

“I was hesitant at first to get the vaccine," Reeves-Flores said. "But now I’m back to work and am out more."

She was one of dozens who attended one of Cedars-Sinai’s recent pop-up vaccine clinics in south Los Angeles. And once she changed her mind and got the shot, the Hawthorne resident said that she—like many other clinic attendees—felt a sense of peace.

“I’m relieved to have the vaccine because I have asthma," Reeves-Flores said. "Now I feel more protected.”

With COVID-19 cases spiking around the country as the Delta variant spreads, it's more critical than ever to get vaccinated. In Los Angeles, new cases have surged twentyfold in a month to more than 2,500 a day in recent weeks.

At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and at Cedars-Sinai Marina del Rey Hospital, most new COVID-19 patients are younger—ages 20-40—and unvaccinated. Emergency Department staff are seeing about 10-15 patients a day with COVID-19 symptoms, a sharp increase from the one or two cases they saw only a month ago.

"Everyone should be getting a vaccine," urged Sam Torbati, MD, co-chair and medical director of the Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai. "It's safe, it's effective. It's a responsibility that everybody has to themselves, their family members, and to their community, not to become the next spreader of this highly contagious virus."

So what's the best way to speak with someone who has resisted public health experts' message to get vaccinated?

The Newsroom spoke with Itai Danovitch, MD, chair of Cedars-Sinai’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, for guidance on how to tackle this challenging topic.

Sam Torbati, MD, medical director, Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department
Everyone should be getting a vaccine. It's safe, it's effective. It's a responsibility that everybody has to themselves, their family members, and to their community, not to become the next spreader of this highly contagious virus.
Sam Torbati, MD, medical director, Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department

Understand why someone is hesitant

The best approach to discussing vaccine hesitancy depends on the underlying concern that's keeping someone from getting a shot, Danovitch said. For example, people who mistrust information from traditional media sources may be better persuaded by a trusted physician or a spiritual leader.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to persuading because there are a variety of reasons why someone may be hesitant to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

"Some people may think the threat of illness doesn't apply to them," Danovitch said. "Other people may be frightened about perceived risks of vaccination. Some people may have personal values that lead them to avoid accepting any so-called 'unnatural' interventions. Others may be skeptical or suspicious of the information they're receiving from authoritative sources."

How to speak with the hesitant

Regardless of the specific concern, Danovitch said there are three strategies to always keep in mind when trying to persuade a hesitant individual to get vaccinated.

#1 Listen first.

A good way to approach the situation is to begin by asking questions rather than making arguments or building a case. Humility is key when trying to persuade somebody of something, especially a loved one.

"Really try to ask, listen for, and understand what somebody's thoughts are," Danovitch said. "Bringing a genuine sense of respect and curiosity will make it much more likely for somebody to actually share their concerns."

#2 Separate the person from their decision.

It's possible to feel and express unconditional love for somebody, while also having great disagreement with their judgments and behaviors.

"You can have one set of feelings about who they are and another set of feelings about what they do," Danovitch said. "It’s ok to keep those feelings separate."

#3 Don't try to control others.

By letting go of the desire to control other people—especially family members—we can love them for who they are no matter how much we disagree with their actions.

"If we disentangle those two things, we can sometimes avoid the heated conflicts that can lead people to dig their heels in," Danovitch said.

If persuading someone to get vaccinated is not possible, it may be necessary to set boundaries.

"If their decisions create a health risk for you, you may need to say something along the lines of, 'I love you, and I wish we could spend time together, but for now I need to manage my own health concerns. I look forward to seeing you and it's not personal,'" Danovitch said. "Sometimes, taking the temperature down a notch gives people space to reflect and come around on their own terms."

Omar Maradiaga, 32, who also attended the Cedars-Sinai vaccine clinic in South Los Angeles, said he waited but it wasn’t because he was opposed to being vaccinated. There was just so much public information about the three different vaccines that Maradiaga struggled to make a decision.

"The truth was, I was not sure which vaccine to go with, but I preferred one dose," Maradiaga said in Spanish through a translator. After receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the Cedars-Sinai clinic, he said that he feels safer now because he's at a lower risk of developing a severe illness from COVID-19.

"Everyone in my family is vaccinated now, and they feel much more at peace as well," he added.


Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: The COVID-19 Vaccine | 9 Tips for a Smooth Experience