Local health experts weigh in on how to talk to hesitant relatives about getting the COVID vaccine

Jun 4, 2021

The Census Bureau estimates that just over 17% of U.S. adults aged 18 and older are unsure about or have already decided against receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Experts say that level of vaccine hesitancy could make it difficult for the country to reach herd immunity.

With that in mind, KCBX News spoke to local experts about vaccine hesitancy and how to talk to friends and family who are still undecided about the vaccine.

Jill Bolster-White is the executive director of Transitions Mental Health Association in San Luis Obispo.

She told KCBX News her teenage son and daughter just got the Pfizer vaccine, which has emergency approval for 12-15-year-olds.

“For us, it was looking at the risk analysis and what we thought were the unknowns about not getting vaccinated and getting COVID, and some of the concerns and unknowns that were connected there. But also the limitations that come along with not being vaccinated, and so the kinds of things it prevents them from being able to do,” Bolster-White said.

“Seeing family and friends who are older and in that health risk category, participating in events. I know schools are contemplating whether or not to require them, workplaces are having that same discussion, and so I think the preponderance of the evidence for us made it really make sense for us to have our whole family get vaccinated.”

Bolster-White said Transitions’ role as a mental health provider means vaccines were a priority for her staff and clients.

“People who have mental illness actually have a lower longevity, so they don’t live as long. Generally they have higher health issues, tend to be lower-income,” Bolster-White said. “So those were other reasons that we were wanting to make vaccines available for clients and for staff.”

Bolster-White said her biggest tip in convincing hesitant people to get the vaccine is by recommending they talk to their doctor if they have one.

“Talk to your children’s pediatrician, talk to your own primary care provider. They know you, they have really looked at the science behind those vaccines, and so I think talking to your health care provider is probably the best way to get the information and answer the questions you might have,” Bolster-White said.

Dr. Tamara Battle is a pediatrician and board chair of Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. Tenet Health, which operates Sierra Vista, is a KCBX underwriter.

Battle said the best way to talk to hesitant patients is by explaining the science.

“I try to educate with information — with factual information. This is an mRNA — a messenger RNA vaccine. It doesn’t stay within the system. The way that it functions is to help our body design a protein that can then recognize if COVID-19 comes into our body. And then our body dispenses with that information — that information to code the protein. So there’s not anything that’s lingering. This is not a live vaccine,” Battle said.

According to Battle, there are a few common myths that come up with hesitant patients — one being that vaccines cause infertility or negatively affect pregnant women.

“The recommendation from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology is to not withhold the COVID vaccine from any pregnant or nursing mother,” Battle said.

Just like Bolster-White, Battle encouraged anyone with questions or concerns about the vaccine to talk to their doctor.

“And I encourage anyone who has questions to make an appointment with their pediatrician to voice what myths or what they’ve seen on the internet — what data they’ve seen there versus what’s factual — what we are seeing in person. And to have a more personalized answer to the concerns they have,” Battle said.

Those who don’t have access to healthcare services can get their questions answered at emergencyslo.org.

As part of a local effort to address vaccine hesitancy, San Luis Obispo County started an effort to name members of the community as “vaccine champions” — people and organizations who spread the word about the benefits of getting vaccinated.

Paul Worsham is the chairman of the San Luis Obispo Veteran Services Collaborative and a vaccine champion.

“We started referring to this as the ‘war at home.’ And that has been our approach, to marshal all of our resources. And when you’re in a war, it’s all in or nothing, so that has been our approach to being a vaccine champion,” Worsham said.

Part of being a vaccine champion, Worsham said, is convincing other veterans to get the vaccine through leading by example.

“We felt a sense of duty not only to get vaccinated ourselves but to encourage all of the veterans and their families, their dependents, to get vaccinated as well,” Worsham said.

One way Worsham has helped convince hesitant veterans to get the vaccine is by appealing to a sense of duty.

“I think that’s essentially what’s driving us. It is a sense of duty. It is something we learned as part of our military experience. It becomes part of our core, whether our duty is to our employer, or to our family, or to our community — a sense of duty is what a veteran is all about,” Worsham said.

You can find more information about COVID-19 vaccines locally at slocounty.ca.gov.