How To Talk About The COVID-19 Vaccine With Friends And Family

A pharmacist at UCI Health holds a dose of the COVID-19 Vaccine. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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Let's talk about how to talk about the COVID-19 vaccines.

It can be awkward to broach the topic — especially with people you love and care about. Experiences and feelings can vary.

So, we reached out to two experts for tips on navigating these conversations:

  • Dr. Omai Garner, director of Clinical Microbiology in the UCLA Health System, and
  • Lucy Sladek, a licensed marriage and family therapist

"You should have questions" about the vaccines, Garner told us. "And you should feel good about having questions."

Here's how they suggest breaking the ice.

BEFORE YOU START SPEAKING

Sladek acknowledged these conversations can seem daunting, and it's important to prepare. If you're nervous about talking, there's a chance that the other person is nervous, too.

That's why she suggests taking a walk, meditating, reflecting, or whatever it takes to make yourself feel grounded.

"If we can model that groundedness, then that can hopefully allow the other person to stay connected to us, as we're having this conversation," Sladek said.

Your family member or friend may be experiencing "the fear of not knowing, the fear of medical trauma that has been perpetuated on communities of color and other marginalized identities," she explained.

And you may be worried about those things too.

WHAT TO SAY (AND NOT SAY)

Let common ground, empathy and curiosity be your guides.

Sladek says you should start by considering how you and your loved one usually communicate, and be authentic to that.

For example, her family likes to use humor, even if conversations get intense. So she'd throw in some jokes since that's a way they relate to each other.

However you spin it to fit your relationship with your family member or friend, Sladek says to make sure to ask open ended questions, that get at thoughts and feelings and experiences. Something along the lines of:

  • "What do you think about the vaccine?"
  • "What is your experience of hearing everything that's being said about the vaccine?"

Your goal with these questions is to understand your loved one's point of view.

Even if their views are different than yours, you can ask questions to try to see it from their side. You can also validate what they're telling you, like:

  • "When you put it that way and you explain that, it does sound really scary".

What you're doing there is taking on "the perspective of the other person to try to really understand where they're coming from, and you stay out of judgment," Sladek said. "Because the judgment is what's going to create the distance and the disconnection."

Then, you might move into talking about the vaccine itself.

Sladek has some phrases you can adapt, like:

  • "What has you worried?"
  • "Where do you go to get information?"
  • "Can I sit next to you and look at it with you?"
A dose of the Pfizer BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at UCI Health Center in Orange. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

WHEN IT STARTS TO GET TECHNICAL

For help with discussing the science, I talked to Dr. Omai Garner from UCLA Health.

He emphasized: it's okay to have questions about the vaccines. In fact, he said, you should.

So I brought him some questions and concerns that might come up, like:

► How did they make the vaccines so quickly?

While it may seem fast, the science behind Pfizer and Moderna's mRNA vaccines has been around for around two decades, Garner said

"And so it appeared to be fast," he said. "But the reason it appeared to be fast is because the science behind the process was already in place." He said he gets this question a lot.

He also said that early on, pharmaceutical companies and academic researchers with funding from the federal government started working to make the COVID-19 vaccines. That many people working on it "really speeds up the process of getting to scientific discovery," he explained.

► I heard someone died or had some other serious thing happen to them after getting the vaccine.

Garner said one of his cousins asked him the same thing.

He said you can think about it this way: just because two things happen in a similar timeframe doesn't necessarily mean they were related to each other.

Another way to think about it: more than 95 million doses have been administered so far in the United States, "and what you're not seeing is death caused by the vaccine."

That said, if you have questions about the vaccine and how it can affect you, talk to your doctor.

And when having these conversations, don't forget about visual aids.

Garner suggests bringing resources like YouTube videos to help with the science part of the conversation.

Here's one where you can see him talking about the vaccines. And here's our own guide to answering frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccines.

With her own family, Sladek shared what she knew about the vaccines, then made space for her loved ones to ask her questions.

"And then [I tried] to find resources that matched with how they learn it, whether it's in a different language, whether it's from a source or someone that they look up to, or someone that looks like them, that they really respect that's in the media," Sladek said.

For example, she suggests this November 2020 Washington State Department of Health video which answers questions about the vaccines in Spanish.

ACKNOWLEDGING FEELINGS OF MISTRUST

Garner said questions about this are some of the toughest ones he gets.

"Our government has a terrible track record as far as medical inequities, as far as their treatment of Black and Brown communities, even to this day," Garner said. "But that doesn't mean it's not a great vaccine. And it doesn't mean that the vaccine is not going to be protective."

Here, he said, personal experience can make a big difference. He chose to take the vaccine, and to tell people in his community about why he made that choice.

Sladek said you can acknowledge the reasons why your loved one might be cautious, and do your own research into how the medicine is trying to avoid repeating the injustices and hurt of the past. She found this Q&A from Johns Hopkins about the COVID-19 vaccine and communities of color helpful.

Both Garner and Sladek say there are no easy answers here, and the person you're talking with might want to discuss this a few times.

"It's not just gonna be one time that, suddenly you trust the medical community, and you're about to go take their vaccine," Garner said. "I think it's going to have to be over and over again and continually coming back to talk about that particular issue, because that's not one that has an easy answer."

And it's important to acknowledge and respect your loved one's decision, no matter what they decide, Sladek said.

"Maybe they're not at the point [of being comfortable enough to get the vaccine], and we can honor that," she said, "and still maybe have conversations here and there — but still honor that agency."

READ MORE COVERAGE OF THE COVID-19 VACCINES: