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As the new COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, health care providers are encountering a familiar obstacle: people who don’t want to take the shot. Reasons range from distrust in the pharmaceutical companies to the impression that the vaccines were developed too quickly to possibly be safe.

The University of Georgia’s Glen Nowak knows a thing or two about getting people to come around to vaccination.

Glen Nowak is director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication. (Photo by Sarah E. Freeman)

A professor in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication, Nowak spent 14 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six as the communications director for CDC’s National Immunization Program and another six as director of media relations for CDC.

Got a friend or family member who is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine but not sure they want to get it? Nowak has a few strategies to get them to reconsider.

Concerns about side effects

Emphasize that the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines are significant while risks like a severe bad reaction to the shot are highly unlikely. Deciding not to get vaccinated, on the other hand, puts you at risk for becoming infected with the virus and developing COVID-19, including the possibility of a potentially severe course of the illness.

People who are vaccine-hesitant often focus on the possibility that they will experience one or more of the most common reactions to the vaccine.  But the most common reactions to the shot—sore arm, fever and generally feeling lousy a few days after vaccination—pale in comparison to the harm the coronavirus can wreak on the body.

“Even for those who only have mild illness, COVID can bring multiple days of feeling bad, along with much uncertainty and anxiety about which symptoms you will develop,” Nowak said. “With more severe illness, you could end up being hospitalized. It’s not a risk-free decision to avoid vaccination. What you’re really doing is you’re taking a different set of risks.”

If you are considering not getting a COVID-19 vaccine, you’re making the assumption that you either won’t get COVID or that it won’t be a big deal if you do, Nowak said. But a better assumption is that it’s actually more likely that you’ll get infected and become sick with COVID-19 than experience a serious adverse reaction to the shot.

The benefits of getting vaccinated far exceed the risks of either a short-term day or two of feeling crummy or the unlikely event of a serious adverse reaction to the vaccine.” — Glen Nowak

Nowak would know. He and his family got COVID-19 a couple of months ago, and one of them is still experiencing diminished taste and smell. “Some people are probably thinking still that COVID-19 is like flu where you’re sick for three or four days, and then you think you’re fine after that,” Nowak said. “But research shows that many people’s symptoms persist for weeks or even months, with loss of taste and smell frequently one of the symptoms experienced by those with “mild” illness.

“The benefits of getting vaccinated far exceed the risks of either a short-term day or two of feeling crummy or the unlikely event of a serious adverse reaction to the vaccine.”

Too quick to be safe

The COVID-19 vaccines were indeed developed and approved for use faster than any in modern history. But the science behind the shots wasn’t new. Researchers had been developing vaccine platforms similar to the ones used by Pfizer and Moderna for well over a decade.

What was new was the amount of money invested by the government.

“What the federal government investment did was it enabled a lot of companies to try to develop vaccines,” Nowak said. It allowed a lot of the necessary steps in vaccine development to happen all at once, rather than sequentially. The clinical trials, for example, happened in more than one place with more people participating during a shorter time period—months instead of years. “No corners were cut. So really what happened was this process became a lot more efficient in terms of doing the clinical trials.”

The primary drawbacks to speeding up the process are not yet having data regarding how well the available vaccines prevent the spread of infection and a lack of long-term data about how long immunity to the virus lasts.

But safety and effectiveness of the vaccines weren’t compromised.

The wait and see approach

According to Nowak, “wait and see” is a common reaction to new vaccines. “It’s not unique to COVID-19,” Nowak said. “Probably every vaccine that has been added to the immunization schedule—whether it’s a vaccine added to the childhood schedule or to the adult schedule— many parents or people say they want to ‘wait and see’ how safe and effective the vaccine will be.”

It’s an understandable reaction, Nowak said. However, what you want to ask is what they are waiting to see.

“Are you looking to have more information about the effectiveness of these vaccines? Are you looking to have more information about the safety of these vaccines? It’s important to learn what information people will want that will make them more willing to receive a new vaccine.”

The COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials enrolled tens of thousands of volunteers to rigorously test the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness. The news that came out of those trials was reassuring. Side effects tended to be mild, by and large, and antibody levels and other immune responses against the virus were high. (Early on, there were some concerns about anaphylactic shock, Nowak said. But as more people have taken the shots, the rates have fallen significantly.)

What it boils down to

One of the most compelling arguments to make in favor of getting the vaccine may also be the most obvious.

“We all want to get back to what life was like before the pandemic, and the only way for everyone’s lives to get back there is to be protected against COVID-19 illness,” Nowak said. “And the best way to be protected in this COVID-19 illness is to get vaccinated.”

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