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Kansas City expert says empathy is key to solving vaccine hesitancy

Registered nurse Raquel Garcia aims for the shoulder of Sofia Jimenez during a community vaccination at the Tony Aguirre Community Center.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Registered nurse Raquel Garcia aims for the shoulder of Sofia Jimenez during a community vaccination at the Tony Aguirre Community Center.

When he finished his dissertation at the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2018, Alex Francisco never expected its subject would make headlines.

While working on his PhD in psychology, Francisco became interested in why some parents are wary of getting their kids vaccinated against diseases. For his dissertation, he researched attitudes about the HPV vaccine and the flu shot, and concluded altruism isn’t always the most convincing argument for parents to vaccinate their kids.

Three years later, with the COVID-19 vaccine widely available as a tool to fight a deadly pandemic — and mistrust of the vaccine hampering its effectiveness — Francisco finds his knowledge coming in handy. Now he’s a statistician at the Kansas City Health Department, working primarily with COVID-19 data.

“The conversations surrounding vaccine hesitancy have really become centered around arguments,” he said. “It’s not a good process to try to convince someone to be confident in vaccines.”

Throughout the pandemic, Francisco has had a bird’s-eye view of cases, deaths and public health measures in the city, as well as the public’s reaction to them. In a conversation with KCUR, he shared his advice on how to talk to vaccine-hesitant people about the COVID vaccine.

Kansas City Health Department statistician Alex Francisco works closely with the city's COVID data.
Courtesy Alex Francisco
Kansas City Health Department statistician Alex Francisco works closely with the city's COVID data.

How Likely Are Parents to Vaccinate Their Kids?

Kansas City still trails the national average when it comes to COVID vaccines. As of Nov. 11, 50% of the city’s population is vaccinated, while 59% of the entire U.S. population is vaccinated, according to NPR.

Now that children ages 5-11 can get the shot, there’s reason to believe vaccines for Kansas City kids in that age group might also lag behind the rest of the country, Francisco said.

“Even parents who are fully confident in the vaccine for themselves,” he said, “may be hesitant to vaccinate their children.”

Parents are concerned about the speed at which the vaccine was produced, the government push for inoculation and the ever-changing understanding of the coronavirus. And for some parents, Francisco said, the potential benefit that herd immunity confers to a community might not outweigh the potential risks of giving a brand-new vaccine to a young child.

“Even vaccines that aren’t for novel diseases that sprang up within the last few years can cause some distress in parents because these aren’t things that we’re used to,” Francisco said. “Any time we have that increased uncertainty, you get people who are motivated to reduce that uncertainty.”

That might lead to some illogical thinking about vaccines, like believing in misinformation and refusing to seek out new sources, Francisco said.

“We end up just taking an interpretation of the last thing we heard and we carry that forward,” he said.

Ultimately, parents just want to protect their families, Francisco wrote in a recent memo to the health department. Emphasizing the possible benefit to an entire family — rather than strangers in the broader community — might be the best way to convince them to get their kids vaccinated against COVID.

“Putting a face to those that will be protected by vaccinating a child will yield more benefit than an amorphous reference to the ‘common good,’” he wrote. “Vaccinate your children to protect their grandparents, parents, siblings.”

How To Change Minds About the COVID Vaccine

The thing about changing someone’s mind is that you probably can’t, Francisco said. People who believe in misinformation won’t change their minds, even if presented with new, accurate information.

The best strategy, he said, is to first listen. Really understand why a friend or family member may be worried about the vaccine, Francisco said. Then: be empathetic.

“A lot of people aren’t equipped to make these types of decisions because they’ve never had to before,” he said. “I can’t blame somebody for being hesitant in the face of this much information.”

If a relative is afraid of needles, go with them to the vaccine appointment. If a friend doesn’t know much about the vaccine, offer them resources with accurate information.

People who don’t benefit directly from the vaccine aren’t generally motivated to get vaccinated, Francisco said. For example, people ages 25-29, who are lower-risk than older people, have the lowest vaccination rate in Kansas City at 39%.

One way to motivate this group is for institutions to make it as convenient as possible to get the shot. Having vaccine clinics in schools can help parents who don’t want to pull their kids out of class. Francisco said the Kansas City Health Department has maintained vaccine clinics in the neighborhoods that have the lowest vaccination rates, and is looking for partners to help distribute Pfizer-BioNTech’s dose for children.

“This whole process is essentially trying to convince people to do something that they don’t necessarily think is that important,” he said. “Anything that we can do to reduce that time and effort commitment then, is going to have a much higher impact.”

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