Vaccine and Mask Conversations: How Do We Have a Useful Dialog?

As we wrap up the 2021 National Immunization Awareness Month, it’s also back-to-school season. There are many debates taking place right now about vaccine requirements and masking in local school districts and across campuses. And as many GSA members are based in university settings, they may find themselves engaged in dialog with people approaching these issues from many perspectives — not to mention with family and friends as well!

I’ve come across several helpful information sources lately that can help people have meaningful conversations. While these resources focus primarily on the topic of COVID-19 vaccinations, the approaches suggested are more broadly applicable. They teach us things like the importance of leading with empathy rather than judgment, and not conflating unvaccinated people with anti-vaxxers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which organizes National Immunization Awareness Month each year, has a page titled “How to talk about COVID-19 vaccines with friends and family.” It gives helpful guidance in listening to questions with empathy, asking open-ended questions, getting permission before sharing information, helping others find a reason to get vaccinated, and helping people make a vaccination decision.

The CDC’s main National Immunization Awareness Month website is full of resources as well that apply to a broad range of vaccines. This includes guidance for health care professionals.

Last month, The Atlantic ran an article titled “America Is Getting Unvaccinated People All Wrong.” One of its main insights was that the unvaccinated population in this country is not a monolithic bloc. Many are in communities without logistical access to vaccine or access to someone who can listen to concerns and answer questions. And they are very different from vocal anti-vaxxers. As an example, the article talks about a national campaign called The Conversation that includes Black and Latino health care workers addressing facts and myths about COVID-19 vaccines.

Likewise, global entities like UNICEF and the World Health Organization provide their own guidance about talking about cultivating confidence on vaccines. A number of U.S. institutions and groups, like the Partnership to Fight Infectious Disease, Cleveland Clinic, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, have helpful information, too.

And thanks to the work of GSA’s National Adult Vaccination Program Workgroup, COVID-19 Task Force, and other partners, our own website includes tools for helping GSA members can help build confidence in conversations with older adults about COVID-19 vaccines, including confidence about the providers administering the vaccines and the process by which the vaccines have been developed.

And lastly, let’s remember the principles of the Reframing Aging Initiative, the multi-stakeholder endeavor that GSA co-founded to essentially counter ageism by changing how we talk about aging. We know from our research that “otherizing” segments of our population does not lead to positive outcomes. How we talk about vaccines is as important as how we talk about aging, and we want to do it in a way that moves us all forward and saves lives.

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