Vaccination Conversation

This week, I heard of someone in customer service seeking support or sympathy for being fired because they refuse vaccination. The friend who told me about it was pleased with herself for her reaction. She withheld support and was neutral. Her instinct was to be kind; saying nothing was as kind as she could be. What she wanted to say was, “Why would you do such a destructive thing? You deserve to be unemployed.”

A day later, I heard from a woman who works in personnel at a large employer. She had to send out six more termination letters to people who refuse to be vaccinated. She is well practiced in being official, and neutral.

Why do some people defy public health rules about vaccination?

Throughout the pandemic, new information has muddied the waters of what we thought we already knew. This new information left people feeling poorly informed, therefore unsure of how to care for themselves and their families.

When policy decisions are made based on incomplete study of an emerging crisis, some of that policy will be ineffective. People who do not want to follow certain policies can look to those inconsistencies to justify their actions. After that, confirmation bias will support their rightness in defying public health rules.

Do not assume that everyone who refuses to be vaccinated is a [add your insult here] person who does not care about other people or public health. Some may be, but most are just trying to do what is best for themselves and their families, based on the information they have. 

Misinformation and bad science

At first, there was misinformation that the Covid-19 virus was not significantly more deadly than a typical seasonal flu (which kills about 30,000 people in American annually). This was entirely not true; it is much more deadly. Time showed us that. Some people still believe the early misinformation.

There was concern about the virus living on surfaces and passing from person to person that way. This was not so. There were preliminary lab findings that supported this, which were not able to be repeated. Remember when the advice was to wash your groceries? This supported some of today’s anti-vax people. They didn’t wash their groceries, and they were right to not wash them.

The stay-at-home orders disrupted everyone’s lives. No one liked it. If you were someone who thought the promise was this will end the pandemic, you would feel justified in feeling betrayed. It did not stop the pandemic. It did slow it down.

There was incomplete and contradictory information about the efficacy of wearing masks. This supported people who don’t believe that vaccines will help as well as those who didn’t want to wear masks.

Now about those vaccines. If you believe that that promise of the vaccine was to stop the virus, you would feel justified in feeling betrayed. But the vaccines were never intended to stop the virus. The vaccines were intended to turn the virus from a killer to a contagion that causes sickness, plus a small number of deaths.

What can you say to people who feel justified in not getting vaccinated?

The overarching principle is to stay aware that they think they are doing the right thing. You are unlikely to change them. No matter what the relationship, you have an opportunity to be kind without defying your principles. You can’t change minds with facts, but you can introduce some new information. It might take hold.

First, identify the motivation

People who are not getting a vaccination (and losing their jobs over it) feel strongly that their decision is right for themselves and their family. Find out why.

“There are so many ‘breakthrough cases.’ Vaccines don’t work. Why should I put poison into my body when it doesn’t even work?”

  • There has been a lot of confusion, but one thing is clear. The people who are ending up in the hospital, and dying, are a much higher percentage of unvaccinated people, compared to vaccinated people. You can see for yourself, here. (Invite them to go to that link and choose “deaths” instead of “cases.”)
  • If you can talk data with this person, show them information like this, which explains how bad data is created. This helps to explain the “facts” they have heard.

“I haven’t gotten sick from Covid, nor has anyone I know. Why should I risk being sick for a few days after getting the vaccine, when I haven’t gotten sick from Covid this whole time?”

  • You have been lucky. Hundreds of thousands are dead in the US and millions worldwide. You can find totals from many sites. Here’s one that is not the CDC. Worldometers.
  • Really, no one? (Just leave that hanging. It is the rare person who knows no one).

“The vaccine was supposed to stop Covid. It didn’t work. Why should I risk being sick/put poison in my body when it doesn’t work?”

  • The vaccine was never intended to protect everyone from getting sick from Covid. It was intended to reduce the severity of the disease and keep people out of the hospital, out of critical care. It was intended to free up ICU beds for people who have typical non-contagion critical illnesses, such as stroke, heart attack, and post-surgical need for ICU beds.
  • If you or someone in your family needs an ICU bed, don’t you want one available?

Second, respect their autonomy

Deciding not to get a vaccine is your decision. It’s your body, and you get to make that decision.

I don’t want to die of this. I chose to take the risk of a few days of not feeling well. I accept that there are some unknowns about the vaccine. I think there are more unknowns about the long term effects of the virus. I choose to protect myself and other people.

Some people are too sick to get the vaccine. Unvaccinated people can more easily infect them. This virus may kill them. This matters to me.

Some people do have religious convictions to never participate in western health care. They do other things to stay healthy. First, I respect their convictions. Second, there are exemptions so they don’t lose their jobs. Third, they are a small number of people, who I have to trust are behaving in a way that protects themselves and others.


Remember these practices:

Change people’s opinions through relationships.

Do not participate in geographic naming of viruses.


More information about the Massachusetts vaccination mandate

August 19, 2021, Governor Charlie Baker signed an executive order mandating employee vaccination. Massachusetts posted instructions on their page about deadlines and how to apply for a medical or religious exemption. It includes clear information about what progressive discipline and employment termination will look like for workers who refuse to be vaccinated. Many employers used this as a model to require that their staffs be vaccinated.

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