As the world prepares to enter year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question on everyone’s mind is simple: “when will this be over?” Experts hope that the U.S. population could eventually reach the threshold required for herd immunity, but the new strains of COVID-19 make that pathway very difficult. Thus, the most viable option according to many virologists is mass vaccination . However, as of June 2022, only 78.0% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose, which lags behind other countries with comparable infrastructures, such as Canada (86.7%) and England (80.0%). Only 87.8% of those in the U.S. who have received the first dose have also received their second dose (68.5% of the total population) . This percentage also declines for every subsequent booster . Given that the protection offered by the vaccine and booster shots wanes every few months after the shots are received, it is imperative that a significant portion of the population receives the boosters to maintain the maximum possible degree of immunity. It is easy to feel powerless in the face of such a monumental task, but there are ways to get involved and help stop the spread. Even at Cornell, there are ways to improve the public health of the community.
So what can we do? Well, as with almost any issue related to the pandemic, it is complicated: those with a lot of power and public trust like Dr. Anthony Fauci appear on network television to answer and assuage concerns, national organizations like the WHO take to the internet and social media to provide essential information, and, at the local level, volunteers staff phone banks and take to public gatherings to do tabling and hand out pamphlets.
The biggest hurdle that everyone faces is vaccine hesitancy, ranging from general concerns about the safety to the myriad of rumors circulating regarding the development and efficacy of the vaccine. The unvaccinated are not a monolith either; they range from self-proclaimed “anti-vaxxers” to those who go to lengths to distance themselves from the term . There are also some who eagerly get other vaccines and refuse the COVID-19 shots, as well as those who happily receive the COVID-19 vaccines and refuse to get others . With such a range of concerns, it makes sense that any approach to mitigate the woes of the unvaccinated would need to include human connection, patience, and knowledge.
At Cornell, these skills are being put into practice with organizations like Vaccination Conversations with Scientists (VaCS). They hold weekly phone banking sessions, run regular public Q&A sessions, and engage with the community at local events by tabling. When the pandemic made it difficult for Grace Marshall to volunteer, she turned to VaCS. Grace, a Research Support Specialist at Cornell, has been volunteering with VaCS and co-chairing the phone banking committee for nearly a year. She states that “[it’s] a good way to connect with people in this sort of limited capacity that were able to… reach out to some areas around Tompkins County with less healthcare resources.” She says that while there’s a wide range of opinions towards the vaccine, the vast majority of the residents she’s spoken with have been incredibly polite. Grace says the most difficult concerns to address have been when someone believes the death of a relative is linked to the vaccine: “They would ask me how ‘many deaths are caused by the vaccine’ and…you can't find that number because no one has…in all of the studies, no one has died because of the vaccine.” To address these issues, Grace would always offer condolences and empathize with their fears. She found that this approach is often more effective, because it creates a human connection. Leading off with facts is not always the right answer: “if they really believe that someone they know died because of the vaccine, it seems a little insensitive to talk about [talking points] like numbers of people who have swelling in their arm or something.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented the healthcare system with one of the toughest challenges it has had to face in decades. No matter where an individual stands in their personal stance on vaccination, we are united in our exhaustion with the pandemic and our hope that things will once again return to some semblance of normalcy. If you are interested in helping with the effort, or even just connecting with others to understand different opinions in an increasingly polarized world, perhaps you could try something like VaCS. As Grace says, the phone calls teach both the caller and receiver: ”Even if I'm not able to change people's minds I think it's been interesting for myself to just learn about other perspectives and also try to impart a little bit of knowledge too.”
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