Here’s what’s finally convincing local people to get the COVID vaccine

Reasons vary, but experts remain concerned as rate drops.

Eric Miller hasn’t been worried about catching COVID-19 and didn’t see much of a reason to get the COVID-19 vaccine — until now.

The 33-year-old walked into a vaccine clinic in Springfield two weeks ago to get his first shot.

“My grandparents live in Florida, and their health hasn’t been the best,” Miller said. “They don’t really want visitors who haven’t been vaccinated. I’d rather get the shot and be able to go see my grandparents.”

The number of Ohioans who got their fist shot dropped dramatically in February as cases plummeted amid the waning omicron surge. The 48,179 Ohioans who got their first dose in February is the lowest monthly total since the vaccine became available in December 2020, and down from 150,035 this past January, according to Ohio Department of Health data.

Roughly two-thirds of eligible Ohioans have received at least one dose — more than 7.23 million people ages 5 and older.

But health experts fear many who have resisted may have medical issues that make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. This story examines what is inspiring people to get the vaccine at this point.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

“It’s either the vaccine or the ventilator, which would you prefer?” is what Dr. Kim Bethel, a primary care physician in Trotwood, asks her high-risk patients.

Patients still routinely come in for their first shot, Bethel said, especially now that it’s been out for a year and those filling hospital wards and dying are mostly the unvaccinated.

Bethel has patients who aren’t elderly, so they don’t realize they are at increased risk because of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes or COPD. Health issues like these tend to be more common in the Black community, which is why the hospitalization rate for Black Ohioans who get COVID is higher — but the vaccination rate among that community lags.

Some of her patients don’t trust politicians or the media, but Bethel said some frustratingly do trust Google and social media.

“The biggest thing I have to do is get through all the myths and put them to rest, and try to get them to be at ease,” she said.

‘Lead with compassion’

While a family doctor has access to a patient’s medical history and can be stern, that’s not the best way for the average person to approach a loved one about getting vaccinated, according to Arianna Galligher, a licensed independent social worker.

As part of her work as associate director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience Recovery Center at the Ohio State Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, she regularly has conversations about the vaccine.

“If the sole purpose of the conversation is to try to change someone’s mind, you’re probably going about it the wrong way,” she said. “Lead with compassion … Rather than approaching the conversation with all of your facts and figures and your very strongly held beliefs, approach someone who’s unvaccinated with a stance of benign curiosity. Say, ‘Help me understand what’s getting in the way’ or ‘what are you nervous about?’”

Try to set aside disparaging attitudes and preconceived notions about why somebody might delay getting vaccinated, Galligher said. Many have valid fears, so you should seek to understand and kindly address their concerns, she said.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

And if the person you’re speaking with brings up a concern that is false, possibly stemming from misinformation (like the vaccine contains a microchip or causes infertility), address it head-on but without shaming them.

“Say, ‘I heard something like that, too, but then I looked more into it and here’s what I found out about it,’ and maybe offer to forward that information on with the references,” Galligher said. “And there’s a way to do it without implying that the other person is bad or wrong for thinking something else.”

Tell your story

Galligher and other experts also recommend sharing your reasons for getting the vaccine and being honest about your experience. It’s their decision to make, with their doctor.

“We ask that our local community leaders share their stories as to why they are vaccinated, and that vaccination will help lessen the severity of COVID-19 disease,” said Dan Suffoletto, spokesman for Public Health–Dayton & Montgomery County.

Most Ohioans are vaccinated, Suffoletto said, and if those people share with their relatives, friends and acquaintances why they got the shot, that can be powerful.

“The vaccine skeptics and the misinformation network have been doing this sort of personal communication on social media and elsewhere all along,” he said. “If the larger number of vaccinated individuals let people know why they got vaccinated, it can increase the number of individuals getting COVID vaccines.”

Changing minds

People continue making that choice every day.

Workers at the vaccine clinic in Springfield where Miller got his shot said people don’t always talk about why they are getting it now. Those who do often mention running up against deadlines to get vaccinated as a work requirement, or $100 gift cards being distributed.

A mother got her two kids, 9-year-old Ta’Niah Walker and and 11-year-old Terrance Walker, vaccinated so they could travel. She let the kids have the gift cards. Ta’Niah debated aloud whether to spend it all at Walmart or Five Below.

Charlie Lewis of Dayton understands the hesitancy people have. The 41-year-old mother of four had no intention of getting vaccinated when the vaccines first came out.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

“It was so new. And you hear all the negative things about it, and I just wasn’t sure about it at the time,” she said. “I think it’s just fear of the unknown.”

But medical professionals explained to her last summer that the vaccine was thoroughly tested, and that she is at increased risk and has a far higher chance of getting severely sick or even dying from COVID than from the vaccine. Once she got it and was fine, she got her kids vaccinated.

“I know that you can still catch (COVID if you’re vaccinated). But your symptoms wouldn’t be as bad,” she said. “I figure if I catch it, it’s better to have less severe symptoms than to go without.”


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