As delta surges among unvaccinated, how a focus on science can counter misinformation

With the majority of COVID-19 cases appearing in unvaccinated people, experts say it’s as important as ever to increase vaccination rates across Canada to stem a delta-driven fourth wave.

Due in part to vaccine hesitancy, Canadians aged 12 to 39 currently have the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

But science communicator Sabina Vohra-Miller says conversations with friends and family can have a positive impact on those still concerned about taking the shot.

“You should start in a place where you’re actually talking with compassion and respect,” she told Brian Goldman, host of White Coat, Black Art and The Dose

Vohra-Miller is the Toronto-based founder of Unambiguous Science, a platform that aims to make science accessible. She also has a background in clinical pharmacology and toxicology.

Right now, she said, unvaccinated people likely have complex and very specific concerns. “People who had very minor questions that they wanted to ask, those people have already been vaccinated.”

These days, Vohra-Miller is hearing questions about particular side effects or the vaccine’s effect on fertility.

“The questions are getting very, very specific now — which I think is really good, because it shows that people’s information and education on these vaccines is building,” she said.  

It’s important to keep lines of communication open when you speak with unvaccinated friends and family, says Sabina Vohra-Miller, the founder of Unambiguous Science. (Submitted by Sabina Vohra-Miller)

Learning some science basics

If you’d like to engage in a conversation with a vaccine-hesitant loved one, the first step is understanding exactly what question is driving that person’s fears, said Vohra-Miller.

Using science to counter any misinformation is extremely important, said Vohra-Miller, who suggests that people learn the basics of how vaccines work before starting such a dialogue. 

“Science literacy is something that we haven’t done a great job of building on over the last few years,” she said. 

“Very often when I talk about vaccines to people … I talk about exactly what your immune system does, what exactly does a vaccine do, and how it’s really your own immune system and your own immune responses that are protecting you.”

People should be prepared to have multiple conversations about the topic, Vohra-Miller said, instead of expecting to change someone’s mind immediately. And if you don’t have confidence in your knowledge of the science, be upfront about that.

Look up the answers together using credible sources, she said. But make sure you provide the unvaccinated person an “out” so that the discussion doesn’t get heated. Anger, she said, just “shuts down conversation.”

“Keeping that open line of communication is incredibly important. You don’t want to close that dialogue down.”

Vohra-Miller recommends turning to the websites of government health bodies, such as the Public Health Agency of Canada, to familiarize yourself with the science before talking to vaccine-hesitant loved ones. 

Those from racialized communities may also want to seek out information tailored to their community, said Vohra-Miller, who is also co-founder of the South Asian Health Network. 

“Sometimes when these questions are coming from racialized communities, there is distrust with health care and government agencies,” she said. 

Younger people often complacent, not hesitant

When it comes to younger people, Vohra-Miller finds it’s not necessarily apprehension holding them back, but complacency. 

“Some of the younger folks feel that COVID is not a disease that would impact younger people as much,” she said.

But with the rise of the delta variant, the idea that young people aren’t severely impacted is no longer true.

“There are tons of young people who are in the hospitals these days. And every time I say this, I get a lot of people with their jaws on the floor because they just don’t know this information,” she said.

Positive framing as more effective

The threat of delta, as well as more potent or vaccine-resistant variants, is the biggest reason to strive for higher vaccination rates now, said Simon Bacon, a professor of medicine at Concordia University in Montreal and principal investigator with the International COVID-19 Awareness and Responses Evaluation (iCARE) study.

“Getting vaccinated not only protects the individual, but it also has a broader societal importance in slowing the spread of COVID and the potential of producing variants,” he said.

Simon Bacon, a professor of medicine at Concordia University, says it’s important to ask permission before offering loved ones scientific information about vaccine safety and efficacy. (submitted by Simon Bacon)

If you plan to speak with an unvaccinated friend or family member, Bacon said, it helps to find data to support the safety and efficacy of the vaccine beforehand. 

But he said it’s also important to ask permission to give them information about vaccination. 

“As soon as they say, ‘Yes,’ they become part of the conversation, rather than it just being forced upon them,” he said.

Bacon’s research has also shown that when it comes to encouraging people to engage in public health measures, framing is important. 

“It has to be framed much more in a positive perspective,” he said.”About what’s to gain rather than what there is to lose.”

He suggests asking loved ones to identify what the benefits of getting vaccinated would be, as well as the risks of not getting vaccinated.

“Try to steer the conversation toward them identifying in themselves why they should do it, and the pain they’re going to have if they don’t.”


Written and produced by Rachel Sanders.

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