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‘Avoiding that lens of shame’: Medical experts weigh in on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

After Ottawa Critical Care and Palliative Physician Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng received his COVID-19 vaccine in January he shared a picture on Twitter.

“Having a bit of a public image, I thought this is a great way to promote why I believe in the science, why I think it’s safe, why I think this is our future and the way out of this pandemic,” he said.

Kyeremanteng also wanted others who look like him to see his relief and excitement at getting vaccinated.

“We’ve been hit the hardest … the data was very clear in the States … and in Canada that racialized communities were hit the hardest when it came to not only contracting COVID, but also dying from COVID. And so to me, it was just another driver of why we really need to get our community vaccinated and really address it head on, ” he said.

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Prior to this latest stay-at-home order, Kyeremanteng went to a barber shop where he was handed a pamphlet questioning the validity of COVID-19 vaccines.

He said he was shocked and took the time to discuss it.

“It’s been quite confusing … when you look at the numbers, when it comes to the effectiveness or efficacy of the vaccine,” he said. “When you look at the studies, over 100,000 participants and only one was hospitalized. That’s the most important data point period and somehow we’ve lost that messaging.“

The best way, and the only way, to combat vaccine hesitancy, Kyeremanteng said, is with kindness and empathy.

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“Patience, compassion, empathy, education, consistent, clear messaging to our public and to our colleagues and we’ll get through it and I’ve seen people’s eyes open once we take the time,” he said.

Bottom line, according to Kyeremanteng, is that it’s important that people are “avoiding that lens of shame” when addressing vaccine hesitancy.

This week in a GTA ICU, Dr. Alex Patel treated three patients who acknowledged they could have been vaccinated but were not.

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“One of the standard questions we ask is, ‘Have you had the vaccine?’ And in almost all cases, the answer is no. And in this case, all three family members said on their own, because I wouldn’t push them, that they had actually had a chance to get the vaccine but hadn’t gotten it. And you could certainly sense the regret when they said that,” he said.

Patel explained one of the patients would have qualified based on age, the other two would have been eligible based on their profession, and that had all three of them gotten their first dose, they likely would not have ended up with such severe cases of COVID-19.

“I feel almost like this is preventable at this point … And you add that on to an already overburdened ICU where we don’t have enough beds … And you start to think that if we can avoid some of these cases, then those who truly can’t get the vaccine, for instance, and wind up getting sick, we have more resources to care for them as opposed to those that could have prevented getting sick,” he said.

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Patel wanted to share a message for those who are expressing concern or fear “of the side effects, in particular the blood clots.”

He said the risk is low and he hopes people will consider the greater risk of ending up in the ICU.

“I think when people are sitting there deciding if they should get the vaccine, they have to think about what would happen if they ended up in an ICU on a ventilator versus take the vaccine and hopefully avoid that.”

Infectious diseases physician Dr. Zain Chagla said there are a variety of reasons why people are expressing hesitation about getting the vaccine.

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“People have fervent fixed beliefs that they’re changing their DNA. People feel like the vaccinations have come out very rushed, that we don’t know about long-term side effects and obviously the stuff that we’ve heard about AstraZeneca,” he said.

“The reality is the networks that reach the average individual aren’t the traditional press, aren’t social media, aren’t the traditional means. They’re the families, friends, caregivers, religious communities, community leaders that are often the point of entry for those conversations around vaccine hesitancy and so those are the people, we, as professionals, need to start reaching to actually get other people vaccinated,” added Chagla.

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