Quick tips for making vaccine science understandable to non-scientists.

Guest post by Elisabeth Marnik, Ph.D.

It’s been more than a year since the world started shutting down in the wake of widespread COVID-19 cases. We are still living through a pandemic, but the United States is finally starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the emergency use approval of three COVID-19 vaccines. 

However, distrust in science and skepticism about the vaccines’ safety continue to pose a risk to herd immunity. As a scientist and a science communicator, I feel strongly that we need to be sources of sound and understandable scientific information, which led me to launch a science social media presence. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about how to make the science around vaccines understandable to non-scientists. Here are some tips I’ve learned to help make your conversations and interactions more productive. 

Focus on specific concerns and make the information understandable.

When deciding what to address, start with the common concerns you hear many people expressing and break them down one by one. These usually relate to safety, effectiveness, ingredients, and the unprecedented speed with which the vaccines were developed. You can also ask the people in your life what they’re worried about. Focus the information you share on those main topics and break them down into small segments. Then weave those pieces into conversations, social media posts, or other avenues. This prevents people from getting overwhelmed by a lot of new information all at once. 

Much of the vaccine information is complicated and confusing, so it’s very important to be careful in choosing the words you use to address these concerns. Avoid jargon. If it’s necessary, be sure to define it. Use stories and images to illustrate the points. The key here is to remember you’re talking to people without formal scientific training. It’s best to simplify and then add more information as they ask questions.

Remind people why the vaccines are safe. 

As mentioned above, one of the biggest concerns pertains to vaccine safety. Many worry that scientists skipped safety steps in order to make these vaccines so quickly. However, we know that is not true. Scientists were able to pivot and use the foundation of work done on SARS, MERS, and RNA therapies to produce these COVID-19 vaccines in record time. All phases of the trials still occurred but overlapped to save time. Many people do not realize this. 

It can also be helpful to contextualize the risks of getting vaccinated. Anything we do, including receiving a vaccine, has potential risks. However, the risks of vaccines are very low compared to the risks of many other things we do everyday, like driving or taking birth control pills. The risk is also much lower than the risk from COVID-19 itself. There being small risks does not make something unsafe. 

Emphasize why getting vaccinated is important. 

There are a few things to focus on when explaining why people should get vaccinated.

The first one is that it reduces the chances of infection and bad outcomes, such as hospitalization and death. That is important for decreasing the risk of COVID-19 and ensures that vaccinated people have the best chance for survival if they do contract the virus.

There is also increasing evidence that the vaccines reduce the likelihood of transmission and asymptomatic disease. Both of these things will help us protect others and help reduce overall cases. 

The final point is that we know that long COVID—now called post SARS-CoV-2 sequela—is a risk. It is a risk even in those with mild infection who are young and otherwise healthy. The impact of long COVID has been widely reported. I also put together a long COVID series on my science Instagram account. Getting vaccinated decreases a person’s risk of infection, so it also decreases their chances of developing long COVID. There are also some emerging hypotheses that vaccines help improve long COVID symptoms in those who have already been infected, but more data is needed. 

All of these things will combine to result in less overall infections and less burden of disease in those who do get infected after vaccination. This makes vaccines worthwhile, and it offers a strong argument against vaccine resistance. However, don’t forget to remind people that wearing a mask in public will still be important until more of the population is vaccinated!

Encourage people to get the first vaccine offered.

It’s very easy to get caught up in comparing the numbers for efficacy between the different vaccine types. It can be helpful to remind people that the vaccine trials were run at different times and in different places. Each trial also had a different way of defining symptomatic cases, so you can’t fairly compare their overall efficacy numbers to each other. The important thing is to stress that all three of the vaccines currently approved have been shown to be safe, protective against death, and effective at reducing your chances of getting infected. Also remind them that if they pass up a chance to receive a vaccine there is no guaranteeing when they’ll be offered the one they prefer. In the meantime, they will be fully vulnerable to a COVID-19 infection. Any vaccine is better than no vaccine, and while there may eventually be a time where people can choose, right now is not that time. 

Discussing these issues with people who distrust science and vaccines

Conversations around COVID-19 and vaccines can be very difficult sometimes. However, having these conversations with people you know can help reassure them and change their mind if they’re hesitant. The most important thing is to understand what is driving their concern. Are they part of a marginalized group who have been mistreated by the medical community? Did they hear that a friend had a bad vaccine reaction? Are they worried because they don’t understand how research or vaccines work? Most of the distrust and hesitancy is due to fear, misinformation, or bad past experiences. Some of these fears are based in truth, others are not. It’s critical to listen to the motivating emotion and then address it with compassion. Do not minimize their concern. Their emotions are valid, whether or not the scientific facts behind them are.

Most people just want to keep themselves and their family safe. There is a lot of scary information that is untrue but easily accessible. It is understandable that people are worried. It is our job, as scientists, to be able to address these fears in a way that is not dismissive or confusing. 

Once you understand the person’s concerns, you can present information to address them. But do this in a way that is compassionate and addresses the emotion behind their concern. Find areas of common ground and build from there. Most of these conversations take time and considerable effort, so know when you need a break and exit the conversation. You can always pick up at another time.

About the Author

Elisabeth Marnik

Elisabeth Marnik is an Assistant Professor at Husson University. Marnik is a member of the GSA’s Conference Childcare Committee and a past member and current advisor of the GSA Early Career Leadership Program’s Communication and Outreach Subcommittee.

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