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Letter to the Editor: Vaccine hesitancy needs to be met with empathy, not anger

<p>A CDC COVID-19 vaccination record card.</p>

A CDC COVID-19 vaccination record card.

This is a Letter to the Editor. Any views expressed belong solely to the author and are not representative of The Cluster or Mercer University.

As of Nov. 1, 67.3% of Georgians have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

This leaves over a quarter of our fellow Georgians unvaccinated. The natural follow-up to this statement is simply, "Why?" 

The human brain is an incredibly efficient machine. It naturally categorizes, groups and organizes as a way to make sense of the world. Ultimately, this leads to oversimplifying, otherwise complex, people, ideas and situations into a small, inflexible box. 

Jumping to conclusions and making assumptions is also an evolutionary tactic of the human brain. Rightfully so, one can assume walking into a tiger exhibit with a raw steak is dangerous. Similarly, we assume most functioning adults appreciate that if they place their hand on a flame — it burns!

Forward-thinking has bolstered human survival beyond the wildest dreams of our early cavemen and women ancestors. 

What does this have to do with COVID-19 vaccinations in 2021? 

These very cognitive mechanisms have also led us to group people based on vaccination status. There’s a general assumption that the remaining unvaccinated fall into two boxes: uneducated or "anti-vaxxer."

To keep things simple, may I suggest a third box? Vaccine hesitancy.

This box is for those that have questions, concerns, fear or maybe they are just downright confused due to information overload, leaving them in analysis paralysis. 

As a self-proclaimed fully-vaccinated, pro-vaccine, science-loving medical student I identified with this third box. I have read more CDC reports and Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson research documents than any one single human should. Even with a couple of years of medical school under my belt, I will be the first to admit that the more information I received, the more confused I was.

Is it fair to jump to the conclusion I am either uneducated or an anti-vaxxer when I am undoubtedly neither? 

I am fortunate to be surrounded by medical mentors and an understanding faculty that spent hours on end discussing my worries and simple curiosity. Most importantly, I felt heard and eventually comfortable, removing myself from the box of hesitancy and into the group of vaccinated.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for a majority of those that may fall into the third box. Is it fair or even practical for a 53-year-old blue-collar worker to be expected to read, digest and fully understand dense scientific documentation? 

When an unvaccinated person receives the comment, “Educate yourself,” what does that mean? There’s a loud implication that you are not educated, smart or at the standards worthy of conversating with the commentator. 

Is it the right call to belittle the remaining quarter of Georgia?

As we visit with friends and family this holiday season, I would like to challenge us all, including myself, to do the hardest possible task in a polarizing situation: listen. I challenge our brains to reach beyond the simple grouping and organization tactics that have carried us so far.

Maybe your loved one, best friend or neighbor is among the 25% that is waiting or still unsure of taking the vaccination step. Instead of jumping to conclusions, making assumptions or passing judgment, I invite us all to listen. Maybe you have just the right tone, demeanor or information they need to change their mind. 

It’s possible you are the only person in their inner circle that is vaccinated. You can share your experience, post-shot symptoms or demonstrate your continued confidence in the vaccine after receiving it yourself. You’re vaccinated, healthy and happy with your decision. There’s no better way to convince someone than to be the example yourself. 

Maybe they are just unsure. Try validating their emotions of uncertainty or anxiety. As someone with those exact feelings, I found it surprisingly challenging to find a listener that withheld judgment. Empathy and validation are two things that never hurt anyone; we can all agree on that.

The last two years have been full of isolation, fear, and divisiveness. I do not have a miracle solution to inoculate every person in the world, but I am certain that judgment and assumptions rarely vaccinated anyone. Extend some grace to your vaccine-hesitant friends. Remember, they too have traveled the rough COVID-19 road you have. They may just be taking the scenic route.

Stormy Orlin is a second-year non-traditional medical student at the Mercer University School of Medicine. She has previous career experience in building and launching software in the financial technology space. She is on the Student Council and a MUSM Ambassador. She aims to return to her community to serve her neighbors in the form of practicing compassionate healing and health guidance.

The Cluster welcomes Letter to the Editor submissions about any topic pertaining to the Mercer or Macon communitities. To submit a letter, email Editor-in-Chief Mary Helene Hall or Opinion Editor Ivia Rollins.


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