Combatting vaccine hesitancy in senior living staff members is as easy as listening, according to a senior adviser in the National Institutes of Health.

“If supervisors and organizations are going to be able to help staff overcome hesitancy and distrust, it must begin with listening, and creating and providing a safe and trusting environment that enables candid conversations, showing empathy and caring, and being honest and open,” George Mensah, M.D., division director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, said Wednesday during a LeadingAge membership call.

Mensah is a member of the Community Engagement Alliance (CEAL) Against COVID-19 Disparities. CEAL was established in July as an NIH effort to advance community engagement and outreach to ethnic and racial minority communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. 

CEAL provides help to state teams to work with trusted media outlets and community-based organizations and to host events to address misinformation and distrust surrounding vaccination. Listening, demonstrating empathy, promoting dialogue and providing trustworthy information are the keys to addressing staff regarding vaccination, Mensah said.

Legitimate reasons — including documented past research misdeeds, a lack of transparency, inadequate consent and explanation, and unethical conduct by the scientific community — exist for the mistrust that some employees have, he said.

Now, laws and policies are in place to protect research participants and individuals who volunteer for scientific efforts. Explaining those protections and enabling an environment in which employees can be candid about what is bothering them will go a long way in easing concerns, Mensah said.

How concerns are addressed also is key and may depend on the issue, he added. Hesitancy due to a belief that the vaccine is not safe, after all, is different from concerns about allergic reactions and side effects. 

When it comes to vaccination acceptance, Mensah said, only approximately 15% to 17% of Americans have said they definitely will not take the vaccine, whereas 20% to 30% said they definitely will. For those definitely against vaccination, Mensah cautioned employers not to be dismissive, but to listen and learn how to contextualize the approach for other groups.

The focus, he said, should be on that larger “movable middle” group of employees. Many in that middle group are taking a “wait and see” attitude. Sharing a trusted message from trusted voices, and making access to vaccines easy and convenient, can help shift them from the middle to ready to accept, Mensah said. 

“The whole purpose of forming the CEAL alliance was to address misinformation and mistrust,” he said. “I’m very optimistic most people will come around. We have to move at the speed of trust, not the speed of the pandemic. Rushing people may not be the right thing to do.”

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