Over the past weeks, the Emerging Scholars Network has been addressing the concerns a number of people have about receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines. Our previous posts have included an article provided by the Centers for Disease Control and two posts (Immunization is a Team Sport and Slowing Down to Build Trust) by our Science Corner writer, Andy Walsh. In both of Andy’s articles, he offers an invitation to virtual office hours on weekdays from 4-5 pm ET, if you’d like to discuss some of your questions more personally.
We are grateful for this article from Tiffany Lemon, relating her own experiences of talking with those concerned about vaccines and what she has found helpful. She wonderfully brings together her own experience, insights from current research, and how she continues to find strength and hope.
By Tiffany Lemon
The feeling of relief that hit me once my 60 year old parents received the Moderna vaccine was unlike anything I felt since early March of 2020. It was a strange relief–something that felt like removing a 25 pound backpack after forgetting it was there. It was an answer to a prayer I had whispered into silence, right above the frequencies of faith and hope. My parents’ vaccination, early in the pandemic, afforded me incredible hope that the world might be on its way to healing.
“I’m not getting that vaccine.” “Not so sure about the quick development.” “I will wait and see what happens.” In the weeks that followed the initial relief of my parent’s vaccination, I heard sentiments from close family members and friends who expressed everything from hesitancy to absolute rejection of the vaccine. Admittedly, I experienced a special mix of frustrations. As an infectious disease epidemiologist, I know the current science tells us that these vaccines are safe and effective. I also understand that vaccination is the tool that will prevent unnecessary deaths, evictions, and the disproportionate caregiver burden experienced by many women. As a follower of Christ, I see this vaccine as the answer to many months of crying out to God for relief.
When I talk to those who have rejected the vaccine or are vaccine hesitant, it has helped me to recognize that the reasons many individuals choose not to take the vaccine are rooted in concerns for safety and a lack of access to readily digestible information. Healthcare, and science broadly, has struggled with accessibility and communication, especially in addressing the needs and agency of populations. Some have taken advantage of these shortfalls and inserted false information and harmful narratives. This disconnect is exacerbated by political agendas that seek to twist facts for power and control. Communicating with others about the vaccine can be a treacherous exercise in 2021, but I believe that we can participate in the restorative work of God through humility, listening, and prayer.
It is important to understand that not everyone who expresses concern about the COVID-19 vaccine is anti-vaxx. In a recent Science editorial1, Larson and Broniatowski discuss the diversity of those considered vaccine hesitant. This group includes a range of people from those who are experiencing anxiety, to those with unanswered questions, to those whose communities have experienced harm at the hands of the medical establishment. There are also individuals who may be unable to receive the vaccine due to health conditions. The bottom line? Divorcing myself from a narrow vaccination agenda and adopting an agenda rooted in love and empathy for those in my community gets me closer to understanding the root issues and avoids perpetuating the stigma associated with questioning COVID-19 vaccination.
Active listening is a powerful approach to connection and relationship, which cultivates trust and capacity for diving into difficult conversations. This approach opens the door for dialogue and may allow for sharing factual information with a humility that normalizes the factual uncertainties of COVID-19 vaccination while highlighting the overwhelming benefit of inoculation for both oneself and one’s community.
For example, the recent pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine highlights the degree of uncertainty to be expected in medicine. This pause allows researchers to identify potential risk factors and underlying conditions for blood clotting and provides physicians with time to standardize a treatment response. The fact that this pause is happening after only six cases in nearly 7 million doses highlights the high priority of health and safety in vaccine rollout; however, misinformation will attempt to exploit these safety nets. Lack of acknowledgment of expected levels of uncertainty in medical treatments forfeits opportunities to discuss the many safety measures that are in place to protect the public’s health. For information and updates from reliable sources, I search the World Health Organization’s Vaccine Safety Net.
Lastly, and I believe most importantly, I am invited to pray about the accessibility and acceptability of the COVID-19 vaccine in our communities and around the globe. In doing so, I acknowledge the real spiritual barriers to bringing this pandemic to an end. I remember the rejoicing that came with the announcement of a vaccine; it was a reminder of the mercy and goodness of God amid intense suffering. As more people become vaccinated, every day more lives are being saved and more families and communities avoid experiencing compounding loss.
Still, we face incredible challenges to ending this pandemic. COVID-19 cases are rising in some regions of the U.S. Communities with low uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine may experience prolonged, elevated risk. Global inequities in vaccine access and distribution exacerbate pre-existing COVID-19 health disparities. Identifying people to pray with has been incredibly helpful for me during this pandemic. We gather on Zoom calls regularly to pray and ask God for relief. We mourn with each other, encourage each other, and remind each other of the power of God to address barriers to ending this pandemic and to give us uncommon love and understanding as we encourage our communities to get vaccinated. I pray with hope, not only for vaccine uptake but also for God to do infinitely more (Eph 3:20) even in the midst of suffering.
- Larson HJ, Broniatowski DA. Volatility of vaccine confidence. Science. 2021;371(6536):1289. doi:10.1126/science.abi6488
Tiffany Lemon is a native of Opelousas, Louisiana and a doctoral candidate studying epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Her research interests include studying the impacts of structural and psychosocial factors that drive HIV disease progression and health inequities among marginalized populations, including individuals living in the southeast US and those impacted by the criminal justice system. Tiffany also serves as a facilitator for Black Graduate Ministries and Black Scholars and Professionals Boston Women’s Group.