A nurse holding a needle containing COVID-19 vaccine prepares to inject a patient.

About six million eligible Canadians remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, and productive conversations about vaccine safety and efficacy with unvaccinated loved ones can be challenging without appropriate resources.

A national initiative launched today aims to change that.

Described as a program that teaches Canadians how to talk about vaccines with groups of people in their communities, the Vaccine Conversations workshop is a free resource available to all Canadians. It’s being offered by COVID-19 Resources Canada, an organization primarily run by volunteers and funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

“It’s not that I think there’s some conspiracy theory with the COVID-19 vaccine itself, it’s just that I am worried about the effect it might have on me personally,” an unvaccinated 18-year-old told the Halifax Examiner.

They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being ostracized.

“Also, I don’t like how it seems to have turned into something that has become highly politicized. I’m just not sure about it so I’m avoiding it.”

COVID-19 Resources Canada co-founder Tara Moriarty is an infectious diseases researcher and an associate professor at the University of Toronto. Moriarty said this is a common situation, noting that every day those involved in vaccine outreach work, meet, and speak with many people who remain unvaccinated because they’re afraid.

A smiling researcher with trees in the background.
Dr. Tara Moriarty, infectious diseases researcher, associate professor at the University of Toronto and co-founder of COVID-19 Resources Canada. Photo: Contributed

“It’s not because they’re dead set against them. There is a substantial amount of fear…I think most of us know from our own personal lives that there are quite a few people who still really need a lot of support,” Moriarty said in an interview late Monday afternoon.

She said they’re not trying to reach the five to 10% of those determined to never get the COVID-19 vaccine. Instead, they want to focus on people who are unsure, hesitant, or afraid.

‘It’s never too late’

“We’re trying to make sure that that the door is being left open and that people feel like it’s never too late to have these conversations or to change their minds, and you’re not going to do that by arguing,” Moriarty explained.

“You’re going to do that by saying ‘I’m always here for you, I care about you, and I’m here to help you and get you information that you may need.’”

Moriarty said research shows that friends and family have much greater influence on people’s vaccination decisions than health care providers and scientists. She said many vaccinated Canadians are struggling and worrying about family members, friends, or those in their broader communities who remain unvaccinated.

They want to help people learn how to have these conversations.

“We want them to learn how to do it in a way that allows the person to feel like they’re being heard and where you can provide support to them and information if they want it,” she said.

Moriarty said people often express concern about understanding the vaccine science or not having a place to go to fact check information. She believes that’s where Vaccine Conversations can help.

“We know that one-on-one or small group conversations are more effective for reaching people. People need to be able to talk, they need to be able to be heard,” she said.

“But there aren’t enough scientists and experts in the country to be able to have those one-on-one conversations with everyone, even if we did it all full time.”

The initiative also provides ongoing support for people trying to have these conversations and give them an opportunity to share their concerns and successful strategies with others.

‘A lot of polarization’

Moriarty said she became increasingly concerned about the need for such a resource as general public opinion and frustration with people who are unvaccinated began growing this summer.

“You really started seeing a lot of polarization where people who are vaccinated were very frustrated with people who weren’t and being quite judgmental about it in many cases,” she said.

“I strongly believe in vaccines. I believe they’re really important. But from all of the evidence, blaming and shaming people does not work. In fact, it makes it even harder for people to change their minds and it isolates them.”

Moriarty said it’s not only a pandemic-related issue, noting it’s problematic for everyone if we begin seeing “a fraying of social cohesion” and can no longer find common ground.

“The pandemic’s not going to end right away. We still have a long way to go and we have to in some ways rebuild our communities and our relationships with each other, even within our own families and friends,” she said.

That’s why she wants to help those trying to ensure others get vaccinated by giving them up-to-date, relevant, science-based information and resources focused on how to best achieve that goal.

“The most effective way is not to be judgmental and not to have those on-the-mat arguments about things because they just don’t work, and they (also harm) people,” she said.

Registration for Vaccine Conversations (register here) opens today in both English and French. People can sign up for workshops, join drop-in vaccine question-and-answer sessions, and access ongoing drop-in support resources.

Organizations and community groups of 20 or more people wanting them to host vaccine question-and-answer sessions or workshops in up to 20 languages can also reach out to COVID-19 Resources Canada.

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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