'I'm not anti-vax': Experts explain why people who haven't been inoculated against COVID-19 are clarifying their decisions

·6 min read

To date, just 63 percent of adults in the U.S. are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But that still leaves a sizable portion of the unvaccinated population. Some who have resisted getting the vaccine are now speaking out, and a common theme is emerging from their narratives. 

Twitter is filled with comments from people who say, "I'm not anti-vax ... but..." Here are just a few examples:

TikTok star Alexandra Blankenbiller, who died from COVID-19 in late August, used the phrase in a video from her hospital bed while explaining why she didn't get the COVID-19 vaccine. "I'm not anti-vax," she said. "I was just trying to do my research. I was scared." Blankenbiller, who encouraged other people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, died of the virus days after sharing her TikTok. 

This phrase comes up constantly among people who choose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine — but why do they make a point to insist that they're not anti-vax? Experts say a lot has to do with the connotations the phrase "anti-vax" carries. 

"For many people, the term 'anti-vax' has a highly negative connotation and carries substantial stigma in our society," Kaston D. Anderson-Carpenter, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life. "Some, perhaps many, individuals who refuse to receive the COVID-19 vaccine believe in the science of vaccinations. In fact, they may have received vaccines and ensured their children or loved ones received vaccines. But because of the misinformation and anti-information promoted by some social and media outlets, it can be challenging for some people to discern between reputable versus misinformation."

Thea Gallagher, a Philadelphia-area psychologist and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, agrees. "They're saying, 'I do believe in immunizations and other vaccines, but maybe I would like a little more information on this one,'" she tells Yahoo Life. "Sadly, you hear people say, 'I didn't know or think about vaccine until it impacted me in a personal way.' I'm hoping, for many people, it doesn't have to be that way."

There is also a social stigma against people who choose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Anderson-Carpenter says. "Although current efforts to increase vaccination rates are in place for everyone’s health and well-being, the social consequences for not receiving the vaccine — regardless of the reason — are substantial," he says. "The stigma is further amplified when society engages in out-group homogeneity — that is, when society views them as one homogenous group (for example, as 'anti-vax')."

People may be trying to preempt judgment when they disclose or allude to their vaccination status, Gallagher says. "They may be saying that they're not against the COVID-19 vaccine forever, but they're still trying to get more information on the topic or are neutral about it," she says. "They may want people to know that they're not trying to make a stand against vaccines in general."

A growing number of people on social media are also sharing their stories of getting the COVID-19 vaccine after originally deciding against it. "I used to be 'anti vax' (or 'vaccine hesitant')," one woman wrote alongside a photo of her arm with a Walgreens bandage on it. "Ever since becoming pregnant, I started to read and hear all these horrible things about vaccines and it made me fearful. So I refused to give them to my kids, but then COVID happened and at first I was like nope, no way will I get this shot. But I also saw that it seemed to be the only real solution."

She shared that she started following some epidemiologists and doctors on Instagram and eventually decided to get the COVID-19 vaccine. "And yes, it made me question ALL vaccines and my previous views on them," she said. "But again, this post isn't me trying to change your mind. It's just a reminder that if you do, that's ok."

TikTokker @CrawfordCrew1216 shared in a video that she was getting her COVID-19 vaccine and was scared. "I was pretty deep in anti-vax worlds, and so I'm trying to work myself out of that," she said. She later shared that she got her vaccine to help protect her kids, and that inspired some of her family members to do the same.

If you have a person in your life who is refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Gallagher recommends taking stock of the situation before speaking up, if you do at all. "If people are truly curious and you have the clout or information and want to talk about it, there could be a place for a conversation," she says. "But for people who have dug their heels in about this position, it may not be worthwhile for your relationship if it's going to create discord."

If you do decide to have a conversation about the vaccines with someone who is vaccine-hesitant, Anderson-Carpenter recommends that you meet them with compassion, and not judgment. "Approaching them with judgment and scorn gives the impression of arrogance, particularly when we do not take the time to understand why they are hesitant to receive the vaccine," he says. "Often, if we remove our own projections and listen to their stories, we might find points of intervention that would allow us to encourage those individuals to get vaccinated in ways that leave them empowered to take control over their health, contribute to the larger community’s health and help eliminate COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths."

But, if you find that the vaccine-hesitant person in your life insists on myths like the government microchipping people with the vaccine, Gallagher recommends ending the conversation. "Just say, 'We clearly won't find a reasonable common ground here' and leave it at that," she says. 

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