Media has faltered in messaging for vaccine skeptics, medical experts say: 'They quit listening to you'

Doctors urge less focus on combating 'misinformation' and more on directly addressing people's concerns

As efforts intensify to vaccinate the tens of millions of Americans who are not inoculated against the coronavirus, mainstream media outlets and the Biden administration should focus less on fighting what they deem "misinformation" and more on speaking directly to the concerns of skeptics, medical experts tell Fox News.

The Biden administration has announced efforts to help Big Tech rein in what it considers false information about vaccines. Stories abound about vaccine conspiracy theorists and right-wing obstinancy, such as a 34-year-old whose death from COVID-19 after mocking the vaccines drew extensive media attention this month.

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That approach could cause those who could still be convinced to dig in their heels further though, says Fox News contributor Dr. Marc Siegel, who has consistently touted the protection vaccines provide to people and their communities.

"Fear permeates people's decisions, and it's not a rational decision," he said. "It's an emotional one, and the more you push people, the more emotional they get. So you actually got to start out by not saying, 'You're an idiot if you don't take this.' You've got to ask somebody, 'Why aren't you taking it? What's your reluctance?'"

It's critical now as the Delta variant causes a spike in cases, and more than 97 percent of those currrently hospitalized for COVID-19 are unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has drawn criticism for urging vaccinated people to wear masks again in certain situations, and many Americans fear the return of economically ruinous lockdowns, harmful school closings, and other pandemic consequences that had seemed to be in the rearview mirror.

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Siegel said it's about reaching patients in a personal way about one of the most personal decisions a person can make. Worried about fertility effects? Show proof that while the vaccines don't appear to cause issues, contracting COVID does. Concerned about a severe reaction to the vaccine? Note that widely trusted penicillin causes one about every 10,000 instances, far more often than a COVID vaccination. Already had COVID? You have some natural immunity, but the vaccine only boosts your protection.

Efforts by the Biden administration to stop vaccine "misinformation" in a time of ever-changing understanding of the virus was a fool's errand, Siegel argued. 

"If the science is evolving, how relevant is the term misinformation?" he asked.

President Joe Biden said Thursday that state and local governments should use coronavirus relief money to pay people $100 to get the shot. He also said employers who give their workers and their families time off to get the shot would be reimbursed accordingly. He struck a largely conciliatory tone during remarks on vaccines to the nation, one day after saying the unvaccinated weren't as "smart" as he thought.

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While anti-vaccine voices and some conservative vaccine skeptics have gotten the lion's share of attention, a broad swath of people have different reasons for why they're fearful of or outright refusing to get the shot.

"Though often seen as a conservative phenomenon, vaccine hesitancy and refusal occur across the political and cultural spectrum in the United States, and for a variety of reasons," the New York Times reported this week. "No single argument can address all of these concerns, and changing minds is often a slow, individualized process."

Pediatrician and public health advocate Dr. Rhea Boyd told The Atlantic in a recent interview headlined, "America Is Getting Unvaccinated People All Wrong" that those with deeply held concerns or fears were being lumped in with the loud anti-vax voices and condescended to accordingly. But rural and minority communities with low vaccination rates may have been poorly served by the nation's health care system and thus distrustful of the vaccines, or have issues accessing vital information to answer their questions.

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That's not always clear in how the media covers those not getting vaccinated. MSNBC’s Donnie Deutsch suggested it should be rebranded as the "Trump vaccine" to encourage his supporters to take it. CNN commentator Amanda Carpenter criticized unvaccinated people in a tweet Thursday, declaring it their fault that vaccinated people were again being encouraged by health officials to wear masks.

CNN anchor Don Lemon this month called people refusing to get vaccinated "idiotic and nonsensical." On Thursday, he whispered repeatedly, "Are you listening?" to viewers about the Delta variant and slammed "red states" for their vaccination numbers.

"Why do we have these hot spots? Because some people have a very misguided and unhealthy idea of what freedom really means," he said.

CNN's Chris Cuomo clashed with Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., after the congressman said he wouldn't get the vaccine, citing his previous contraction and recovery from the virus, but encouraged anyone concerned about the virus should get one if they wanted.

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During an interview on MSNBC last week, Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., seemed to amuse interviewer Garrett Haake when Cramer touted the vaccines but said those still weighing whether to get it could have "legitimate questions."

"What woud qualify as a legitimate question? I'm genuinely curious," Haake replied.

The same day, CBS aired a clip of correspondent David Begnaud interviewing hospitalized, unvaccinated Louisiana COVID patient Scott Roe, who still said he wouldn't get the vaccine, leading to this exchange.

"Don't shove it down my throat," Roe said. "That's what local, state, federal administration is trying to do – shove it down your throat."

"What are they shoving," Begnaud asked, "the science?"

Dr. Wes Ely, an intensive care physician in Nashville, Tenn., and author of "Every Deep-Drawn Breath," told Fox News "the number one thing to do is listen."

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"As soon as you start jamming stuff down somebody's throat, they quit listening to you because they think you're not listening to them," he said. "So what I found is just to be a person and say, 'I'm looking at you in the eyes,' I'm here for you, and I want to listen to what what's going on with you, and you tell me, please, what is it that's geting you afraid?' … Try and really understand it, put yourself in their place and then on an individual basis, address their individual fear."

Vaccinated people may have reason to be frustrated with those who haven't gotten their shots, but "we're all in this together," Ely said.

Vaccinations have ticked up slightly in recent days, but debates are raging about vaccine mandates for governnment employees and private businesses who are weighing requiring vaccinations or negative COVID tests. In these emotional times, anger and derision is not the answer, Ely said.

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"I really detest when people say things like ‘deplorables’ and they say they're just a bunch of dumb people and you can't fix stupid," he said. "These are good people. They're nice, generous, loving people for the most part … I do not support, ‘Come on, get on the bandwagon’ or go, 'OK, Darwinism is going to take over. You're going to or you're going to be culled from society.' I just think that's a really unkind way of doing this."

"You've got to find out what's in people's heads that's making them reluctant," Siegel said. "Nobody has the same story."

Fox News contributor Dr. Nicole Saphier relayed that she has had many people in her orbit who have expressed vaccination fears. While she was happy to show them data to assuage their various concerns, she also noted certain people should not "blindly" get the vaccine. 

"They should absolutely talk to their doctors about it," she said. "I think that every person should not be listening to social media or the TV about whether they decide to or not get this vaccine. It should be a 100-percent conversation between that person and their physician who knows them, knows their medical history."

In the end, though, doctors almost uniformly agree that vaccines have been and will be the ticket out of the pandemic; even in the recent surge of cases that have included some breakthrough COVID diagnoses, those who have been vaccinated are almost all protected against severe illness.

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"You don't want to shut down the conversation. You want to increase the conversation," Ely said. "And I think there's a lot to be said for that."

Fox News' Brian Flood contributed to this report.