Dr. Marc Siegel: Biden's COVID vaccine message – now he gets that bullying is wrong. But is it too late?

The humble, non-judgmental tone President Biden exhibited Wednesday was very appropriate

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When the Pfizer vaccine first rolled out in December, I filmed it arriving at NYU Langone Health for Fox News and a week later received it myself live on "Fox and Friends."

I thought then that physicians would have a big impact on overcoming vaccine hesitancy for a very safe vaccine that was far more effective than we’d anticipated, but I was only partly right. In fact, it is shocking to me, looking back seven months later, to see that half the country remains unvaccinated.

I and others pushed the vaccine at every opportunity. Sticking to the two-shot regimen as I suggested made more and more sense as the variants emerged, as did vaccinating teens and everyone who was eligible.

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Why haven’t we been more successful? For one thing, though I have addressed patients' fears and concerns one on one, I haven’t had the vaccine available to me in my office to give to my patients. I think this remains an oversight, based partly on the cold chain storage issues and partly because it comes in huge sleeves of vials too big for a small medical practice.

Another part of the problem, as President Biden pointed out during a CNN town hall Wednesday night, is longtime mistrust of the medical establishment by the Black community, leading to a deep rooted vaccine hesitancy that is difficult to overcome.

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The president also suggested that the highly transmissible delta variant, which  is currently rifling through the unvaccinated at a rate almost three times that of the original virus and leading to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths, will persuade people to get vaccinated who have been hesitating.

I don’t know if that is true or not, but one thing I do believe is that the humble, non-judgmental tone President Biden exhibited was finally very appropriate, hopefully not too little too late. 

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This was a different Biden than the one who refused to give credit for the incredible accomplishment of the previous administration’s Operation Warp Speed, a big mistake on his part. Wednesday night he took staged questions from Republicans in the audience, including one smiling pediatrician, and he seemed comfortable, though there were no confrontations. 

Biden wisely talked about community members or church leaders playing a role in encouraging the vaccine, and in perhaps his best moment, he discussed a teen being influenced by their friends taking the vaccine and boasting about a successful outcome.

Missing finally was all the shaming – we know what’s right and you better listen to us or else. The word "misinformation" was repeated but it didn’t receive the kind of attention the president had given it on previous occasions, including his attack on Facebook which he tried to explain away Wednesday.

Simply asserting that the vaccines are very safe and highly effective is not enough. 

I don’t tell the scientists what to do, he said, and it felt real. In fact, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler, and Dr. Anthony Fauci have all told me that they have had extended regular sessions with the president during which he simply listens to the evolving science.

Biden seemed calm in the face of the growing delta storm, a welcome contrast to the growing case and hospitalization numbers, and his lack of scolding or mandate-threatening was a welcome change. Will this translate to improving vaccine numbers? I don’t know.

What will help me the most is if I can get the syringe in my hand so that at the end of an extended conversation with a man who has never taken a flu shot and so is wavering about taking this one, or a woman who is trying to become pregnant and is too quick to believe the vaccine anti-fertility myths, that I can deliver them the shot myself.

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President Biden seems to be finally learning what I have known for several months now. Simply asserting that the vaccines are very safe and highly effective is not enough. You have to listen to people’s concerns and take them seriously, replying with calm information and context. 

Bullying never works, especially when it’s the government doing it.

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