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'Shame does not change minds': Why addressing vaccine hesitancy requires open conversations

KGW's vaccine team interviewed experts about who is vaccine hesitant and how to reach them.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Vaccine hesitancy continues to be the biggest stumbling block to herd immunity in the U.S. when enough people are resistant to the coronavirus and it has nowhere to go.

The Center for Disease Control estimates vaccine hesitancy in every county, in every state using U.S. Census Data and survey results. 

According to the CDC, 14% of people living in Portland's metro counties probably or definitely won't get the COVID vaccine.  

In Washington, Clark County is at 12% and Cowlitz and Skamania counties are at 14%.

There are other signs demand for the vaccine may be slowing down.

KGW's Vaccine team found more than 800 open appointments at the state fairgrounds last week and parts of Oregon, including Grant County, are administering fewer shots daily than just a few weeks ago, even as cases are increasing. 

“I think the first and most important goal is to increase confidence in the vaccine,” said Dr. Rishi Goyal, a Columbia University Professor leading a project on vaccine hesitancy.

WATCH: Vaccine Hesitancy: You can’t answer a feeling with a fact 

Dr. Goyal said it’s important not to lump vaccine-hesitant people together based on demographics, race, or ethnicity.

“What does a California suburbanite mom, a recent Russian immigrant, and a black, urban male have in common? They're all vaccine-hesitant. You know, we're finding that vaccine hesitancy is this phenomenon that cuts across all these demographic boundaries,” said Dr. Goyal.

Columbia researchers are scraping hundreds of millions of online posts to determine why people are hesitant and how to reach them.

“We are able to kind of scrape language from all these sites, Reddit, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook. We use digital tools, artificial intelligence, topic modeling, metaphor detection to find patterns in this language and we create what are common word clouds or keywords,” said Dr. Goyal.

RELATED: COVID vaccine: Here's where to get it in Oregon and Washington

RELATED: Who is refusing the COVID vaccine in Oregon?

The most common reasons people say they're hesitant to get the COVID vaccine are safety concerns, mistrust in institutions, people who only believe in natural healing, medical freedom groups, and conspiracy theories.

“We're using that same language to generate pro-vaccine messaging that will come up whenever people do specific kinds of searches,” said Dr. Goyal.

Dr. Goyal said whatever the reason, shaming someone is not the way to change their mind.

“We really take seriously the idea that we respect the kind of reasons that people are hesitant, even if we don't agree with them.”

Giving someone the space to have questions or voice their concerns is one of the main goals of Boost Oregon, a non-profit dedicated to helping families make decisions about vaccines based on science.

“Shame does not change minds. It doesn't push the conversation further. Instead it pushes the person away. And what happens often is that person will then find their silo of people who think like them and dig in deeper into the misinformation and buy into it,” said Boost Oregon founder Nadine Gartner.

Boost Oregon holds seminars and virtual workshops where people can ask questions about the COVID vaccine to a doctor without judgment.

Gartner suggests taking the same approach when dealing with a friend or family member in your own life who may come to you with concerns about the vaccine.

“People are coming to you feeling fearful or anxious or worried, and you can't answer a feeling with a fact, you have to answer a feeling with a feeling. You know, as a provider, I want you to have a healthy and long life. As your daughter, I want to make sure that you can hug your grandkids again.”

Were you vaccine-hesitant? Did you help a vaccine-hesitant friend or family member feel more confident in getting the vaccine? Email us at CallCristin@kgw.com for an up-coming story.