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The vaccinated are angry. That’s understandable but unproductive, experts say

Anger at people who won’t get COVID shots is understandable, health experts say, but unproductive — and might even make it harder to convince some to get the shots. 

Yaw Kesse gets a COVID-19 shot from Alexis Watts at Guaranteed Rate Field before the start of s White Sox-Toronto Blue Jays.
Yaw Kesse gets a COVID-19 shot from Alexis Watts at Guaranteed Rate Field before the start of s White Sox-Toronto Blue Jays.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

Masks are back, some hospitals are filling up again, and there’s little question who’s causing the latest resurgence of COVID-19.

Unvaccinated Americans are rapidly becoming sick from the ultra-contagious delta variant, and they often get extremely ill. More than 97% of people hospitalized for he coronavirus in mid-July were unvaccinated, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s a tragically predictable outcome, leading some to unload their frustrations on the unvaccinated. High levels of infections among unvaccinated people increase the risk to everyone, and headline after headline has documented the ensuing rage of the vaccinated. Unvaccinated Americans have been called ”arrogant,” “selfish” ”stupid,” ”idiots” and worse for refusing to get the shots.

Public health experts say such anger is understandable but unproductive. They worry that shaming and blaming the unvaccinated could backfire — entrenching their decision rather than persuading them to get the shots.

“If you’re going to call me an idiot … that isn’t encouragement,” says Stephanie McClure, an assistant professor of biocultural medical anthropology at the University of Alabama. “You usually don’t get anywhere by attacking people.”

Shaming and insulting people is ”not a very effective way to promote adoption of a behavior,” says McClure, who leads the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, team for CommuniVax, a national alliance advocating for historically underserved Black, Indigenous and Latino populations amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As a primary care physician, Dr. Marlene Millen shares the exhaustion of the vaccinated as cases rise.

“I’m tired, I’m burnt out,” Millen says. “Lately, I’ve gotten to the end of my rope.”

But pointing fingers doesn’t help, says Millen, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego. Shedoesn’t like the ”pandemic of the unvaccinated” moniker used by federal health authorities because it creates a gulf between vaccinated and unvaccinated.

Gleb Tsipursky, who has a doctorate in the history of behavioral science, also doesn’t like the term.

“You’re fixing them into these groups,” says Tsipursky, who is chief executive officer of Disaster Avoidance Experts and wrote a book about the risks of returning to the office amid a pandemic.

Though some Americans are actively anti-vaccine, many who haven’t gotten the shots are held back by factors that can be addressed, says Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health.

In an opinion piece for The Daily News in Newburyport, Massachusetts, McClure wrote that the term “vaccine hesitancy” can lump together the complex reasons some people haven’t gotten vaccinated. She says many people are afraid, misinformed or mistrustful of authorities.

McClure’s conversations with unvaccinated people have revealed some have misperceptions that can be corrected if someone takes the time to listen.

African Americans have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and feel the U.S. healthcare system doesn’t treat Blacks and whites equally, McClure says, which fuels mistrust. But insults, she says, are “not going to motivate you to think differently.”

She worries the frustration she sees among the vaccinated could be a precursor to dismissiveness, a sense of: “We might as well not try.”

“Then, people just stay in their camps,” she says.

Tsipursky says all major demographics of unvaccinated people don’t respond well to authorities telling them what to do. Blame and insults are particularly counterproductive when dealing with people who might see the vaccine as a political issue, he says. That tone creates a defensive response in which they are likely “lash out against authority,” he says — even if it puts them at a greater risk.

Tsipursky prefers positive language: Vaccinated people are doing their civic duty; they’re patriots; they’re protecting their families.

Millen says family members can make a big difference. It’s especially effective to limit in-person gatherings with unvaccinated family until they get the shots, she says.

She hopes Americans will have patience with one another, especially amid the deluge of news about the delta variant.

“I have a medical degree,” she says, “and I’m having trouble keeping up.”

Millen doesn’t want a simple message to get lost in that noise, which is: “The vaccines are working to prevent hospitalizations.”

Read more at USA Today.