PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) — Advice from healthcare experts has been consistent: get the COVID-19 vaccine yourself, then talk with unvaccinated friends and family about getting it, too. Having those conversations can be difficult, though, so local healthcare professionals offered some advice.

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Initiating the conversation

The way one approaches the conversation about getting vaccinated can influence its outcomes, experts warn. Dr. Ami DeWaters, internal medicine physician at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, recommends starting the discussion with the goal of listening and understanding one another better.

“I think if that’s your goal, then you’re going to initiate the conversation by saying, ‘I want to talk to you about vaccinations, and the reason I do is because I really care about you and I’m really concerned about you, but I want to hear from you first,'” DeWaters said.

Dr. Joseph Kontra, chief of infectious diseases at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, said he usually starts this kind of discussion by asking individuals about their specific concerns. They may be deterred by misinformation or potential side effects, and he can discuss those worries with them.

If someone comes right out of the gate spitting facts about the vaccines to try to convince a loved one to roll up their sleeve for the shot immediately, DeWaters says the conversation likely won’t be a productive one. Instead, she encourages individuals to try to understand one another’s feelings and make emotional connections.

DeWaters appealed to community members’ empathy at a recent school board meeting while discussing vaccinations.

“Our health system providers are incredible,” DeWaters said. “It would be such an amazing act of empathy for the community to say, ‘We want to help those healthcare providers, too, and the easiest way to help those healthcare providers is to get a vaccine that’s going to prevent severe illness so that we don’t go into the hospital so that they can get a little bit of a reprieve.'”

Validating someone’s emotions is different from validating misinformation, though, and that’s where facts can come in handy — facts like millions of people have received the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. with very minimal negative impacts, or unvaccinated people can more easily spread the coronavirus to loved ones, Dr. John Goldman, infectious disease specialist at UPMC, said.

Facts to remember about COVID-19 vaccines

The Pfizer vaccine has received full FDA approval for individuals 16 and older.

Many individuals cited the COVID-19 vaccines’ lack of full FDA approval for their hesitancy (until recently, the shots were all being doled out under an emergency use authorization). At the end of August, the Pfizer vaccine received full approval for distribution to people ages 16 and older. Moderna is expected to follow along in the near future.

Lots of people have already received the vaccines, which means experts have a lot of data about them.

More than 170 million people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in the United States, and more than 350 million doses of the COVID-19 shots have been administered, Kontra said.

Due to the magnitude of the pandemic and the pandemic response, the COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed very widely very quickly compared to other shots, Kontra explained, which means there is a plethora of safety and efficacy data about the vaccines available.

“We have lots of safety data. It is very safe. It is effective. And in terms of side effects, the [serious] side effects are surprisingly rare,” Kontra said.

DeWaters noted that the vaccines have only been around for about eight months, so long-term data isn’t available at this time, but a lot is known about the short-term effects of the vaccines.

Getting vaccinated is a personal decision, but an individual’s choice can affect other people.

The COVID-19 vaccines prevent severe illness and hospitalization due to the coronavirus, but experts note that they can also help mitigate the spread of the virus and prevent individuals from getting others sick.

Vaccinated individuals can still infect others with COVID-19, but they are less likely to spread the disease than unvaccinated individuals, Goldman said. “At their peak of infectivity, they’re just as infectious as someone who has not been vaccinated, but the levels of virus decline much more rapidly, so they’re infective for a much shorter period of time,” Goldman explained.

Or to put it more simply, “Even though people who are vaccinated can transmit the disease, they are less likely to because they are vaccinated,” Goldman said. Couple that with the fact that vaccinated individuals are less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19, and the vaccines can be a powerful tool for fighting the pandemic.

“The vaccine isn’t just for you; it’s for all the people that you come in contact with. It’s for all the people that you run across going grocery shopping and elsewhere. It’s for your elderly parents and grandparents and the people that they come in contact with,” Kontra said.

Goldman said that his great-grandfather died in the flu epidemic of 1918 after being infected by a family member. That family member never forgave herself, Goldman said, and his grandmother never forgave her either.

“One of the things that I think people have to understand is it’s a purely personal choice whether or not you get the vaccine, but your purely personal choice can affect other people,” Goldman reiterated.

DeWaters also noted that getting vaccinated can help lighten the burden for healthcare workers by decreasing the number of people in the hospital with severe cases of COVID-19.

One’s risk of dying from COVID-19 is greater than the risk of having a severe reaction to the vaccines…

…is a point Goldman emphasized. He said considering the risks of the virus versus the vaccines might help individuals who are on the fence about getting vaccinated.

According to numbers from Statista, there have been approximately 39,110,086 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. as of Aug. 31, and 637,385 Americans have died from the virus. That means that 1.6% of people who contract COVID-19 die from it in the United States.

The CDC reports that some of the more severe side effects people have experienced from the COVID-19 vaccines include anaphylaxis (which is treatable), blood clots, or myocarditis.

About 2-5 people out of every million vaccinated experience anaphylaxis, according to the CDC. That’s 0.0002-0.0005% of those who receive the shot.

Forty-four people, or about 0.0003% of individuals who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, developed blood clots after getting the J&J shot, according to the CDC.

There have been 778 confirmed cases of myocarditis or pericarditis after individuals ages 30 and younger received the COVID-19 vaccines. Most were reported after they got mRNA vaccines, which include the Pfizer and Moderna shots, the CDC reports. That means it occurs after about 0.0002% of shots.

At this point, more people in the U.S. have been vaccinated (over 170 million people are fully vaccinated, according to Kontra) than have contracted COVID-19 (around 39 million people according to Statista).

Vaccinating young people is an important aspect of addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been able to vaccinate and get approved vaccinations for children, which is actually difficult to do, especially in this country,” DeWaters said. “The FDA takes that very seriously. They’re not going to approve these vaccinations for children unless they really feel convinced that they’re safe.”

The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for youth ages 12-15. Other COVID-19 vaccines are also being studied for use in children. Although they don’t typically experience the most severe complications of COVID-19, kids can get COVID-19, they can die from it, and they can spread it to others like immunocompromised family members, Kontra noted.

“We often vaccinate the kids…to protect your family,” Goldman said.

Additionally, Goldman noted that “more children have died from COVID than typically die from the flu,” although it’s still a fairly small number.

Most people in the hospital now with COVID-19 are younger — in their 20s and 30s — Kontra said. This is partly because older age groups were vaccinated first, Kontra said, but it shows that anyone can contract and suffer from the coronavirus.

Addressing concerns and misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines

Misleading: Around 7,000 people have died after getting the COVID-19 shot.

Clarification: The CDC monitors all reports of death after individuals receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Around 7,000 people, or 0.0019% of those who receive a shot, have died after getting the vaccine. However, this number does not necessarily reflect a causal relationship between the vaccine and the deaths that occurred after it was given.

“That statistic comes out of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, and in fact, it’s a great example of misinformation, because those are people who died at some point, from some cause, after receiving the vaccine,” Goldman said.

Goldman offered the following example for clarification: “If you leave the vaccination center, and you are run over by a bus, you are counted in that group.”

In other words, people who die for any reason at any point after receiving the vaccine are counted by VAERS, regardless of the cause. Since the vaccines were given to elderly and immunocompromised individuals first, it can be expected that some of them would pass away from natural causes unrelated to the shots, Kontra explained.

“The CDC very, very carefully tracks all side effects, all symptoms that occur after getting a COVID-19 vaccine, and that includes deaths. It is true that people have died after getting the COVID vaccine, but the CDC investigates those, and with the exception of the clotting problem with the J&J vaccine, there really haven’t been any significant number of deaths from the vaccine itself,” Kontra said.

Misinformation: The COVID-19 vaccine negatively affects fertility or pregnancy.

Facts: Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines do not affect fertility or pregnancy.

“COVID-19 vaccines do not affect your fertility at all,” Kontra said, and in fact, several medical organizations, including the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the CDC urge pregnant women to get the vaccine.

A CDC analysis found that the risk of miscarriage for individuals who received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines was no higher than than the risk for unvaccinated pregnant individuals. The vaccine can also help prevent COVID-19 cases as the delta variant surges.

However, Kontra said, “If you get COVID while you’re pregnant, your maternal mortality is 20-fold higher, and the risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth are much, much higher than they would be normally.”

The CDC’s advice to get vaccinated also applies to nursing parents and those planning to get pregnant.