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A New Focus Group Investigated How People Have Overcome Vaccine Hesitancy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The average daily pace of COVID vaccinations is slowing in the U.S., so how do you persuade the unvaccinated? NPR's Tamara Keith sat in on a focus group aimed at figuring out what will change their minds.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In March, Lauren from New Jersey wasn't ready to roll up her sleeve and get vaccinated for COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAUREN: It's just that I'm still skeptical. There's just not enough. It's just so new. It just - it's scary. I think I'm going to get there, I'm just not ready yet.

KEITH: Lauren was part of a focus group led by Republican pollster Frank Luntz. He's working with a public health foundation to develop messaging that appeals to people who are reluctant to get the vaccine. His latest focus group revisited people like Lauren, who ended up getting the shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK LUNTZ: Lauren, what's the precise moment when you decided you'd get vaccinated?

LAUREN: When we found out that we could go to a Yankee game if we're vaccinated, so my husband's like, we got to get vaccinated.

KEITH: The group, who gathered via Zoom, was diverse. There were conservatives and liberals, and at times, they openly bickered about politics. In the end though, what moved them were a series of personal calculations. Marie from New York took to heart an explanation she heard from former CDC director Tom Frieden, who walked through how the vaccines work, and her own doctor told her it was safe. Then she went about convincing her husband, whose friend recently died from COVID.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIE: I told him. I said, do you want to get sick like this? The alternative is better than this. I said, your parents got it, one of your closest friends got it and passed away. So he agreed.

KEITH: Brian from Texas had thought the risks from the virus were overhyped, but he came around to the vaccine anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN: I considered it, and I looked at the math. And then everybody at work decided to get it, to go ahead and get vaccinated. So at that point, I decided to go ahead and do it, too.

KEITH: For Rafael from California, it was about being able to return to group therapy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAFAEL: I just need to deal with my depression. I need to have some normalcy back to my life.

KEITH: So he pushed past his fears.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAFAEL: Being able to go to a Dodger game, being able to travel, you need to have the vaccination to do it. And for me, beating my depression was more important than my fear of the vaccine.

KEITH: Elizabeth from Pennsylvania said she still has lingering doubts about the safety of the vaccines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH: My fears about getting vaccinated are honestly still there, (laughter) and I have both doses, right? I'm still a little - I read articles and I think, oh, goodness, is there going to be something they discover? It's still here.

KEITH: She says the balance just tipped over time. The pros outweighed the cons. If there was one clear overriding message from this group, it came down to trust.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUNTZ: Victor from Michigan, I know you don't trust. Who do you trust when it comes to information on the vaccine?

VICTOR: My doctor.

LUNTZ: Why your doctor?

VICTOR: Because he is the one who knows all of my health issues.

KEITH: After several people said the same thing, Luntz turned to Shirley from Nevada.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUNTZ: You guys keep telling me about your doctor, your doctor, your doctor. Why is that so powerful for you?

SHIRLEY: Because that's who I trust.

KEITH: Dr. Brian Castrucci of the de Beaumont Foundation, which sponsored the focus groups, said his takeaway is health care providers are a key part of the next phase of getting more people vaccinated.

BRIAN CASTRUCCI: It needs to become a new vital sign. What's your height? What's your weight? Do you smoke? Have you been vaccinated against COVID? Every physician, every visit needs to ask that question.

KEITH: This reinforces what Biden administration officials have been saying. People who haven't gotten vaccinated yet don't want a lecture, but they do need their questions answered. Bechara Choucair is the White House vaccinations coordinator.

BECHARA CHOUCAIR: We know that physicians and nurses are such trusted messengers. And once they get the answers and once they get the facts, people change their mind and get ready to be vaccinated.

KEITH: One challenge, though, is actually getting vaccines into physicians' offices. It's something the Biden administration and others are working to address because when someone makes that decision, you don't want to have to tell them they need to find an appointment somewhere else.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "9 CARROTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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