Long Islanders have been barraged with months of pleading by public health officials and politicians to get vaccinated against COVID-19. They’ve seen COVID-related deaths and hospitalizations surge in recent weeks amid the spread of the delta variant. And some could lose their jobs if they don’t get vaccinated.
Yet nearly 350,000 people on the Island who are eligible for the shot — more than 14% of those 12 and older — remain unvaccinated.
What to know
Nearly 350,000 Long Islanders 12 and older who are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine remain unvaccinated, state Health Department data shows.
Experts say advice from a trusted person usually is more effective than scientific data in persuading a vaccine-hesitant person to get the shot, or in persuading a parent to get their child vaccinated.
Appealing to people’s emotions also is typically more effective than data, one public health psychologist said. Parents, for example, should be told that there’s a risk their child will die if they don’t get the vaccine. At least 480 kids nationwide have died of COVID-19.
Experts say vaccine mandates have pushed some to get inoculated. But, they said, people have distinct reasons for not getting the shot, and persuading other holdouts takes going beyond the vaccination campaigns aimed at the general public.
"At this point we definitely need to do a more targeted approach," said Martine Hackett, an associate professor of health professions at Hofstra University in Hempstead. "We reached who we could with a broader appeal."
In Nassau County, just under 70.0% of the entire population is fully vaccinated, state data shows. Suffolk County, where 63.5% of the population is fully vaccinated, also is above the statewide rate of 61.7%
The vaccination rates vary greatly by age, race and community.
Islandwide, more than 99% of those 65 to 74 have been inoculated, but the number drops to below 78% for those 16 to 34, and to 58% for kids ages 12 to 15. Wealthier communities tend to have higher vaccination rates than poorer ones, and Black people are less likely to be vaccinated than white, Latino and Asian residents.
Hackett said there should be renewed efforts to zero in on communities with lower vaccination rates, using trusted people in those communities to convey the importance of getting vaccinated.
Robert Fullilove, associate dean for community and minority affairs at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, said advice from a trusted person typically is more effective than data.
"What we’re seeing is that with people who were initially hesitant and then decided to go ahead and get vaccinated, somebody who was trusted had a very significant role to play in changing that person’s mind," he said.
A barrier in persuading Black residents to get inoculated is widespread distrust of the government and the medical system, Fullilove said.
"The first thing we do is acknowledge people have a legitimate reason historically to have that level of mistrust," he said.
Then a trusted person — such as, for some, a church pastor — can talk about vaccinations, Fullilove said.
Anyone who is vaccinated can be critical in swaying their family and friends, he said. They can leverage trust that’s been built up over years, as well as talk about how they benefited from the vaccine with no serious negative effects. And they can emphasize how getting vaccinated helps protect vulnerable family members and friends.
'People don’t trust numbers, statistics or raw data'
A similar strategy can help persuade parents unsure about whether to get their children vaccinated, he said.
"People don’t trust numbers, statistics or raw data. But they do trust something they can see and that they’ve experienced directly: ‘Hey, it’s been a couple of weeks [after vaccination], and the kid’s fine, you’re fine, maybe I’ll’ " get vaccinated and get my child inoculated, Fullilove said, playing the part of a vaccine-hesitant parent.
Currently, only kids 12 and older can receive COVID-19 vaccines, although Pfizer-BioNTech announced Sept. 20 that studies show its vaccine is highly effective and safe with children 5 to 11. Pfizer-BioNTech said it would apply for federal authorization in that age group.
Dr. K.C. Rondello, an epidemiologist at Adelphi University in Garden City, urged parents hesitant to vaccinate their children to talk to their pediatricians rather than, for example, rely on what they read on social media, which often contains false or misleading information.
"When they do that, they will find there’s near universal agreement that in almost all cases the best way to protect your children is through the vaccine," he said.
One problem is the widespread — but incorrect — perception that children who contract the virus don’t get seriously ill from it, he said.
Children are less likely to get severe COVID-19 than older adults, data shows. But as of Sept. 16, at least 480 children nationwide had died of COVID-19, and more than 21,000 had been hospitalized, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The hospitalization data includes only 24 states, and the death data doesn’t include five, the academy said.
Speaking 'to people's humanity'
Perry Halkitis, a public health psychologist and dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey, said going beyond the numbers and appealing directly to parents’ concern for their kids can be effective.
"You want to use some emotion and passion: ‘You don’t want your child to die,’ " he said.
One problem is that doctors and scientists who appear on television or in social media news feeds often speak in dry, scientific language, he said.
"You have to do it in a way that speaks to people’s humanity, that speaks at the level of the people you’re talking to, and not from a place of authority and not in a condescending way, and that uses everyday, simple language so that you become accessible to people," Halkitis said.
Also, for some people, access and availability is an issue, Hackett said. Making it as convenient as possible to get vaccinated, such as through the Nassau County program that brings vaccines to workplaces, can boost vaccination rates, she said.
Rondello said the steady rate of people getting vaccinated — nearly 200,000 got their first dose statewide within the past week — shows that a combination of people on their own becoming convinced of the benefits of vaccination, and being pushed to do so by current and upcoming vaccine mandates, is working.
A state mandate that hospital and nursing home employees get vaccinated or face the possible loss of their jobs goes into effect Monday. And the federal mandate that would affect the most people — that any U.S. employer with 100 or more employees require either vaccination or weekly testing — has not even gone into effect, he noted. That date has not yet been determined.
Many may at first choose the testing option, but some may realize it’s easier to get vaccinated, Rondello said.
"In the carrot and stick analogy, carrots only get you so far," Rondello said. "There are many who believe we will not get to where we need to be unless we start employing some sticks. The vaccine mandates fall into this category."