Medical anthropologist continues education efforts on COVID-19 vaccine, emphasizes sizable undecided group

During a relentless pandemic when COVID-19 vaccination views can seem starkly binary into pro and anti camps, Kristin Hedges, a GVSU medical anthropologist, maintains there is a significant middle part of the population still undecided about vaccines.

That is why Hedges, associate professor of anthropology, is still dedicated to her longtime efforts to educate the public on vaccine confidence, even as some of the tactics have evolved to more targeted audiences.

Hedges has worked closely with local experts and community partners to raise vaccine awareness. She said those efforts now have shifted more to working with health care professionals to equip them with ways to have conversations with patients about vaccinations. She does that through local partnerships as well as through webinars.

While acknowledging that health care workers are exhausted by the pandemic and some wonder what impact they are truly having, Hedges said these professionals are also the trusted partners who can still have significant influence on patients' views of vaccines. 

A person smiles in a posed photo.
Kristin Hedges, associate professor of anthropology
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

"The big message I was trying to send home is that there's a diversity of reasons for why people don't want to get vaccinated," Hedges said. "You need to understand their why and be able to ask the questions in an unbiased way to get them to talk. You may not move the needle in that first conversation, but you may have an inkling that you can build on in the future."

Hedges also emphasizes concentrating on that middle of the population that remains undecided about vaccines. Research has helped identify a sizable group in that category. For instance, a quantitative survey through a GVSU and Kent County Health Department partnership done within the last year showed nearly 43 percent of those unvaccinated were undecided, she said.

If you're wondering how that could be after all this time, Hedges offers but one example: A single parent, working two jobs and living paycheck to paycheck, can't afford to take time off work for even the normal but sometimes disruptive short-term side effects of a vaccine. 

Or, someone may have received other vaccines but is hesitant about this one, she said. Relatively few people are fully against every vaccine, she said. More fall into a vaccine-selective segment, which is just another reason why media messaging dividing people into two stark labels is misleading.

"This is where anthropology can really contribute to the discussion – who you interact with, and what conversations you're having or not having influences people," Hedges said. "That 's where the personal narratives and stories make such a difference."

That anthropological insight into the nuances of vaccine confidence has been crucial for those in the Kent County Health Department, said Joann Hoganson, director of community wellness.

"Sometimes we know the science but we don't know how to bridge the science to all of the populations that we serve," Hoganson said. "Kristin has been very valuable at helping us look at the populations we're trying to reach and ask, 'What might be their resistance? What might be some of their belief systems or historical background that would make them either resistant or very open to taking the vaccine?'"

Hoganson said department members have also seen the benefit to thinking broadly about the role of community health care workers, something Hedges has encouraged to enhance the reach of messaging. 

In Ottawa County, the work done by Hedges has helped affirm the perspectives from health workers in the field who noticed a desire by people to have conversations about vaccines, said Alison Clark, communications specialist and public health officer for the Ottawa Department of Public Health.

While the department has worked to overcome structural barriers to clinic accessibility, such as transportation issues, officials have also noticed a consistent theme emerging on the importance of community health workers as a trusted source of information, Clark said.

"When they could have those one-on-one conversations and build that trust, sometimes people would go ahead and get vaccinated," Clark said. "Sometimes, people would say 'I'll think about what you said' or 'Thank you for being willing to listen to me and provide information.' Even if the outcome or action didn't necessarily change, people were at least wanting to have those conversations."