As an epidemiologist and former public health official, I’ve noticed a lot of coverage in the news about COVID vaccine hesitancy issues in BIPOC communities, and I, like many other clinicians, am working hard to address those issues. But there is one demographic that I’ve seen very little discussion on – men. And with the news that vaccination rates are slowing in the U.S., and that, as a result of vaccine hesitancy, we might never achieve herd immunity, maybe it’s time to take a look at this group. Recently, a national poll found that nearly half of men who identified as Republican were hesitant to get COVID vaccines. This may be even more pronounced in rural areas. And in polls of Black communities, 45 percent of Black men have expressed that they want to “wait and see” before they get the vaccine. Meanwhile, recent data suggest that vaccine hesitancy in the military, which is predominantly male, is quite high, with as much as 40 percent refusing vaccination in some military branches.
Why does this matter?
Men are much more likely than women to have severe COVID-related illnesses, including hospitalization and death. In addition, there have been studies suggesting that becoming infected with coronavirus may impact men’s fertility (as opposed to getting the vaccine, which should not); so vaccination is really the best way for men to protect themselves. It’s also the best way for them to protect everyone around them: their wives, children, parents, etc. And, since men represent about half the population, the likelihood of us ever achieving herd immunity and ending this pandemic is lower if we can’t convince men in certain communities to get vaccinated.
So what can we do about this?
Bring it up consistently. Health care providers should bring up COVID vaccines whenever they speak to male patients. Explore their concerns, use motivational interviewing techniques to understand their reasons for hesitancy, and be open about what we know and don’t know. Health care providers are the most trusted source of vaccine information for most people, so arm yourself with the latest scientific information. And please share your own experience with vaccination, which increases both your credibility and transparency.
Change up the message. Public health messaging on vaccination often focuses on risks rather than benefits, which can offer little incentive to become vaccinated. So emphasize the perks of vaccination, like the ability to be unmasked indoors with other vaccinated people, or being able to travel without quarantine or testing, or being able to hug low-risk grandchildren. And rather than just focus on how vaccination protects others, emphasize the fact that as more people are vaccinated, the fewer rules and regulations we’ll all have to deal with. The main message is this – “more vaccinations will equal more freedom.” In a nation that tends to value individual liberty, this type of message is likely to resonate.
Incorporate women family members into the conversation: According to the Department of Labor, women make up to 80 percent of health care decisions on behalf of their families in the U.S. Some have dubbed them the “chief medical officers” of their families, as they are often concerned with the preventive health of not only their children but their spouses, elderly parents, and other extended family. Therefore, including wives and other authorized female family members in vaccine-related conversations may be pivotal in improving male vaccination rates.
Promote a culture of vaccination by posting pictures of vaccinated employees in your health care facility or having video clips of male influencers talk about their vaccination experience in waiting rooms or on your social media channels. Offering gender-specific vaccine Q&A sessions, addressing male infertility myths due to the COVID vaccine, and other issues, could be helpful as well. And encourage your patients to show off their vaccine selfies, especially your male patients. A Kaiser Foundation study found that people who wanted to get vaccinated were more likely to know someone who was vaccinated. So encourage your patients to spread the word. If you are offering the COVID vaccine in your facility, consider hanging a “Just Vaccinated!” backdrop/selfie station for patients to encourage sharing.
With the rise of new variants, and the leveling off of vaccination rates, health care providers need to address vaccine hesitancy wherever and whenever we see it. And right now, we are seeing strong indicators that men are in need of our attention. By offering the right messaging and promoting a culture of vaccination, we just might be able to make a difference in this pandemic.
Tista S. Ghosh is an internal medicine physician and epidemiologist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com