Vaccine hesitancy can make for awkward talks — but honest conversation the best way forward, mediator says

Now that vaccines are widely available in Canada and pandemic rules are being loosened, some people are facing a tricky situation: What do you do about friends or family who won't get vaccinated?

Have open discussion and set clear boundaries with unvaccinated loved ones, says mediator Janet Schmidt

Jennifer Farrant says her and her husband's decision not to socialize their one-year-old daughter, Elliott, with people who haven't been vaccinated against COVID-19 has led to conflict with family members who have chosen not to get their shots but still want to meet the baby. (Submitted by Jennifer Farrant)

For the last year, new mom Jennifer Farrant has been excited to show her daughter Elliott the world beyond the walls of their house.

So as Manitoba's vaccine rollout sped up over the last few months and more pandemic restrictions were relaxed, there was finally a "glimmer of hope" on the horizon.

But the Winnipeg mom says she's now facing an unexpected problem.

Since infants can't get vaccinated against COVID-19, Farrant and her husband have decided not to socialize their daughter with people who haven't been immunized. That's led to conflict with family members who have chosen not to get their shots but still want to meet the baby, she said.

"There is a respect piece that is very hard to ask a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle or a close family friend to either mask up around our young child or to have to set those kind of physical boundaries," Farrant said.

"We don't know how to have those conversations. They're difficult conversations to have. And unfortunately I think at the end of the day, what we're doing is what we think is best for our family. And what they're doing, by choosing to remain unvaccinated, is what they think is best for themselves and their families."

Farrant's family isn't the only one potentially finding themselves in that situation. More than one in every five eligible Manitobans still hasn't gotten their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Janet Schmidt, a private mediator in Winnipeg who does conflict resolution training, says while those talks can be awkward, they're the best way toward understanding each other better.

"I am a true believer in having conversation … and then kindly setting the boundaries and explaining why," Schmidt said.

Get to root of worry, mediator says

People may choose not to get vaccinated for many reasons, ranging from thinking the pandemic is a hoax to worrying about something they heard about the vaccines — whether or not it's true, she said.

And it's only through having those conversations that you can get to the bottom of exactly what their reasons are, and possibly address their concerns.

Janet Schmidt is a private mediator in Winnipeg. She says frank conversations about decisions around vaccines can help promote better understanding. (Submitted by Janet Schmidt)

"I'm talking to one of the people in my life who is vaccine hesitant, and we're trying to figure out, how do we know what's real and what's true? And what can we believe and what can we not believe?" she said.

"It takes time. It takes energy. And we engaged in it and we'll see where the conversation goes. But ... if we don't talk across the line, we won't influence each other."

Schmidt said as pandemic rules are loosened further, everyone is constantly making their own decisions about what kind of socializing they're comfortable with — and those conversations are important to have, too.

"Some people are, even when it's OK [to do something], they're being super cautious. Other people are saying, 'Yay, I'm free,' and throwing caution to the wind," she said.

"Again, I would say, 'Let's talk about it. Let's figure it out.' I don't think we make our best decisions in isolation. It's usually best in dialogue with a variety of sources."

Assessing the risk

One thing that can help with those decisions is an online risk calculator created by Ryerson University's National Institute on Ageing, said Dr. Samir Sinha, one of the medical professionals involved in developing the government-funded tool over the last year.

The free tool asks users a series of questions about gatherings they're thinking about attending and provides information about their potential risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Sinha, the director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital and the University Health Network in Toronto, said as pandemic guidelines have shifted, anxiety has grown over questions like the ones Farrant's family is now grappling with. 

"I think what a lot of people were hoping for is just to be told, 'OK, the pandemic is over. Or, if you're vaccinated this is what you can do, if you're not vaccinated this is what you can't do,'" he said.

"But the problem is … there's so many different variations in circumstances."

The tool, which takes about three minutes to complete, is updated regularly with the latest information and guidelines available, Sinha said.

Dr. Samir Sinha stands outside a hospital, wearing a white lab coat. He's looking directly into the camera.
Dr. Samir Sinha is the director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital and the University Health Network in Toronto. He was part of a team that worked on an online tool that helps people assess their risk of COVID-19 exposure in different scenarios. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

It also teaches people about what elements make gatherings safer — like paring down the guest list or moving outside — which helps them make informed decisions.

"That's the whole goal," Sinha said.

"It's about empowering people like Jennifer and others to really have the information that they need."

With files from Lauren Donnelly, Wendy Parker, Shannah-Lee Vidal and Faith Fundal