The Current

Alberta doctor urges unvaccinated to weigh up pros and cons of a COVID-19 shot

Dr. Kathy Fitch wants people who are unvaccinated to make a list of pros and cons about choosing whether or not to get the shot.

Dr. Kathy Fitch wants people to separate fact from emotion, to get 'mountain view'

Dr. Kathy Fitch has written an open letter to her fellow Albertans, offering a tool to weigh up their choice to get vaccinated against COVID-19. (Pauline de Koning; Submitted by Kathy Fitch)

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In a public letter to her fellow Albertans, Dr. Kathy Fitch is urging unvaccinated Canadians to make a list of the pros and cons of getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

She says making a list like this can help put the facts of a situation in clearer focus, and potentially helps prevent emotional responses from taking over.

"I often see online, people saying 'I'm not a sucker, I'm not a sheep,'" said Fitch, president of the Alberta Medical Association's general psychiatry section.

"That's a thought that has certain emotions around it, like pride or anger. You have to be able to name those, not just treat them as facts," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"If you can treat them that way, you can get a perspective on your thoughts and what's motivating your actions that can be much broader and less tunnel vision."

According to the CBC vaccine tracker, Alberta has the third-lowest rate of vaccination among the provinces and territories, with just over 63 per cent of its population fully vaccinated.

That's just ahead of Saskatchewan, with both provinces now in the midst of a fourth wave that is putting severe pressure on their health-care systems.

It gives you a chance to put all those things down in black and white, and it helps you to separate your emotions from your thoughts, from the pieces of evidence- Dr. Kathy Fitch

Fitch says her letter aims to give people the tools to gain a "mountain view" on the choice before them. Here is part of her conversation with Galloway.

Why did you write a letter to people in your province who are unvaccinated?

I really wanted to reach out because I feel as though the complexity of the decision some people are making is underestimated, and I wanted to give them a framework that I have seen be extremely helpful for making tough choices. 

What do you mean, underestimated? 

I think that people often focus on the few points that helped motivate their decision. So somebody who is reading the guidance that really outlines that you reduce your risk of getting infection, you reduce your risk of spreading it, you reduce your risk of hospitalization. 

They look at those facts and they think, "Well, why is this hard for anybody to make that decision?" But that isn't what is stopping the person who is unvaccinated. If you want to understand them, you've got to understand what are the other sources of information they're listening to? What are the sources of information that really charge them up and motivate them to action? 

I wanted to provide a tool that was going to give a chance for that person — who maybe is very concerned about personal liberty or may be very mistrustful of government — a tool that was going to allow them to … make sure that you're taking into account all the things that matter to you when you go to make the decision.

Read Dr. Kathy Fitch's full open letter:

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Explain what you're asking people to do with the tool.

Basically, it's a pro-con list. I'm sure most of us have done a pro-con list, but this would be a pros and cons of getting vaccinated, and then the pros and cons of not getting vaccinated. 

It gives you a place to write down that if you focus on the doctors and nurses who are arguing against the severity of the pandemic or against getting the COVID vaccine, then I feel safer from COVID and justified in avoiding the risks of vaccination. It also gives you a place to write down that if you take seriously the health expert panels who recommend vaccination, I have increased feelings of fear and helplessness because that means believing what they're telling you about what's happening in the hospitals. 

It gives you a chance to put all those things down in black and white, and it helps you to separate your emotions from your thoughts, from the pieces of evidence. And it helps you weigh evidence. Perhaps you 50-50 believe certain things that other people believe 100 per cent. It gives you a place to write it down, and pull more things into your reflection.

What's going on in our brains when we do one of those pro and con lists?

You're getting the best chance of [engaging] your frontal lobe, your executive brain, the one that's good at solving problems. It's the one that helps you organize, sort [and] balance priorities, and take everything into account.

I refer to it as the mountain view, because I'm trying to get people to realize that there's a perspective on their thoughts that allows them to take everything into consideration. 

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That's very different from the state of mind which we might be in when we're not looking at the pro-con list. When we're not looking in the pro-con list, our brain might be thinking about something that stirs up a lot of emotion, like the thought that: "This is a personal liberty issue, how dare someone tell me what to do with my body."

That can fire up the temporal lobe, that part of your brain that generates emotion. And literally, if your emotion is intense enough, your frontal lobe is basically offline.

So these pro-con lists harness something that's just basic about human physiology, and helps anybody.

This isn't to target the unvaccinated. I wouldn't say that the unvaccinated are necessarily more emotional than people who are vaccinated. But I do wonder how many of them have reason to mistrust authority, and how many of them have different sources of authority, of trust that they usually turn to. 

They're going to have to navigate more anxiety than someone who is trusting their usual sources of information when they choose to get vaccinated. They're going to have to navigate more anxiety to make that choice and get vaccinated.

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Joana Draghici, Ben Jamieson and Kate Cornick. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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