Among the previously mundane routines that have taken on a new level of anxiety during the pandemic, one rises to the top: going to the dentist. There are few other instances when we’re asked to temporarily put aside our instinct for social distancing and mask wearing so directly and in such close quarters.

There are few people who feel this anxiety more acutely than dental hygienists, for whom “droplets” are a fact of life. So you’d think they’d be more motivated than anyone to line up for a Covid-19 vaccine as soon as their number was called.

Enter Julia*. A dental hygienist from Texas, Julia says she’s not ready to get the vaccine. And it’s not because she doesn’t take Covid-19 seriously. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Julia has established such a steady self-protective routine at work that she doesn’t feel the vaccine is worth the risk of the side effects it may bring with it.

Julia was a participant in a recent series of focus groups we conducted with health care workers, frontline workers, and K-12 teachers who can’t decide if they want to get vaccinated or not.

“I wear two masks,” Julia said. “When I come home, I don’t touch my son until I disinfect myself. What I’m doing right now is working for me. I don’t want to mess with that. I’ll try and stick it out.”

Like many of our participants, Julia challenges us to rethink our stereotypes of vaccine skeptics. Rather than being careless and irresponsible, her self-protective routine is nothing short of fastidious (she is a dental hygienist, after all). In fact, it’s precisely because her routine feels like such a safe bet that the vaccines by contrast feel like a risky gamble.

Just as these focus group conversations challenged us to re-think vaccine skepticism, so too do they challenge us to rethink our vaccine messages. Today, we’re releasing a Vaccine Confidence Message Brief, drawing on both our focus groups and a nationally representative survey. The Message Brief includes surprising audience insights, such as:

  • Conflicting messages have made people cautious.
  • People don’t want to abandon or replace the self-protection measures they’ve acquired over the last year.
  • Dwelling on safety concerns can be a communications rabbit hole.

These surprising insights also lead to message guidance that can help change the conversation. Rather than talking down to vaccine skeptics or assuming they can’t be reasoned with, we should:

  • Frame vaccines as an empowering tool—not an ultimatum.
  • Emphasize the “benefits” side of the risk-benefit equation.
  • Don’t assume your audience is “hesitant” when they may just lack access.

Read the full article about vaccine confidence by Eileen O'Connor at The Rockefeller Foundation.