November 22, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

How to talk about vaccines with anti-vaxxers, deniers and belligerent uncles at Thanksgiving

So many journalists have told me they are dreading family gatherings this Thanksgiving because they know they will hear about the “lying media” and endless false claims about vaccines, anti-virals and conspiracies.

A recent Harris Poll showed that one in 10 Americans is not openly admitting that they are vaccinated and a heck of a lot of vaccinated people are not telling anybody. And the poll found half of the more than 1,400 vaccinated respondents were either “extremely” or “considerably” hesitant to spend the holidays with unvaccinated family members or friends.


The New York Times published a piece called “How to host Thanksgiving with unvaccinated friends, family,” which includes this idea:

Start by calling your unvaccinated family members and soliciting their ideas on how to gather safely, said Daniel L. Shapiro, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.”

Ask: “What’s your advice on how we can make sure everyone feels safe and comfortable when we get together?” he suggested. Then come up with some ideas. Perhaps you suggest that there should be mandatory testing right before dinner, or that you should gather outside, near a patio heater.

“Try not to judge any ideas right away,” Shapiro advised. “Some ideas will be better than others, and by brainstorming together as a family, everyone can take more ownership over the chosen idea. A warning, though: If you go this route, make sure you stick to joint brainstorming and don’t slip into political debate.”

As tempting as it is to avoid the conversations, they can be important. 30% of unvaccinated adults change their minds because of family and friends. You probably shape loved ones’ thoughts more than you know.

The Office of the Surgeon General has also published a guide for talking to friends and family about misinformation, just in time for Thanksgiving gatherings. The guide includes some disarming cartoons and even practice conversations if you want to rehearse. It may sound overly dramatic, but I think a lot of people are anticipating some tensions this year.

The advice includes not whipping out your phone and showing your doubting uncle a fact check that proves he is wrong. I am going to attach a handful of the “Try This” suggestions the surgeon general offers:

(Surgeon General)

Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina offers some quick resources to help you prep for the table arguments that await you.

Here are some tips on how to have that conversation (Vaccine Hesitant: How can you help?).

Once you find the reason for hesitancy, point them to evidence-based resources. Here are a few previous posts for common COVID19 vaccine concerns:

  • 1-pager of responses to the top 6 hesitant reasons for a vaccine (here)
  • Pregnancy and COVID19 vaccine (here)
  • Vaccine got to us fast (here)
  • Long term effects: research has been going on for decades (here);
  • mRNA will not change DNA (here)
  • Infection-induced immunity isn’t good enough (Here are four reasons why. And here is why it’s important especially with Delta and variants)
  • Real world safety and effectiveness of the adolescent vaccine (here)
  • Importance of a 5-11 year old vaccine (here)

The Times offers another idea that I could not imagine suggesting to my family, but I will throw it out there to consider. You could rapid test everyone before you let them in the house:

If a rapid test says you’re positive, then that is a very reliable indication that you are infected and infectious,” said Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at the Boston University School of Public Health. “You should not be around other people.”

Rapid tests are sometimes in short supply but can be found at retailers including Amazon, Walmart, Kroger, CVS or Walgreens, both online and in stores. Many of them are pricey, often costing about $24 for two tests.

Truly, can you imagine telling family members they are going to have to pass a test before they can come in for Thanksgiving? I imagine it is a sure way to eat alone this year.

My own advice is to ask yourself if the person who wants to argue is even the slightest bit open to new information. If the answer is no, don’t spend your energy trying to convince them. Make it safe for people to change their minds, don‘t be a know-it-all, listen to concerns and help people find reliable information if they want it.

Keep in mind that your uncle may hate the media, but he loves you. He means the other media. Not you. Probably. Maybe.

Let’s ask 28 epidemiologists, immunologists, virologists and COVID experts how they will celebrate Thanksgiving

Airline Passengers Eli and Maria are seen wearing hazmat suits at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport on November 25, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (mpi04/MediaPunch /IPX)

Stat asked 28 health experts how they would celebrate Thanksgiving. In short, they will gather with friends and family, but not without some precautions:


Stat provides some details:

The question that came closest to having a unanimous answer was: Would you travel by air, train or bus to spend Thanksgiving with family and/or friends? Twenty-six of our respondents said they would, though all but one said they would only do so if masked.

Shane Crotty, an immunologist at La Jolla Institute of Immunology, would be willing to fly or take a train masked — but would not travel by bus. “Just seems like terrible ventilation and spacing,” he said. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, also nixed trains.

What an interesting idea. Think of all of the local experts you have interviewed in the last two years of the pandemic and ask them what they will be doing or avoiding. It is a question I learned years ago when I was covering some “scientific breakthrough” claim. My boss urged me to ask researchers how their findings would change their personal habits. It gave me an opening soundbite that was personal rather than sterile and factual.

Thanks to you

In March 2020, I had no thought that we would still be doing this column together today. I have been putting “taking time off” on the back burner for the last couple of years thinking the pandemic would certainly let up soon and there would be less to cover.

Since it seems like we will keep doing pandemic stories for a while longer, I am going to take a little time off now and I will be back after Thanksgiving.

I know that I am thankful for you readers, and I am especially thankful to those of you who send me story ideas, links and even corrections.

Stay skeptical. Do good. See you soon.

This article was originally published Nov. 15, 2021. We’ll be back Nov. 29 with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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