Stop shaming parents over COVID vaccine questions

Matthew McConaughey at a Texas Longhorns game in September 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Tim Warner/Getty Images/TNS)

The following editorial was originally published by The Dallas Morning News:

It was a record-scratch of a moment: Texas actor and potential gubernatorial hopeful Matthew McConaughey, who is vaccinated against COVID-19, declared in an interview last week that his younger children are unvaccinated and that he wants more information.

The comment sparked a headline frenzy and touched off waves of dismay and judgment on social media, where all nuance goes to die. But McConaughey is not Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who misled the public about his vaccination status, flouted NFL rules and used his fame to spread anti-vaccine rhetoric. Anyone who takes the time to absorb McConaughey’s full comments will learn that his wife, mother and 13-year-old child are vaccinated, that he supports mask use, and that he rejects the belief that vaccines are a Big Pharma conspiracy.

It’s imperative that we vaccinate the youngest Americans so that school and other aspects of their lives and everyone’s lives can go back to normal. Yet even well-meaning parents will need convincing. Instead of busting out the pitchforks, our country needs to do more soul-searching on how to better persuade families about the benefits of the shots.

What some of us may not realize is just how many of our neighbors, friends and co-workers who are parents share McConaughey’s hesitance. According to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 1 in 3 parents of kids ages 5 to 11 said they would consent to their kids getting the vaccine as soon as possible. Another third of parents said they would wait and see, and the other third said they would definitely not get shots for their kids.

Even parents who are vaccinated, like McConaughey, have told reporters and researchers that they have fears about how the shots will impact their children. Academics from Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern universities found that roughly 40% to 50% of vaccinated parents surveyed in September described the newness of the vaccine, its immediate side effects and its long-term effects as a “major concern” when thinking about their children. Those percentages were higher among unvaccinated parents.

We’d like to borrow a page from Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general. In response to McConaughey’s comments, he said it’s OK for parents to ask questions about the COVID-19 vaccines, and he urged them to talk to their doctor and consult credible health sources. But he also argued that getting the shots is ultimately the right decision, pointing out that the illness has sent thousands of children to the hospital and killed some of them.

“As a dad of a child who has been hospitalized several years ago for another illness, I would never wish upon any parent they have a child that ends up in the hospital,” Murthy told CNN.

Murthy gets at the heart of the matter: Parents’ top concern is the well-being of their children, not an abstract duty to protect one’s community. Doctors and other trusted messengers must continue to emphasize that vaccines are safe for children and address individual concerns about potential side effects. They must continue to remind parents that the vaccines will get their children to resume their social lives safely and stave off more quarantines and virtual schooling.

Parent-shaming is a popular sport, but we don’t have to play it.

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