My husband refuses to get vaccinated

This week in Pandemic Problems, a reader writes in frustrated that her husband is refusing the vaccine

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published April 29, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)

Couple in medical masks arguing (Getty Images)
Couple in medical masks arguing (Getty Images)

Dear Pandemic Problems,

I will be completely vaccinated soon. My husband, however, is a bit of an anti-vaxxer, and has indicated he may very well decide not to get vaccinated any time in the near future.

Although in theory I completely believe in his right to do what he wants — it is his body, after all — I am upset for several reasons.

First, our children have already said they would not visit us unless we were both vaccinated — and that means we can't see our grandchildren.

Second, I am a professional event planner and will be traveling again soon to conferences. What if I carry the virus home and he gets it? Now, the pressure is on me for him getting it.

I am beside myself. Any help would be greatly appreciated.


My Husband Is a Vaccine Refuser

Dear My Husband Is a Vaccine Refuser,

I don't mean to bring gender politics into this, but will you indulge me for a minute? You're not the first woman to express frustration at her husband refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

It's interesting because if you look at the historically sexist memes of what a stereotypical "anti-vaxxer" looks like, you'd think it would be the other way around: husbands writing in about their light-and-love, tree-hugging wives who refuse to get vaccinated. But it turns out that men, particularly conservative men, are now the most likely culprits for being vaccine refusers, as polling data bears out.

Is it "manly" to not get vaccinated? Perhaps that's part of it. Studies have shown that men who have traditional views on masculinity, such as valuing being "strong," are less likely to go to the doctor for a routine exam. But I fear that men who are currently refusing to get vaccinated are getting caught up in the politics of it all, and choosing rage and fear over common sense and logic. Have you seen the misinformation Tucker Carlson is spewing on Fox News? It makes sense that 43 percent of Republicans polled that they will say no to the vaccine — compared to 5 percent of Democrats.

But let's get back to your specific situation. You say you are "upset on all levels," which yes, I can see why. The COVID-19 vaccine is the key to safely returning to a sense of normalcy. It's also highly effective, safe, and is slowing down transmission rates across the country. But your husband won't get the vaccine, you say. I'd be upset too.

I hear from you that, in some regards, you respect his decision though, or at least "believe in his right to do what he wants," as "it is his body, after all." Vaccine mandates are tricky in part, because it's a conflict between personal choice and how a person's actions affect others. But when it comes to getting vaccinated against COVID-19, a decision not to get the shot not only affects that individual refusing it, but can affect dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individuals. It's a decision that could even lead to a person's death. I keep thinking about what the Editorial Board at the Los Angeles Times wrote:

No one has the right to sicken anyone else or start a new spike in cases through carelessness or their own sense of 'personal choice.' At the same time, people who have a valid medical reason not to be vaccinated — and they are extremely few — should get a pass.

This brings me to my next point. I don't know the specific reasons as to why your husband is refusing to get vaccinated, but unless it's for a medical reason, I'd try to approach this in an understanding way to truly figure out why he doesn't want to get vaccinated. This is the first bit of advice on how to talk with people who are vaccine hesitant — and note that I'm saying "vaccine hesitant" and not anti-vaxxer. There's a difference, something I recently wrote about, and that difference matters.

Over the next few days or weeks, if you can, try to better understand the why and find effective ways to address those concerns. Dig deep: there may be some deeper trauma, something embedded in the way he relates to the world, that is the real reason he's refusing. And remember, people can change their minds.

There are specific communication strategies for talking to the vaccine hesitant, honed by public health messaging experts. For instance, say your husband is disseminating anti-vaccine falsehoods — e.g., "Covid isn't deadly," "the vaccine is dangerous," or "doctors can't be trusted." For those types, experts recommend to reply by explaining the facts: COVID-19 is deadly, and that vaccines are among the safest and most effective human inventions of the past two centuries. 

It saddens me that he won't be able to see his grandchildren because he's chosen not to get vaccinated. It makes me wonder if perhaps you even went alone to visit your grandchildren and returned with happy memories and photos (once you're vaccinated, of course) that maybe it would motivate him to get the shot.

But I know you're also concerned about carrying the virus home, especially once you travel for work. The jury is still technically out on whether or not not vaccinated people can carry and transmit the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, multiple studies suggest that the vaccines do in fact reduce transmission, and many studies are underway to land on a definitive answer. A separate study published in late March in Nature Medicine found that people who had been vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and later contracted an infection had lower viral loads than unvaccinated people who got infected. Since viral load is an indicator of how infectious a person is, that also suggests that the likelihood of transmission is low.

This is all to say that I wouldn't want you to worry about bringing the virus home and carrying that burden on top of everything else. A separate study published more recently found that even a single dose of the two-shot coronavirus vaccines cut transmission of COVID-19 within households in England by up to 50 percent. I know it's hard to live with someone who's refusing the vaccine, but I'm hopeful once he sees how you carry on with life and enjoy the presence of your grandchildren that he will get vaccinated too. If not, it might be time for therapy.

Good luck, My Husband Is a Vaccine Refuser. I hope this is just a bump in the road, and with enough dialogue your husband will get vaccinated and you'll be able to live happily ever after in your post-pandemic lives.


Pandemic Problems

"Pandemic Problems" is an advice column answering readers' pandemic problems — sometimes with the help of moral philosophy professors and therapists — who can weigh in on how to "do the right thing." Do you have a "pandemic problem"? Email Nicole Karlis at Peace of mind and collective commiseration awaits.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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