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Doctors, families navigating tough conversations around COVID vaccines

The debate over vaccines has become so contentious that in one case, a Colorado doctor received hate mail. Other times ,families are ending up in front of a judge.

DENVER — The debate over getting vaccinated has become so heated that, in some cases, it's boiling over.

Dr. Richard Zane with UCHealth has been tapped multiple times for his expertise, speaking publicly and to journalists about COVID. He is candid about trying to get people's attention when he talks about the pandemic. 

"I've been forthright, that being vaccinated is a societal obligation and act of patriotism," he said.

That attention came with some backlash. Zane started getting e-mails. 

"They are saying, how dare I say getting vaccinated is a societal responsibility," he said, "How could I possibly say it's associated with patriotism? Really, it's what I truly believe. You get vaccinated for a number of reasons. One is to protect yourself and to protect society."

Zane said there was an anonymous complaint about what he said in TV story to the medical oversight agency. He received a notification about the complaint, and is responding before the issue is resolved.  

It goes beyond that one comment. 

"I was surprised to be honest with you," said Zane. "We started a program offering vaccinations directly to patients in our emergency departments. The backlash from patients who were being offered vaccinations was such that we stopped the automatic offerings. If a patient comes into the emergency department and wishes to be vaccinated, we will most assuredly vaccinate them. But no longer requiring doctors and nurses to prompt to ask for that because the response was very negative."

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Zane said that negativity covers the spectrum. Some people were upset when they were asked about being vaccinated. Others were bothered just because they were asked about their vaccination status. 

"It's very hard to watch because we are seeing very sick people. The overwhelming vast majority of people who are sick, admitted to the hospital, and dying are unvaccinated," he said. 

Dr. Jody Thomas, a child psychologist in Aurora, has seen families debate each other, too. She said it's not just about the kids and parents, but extended family, as well. 

"Grandparents don't think this should happen," Thomas gave as an example. "Extended family has a differing opinion." 

Thomas said the top priority is to find common goals, which there are a lot of, even when fighting over vaccines. 

"We all want to go back to doing things we want to do effectively. All want kids back in school safely," said Thomas, "There are a lot of shared goals often lost in the tone of these conversations." 

She advises that people challenge themselves to take a moment to be truly curious about other peoples' perspectives and look for opportunities to show empathy.

"A lot of decisions being made are around fear on both sides," she added.

Another approach could include talking logistics, like what happens if a parent or kid falls sick, which can help bring the conversation back into more common territory. 

"How does this impact us and our lives specifically, versus the larger abstract tribalism idea," said Thomas. 

She said she's seen these tactics work to bring people back into more productive conversations. 

Thomas works with a lot of kids and families with medical conditions. She said if families, particularly with divorced parents, cannot resolve the problem amongst themselves, the issue can go in front of a judge. Many times, that judge turns to doctors to help resolve the issue. 

Thomas also said the debate within families over vaccines isn't new. What is new is the immediacy that comes with living through a pandemic. 

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