Real numbers. Genuine listening. Thoughtful conversation. That’s how high school senior Harshini Anand is approaching critical discussions on vaccinating against COVID-19.
YPSILANTI, Mich.—When 16-year-old Harshini Anand steps foot into her high school halls as a newly enshrined senior, she’s on a mission. And no, it’s not to win student body president.
Rather, she’s sparking critical conversations with her friends and classmates about vaccines.
“I was just seeing a lot of vaccine hesitancy and a lot of misinformation being spread around young people in my own community,” Anand said.
During the pandemic, social media has been a battleground for science and truth. Misinformation tends to dominate the conversation too often, leading people to resist science, evidence, and the success of vaccines in curbing COVID-19 deaths.
Anand is leading efforts to take back momentum in her community, starting with her school but reaching out much further.
One by one, she’s reaching out to friends, classmates, and strangers to genuinely hear them out. And from there, she’s directing them to experts, proven statistics, and helpful resources to make the best decisions about protecting themselves and their families.
“Using the app or the medium appropriately, using the right language to appeal to young people so that they can gain this new perspective,” Anand said.
Anand and other young people around the state are taking to the streets and social media to engage and converse. Through conversations, not campaigns, they’re hoping they can lead more people to want to get vaccines.
The Making of a Future Health Expert
As school gets underway in Michigan, the Delta variant is ravaging communities across the country and overwhelming health systems. Experts suggest superspreader events, like school gatherings, are where it hops from person to person.
With each school district cobbling together its own policies, Anand fears that students will get sick, and schools will be shut down, as has happened elsewhere.
“It is concerning to see that we are risking students’ lives and not listening to the experts,” she said.
Her school, Washtenaw International High School, is requiring students to mask up for all in-person activities, but many districts aren’t. Masks have been proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
More than half of students in the state will be masked up, following local school board ordinances, the governor’s office said in a release on August 27. Anand wants to see that number grow, with uniform, expert-led policy.
In the meantime, she isn’t sitting idly by.
Bridging the Gap
In Michigan, 66% of residents over the age of 16 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. That’s close to a 70% goal set by the government.
But there’s nuance in that number. For example, 80% of people above the age of 65 have received one dose or more, leading up the pack.
Only 45% of people ages 16 to 19 have, in stark contrast, and only 43% of those ages 20 to 29 have taken the shot.
Those are areas for major improvement.
Anecdotally, Anand can even see those numbers reflected in her friend group—people she cares about deeply who for one reason or another haven’t been vaccinated.
She and others suspect that the problem isn’t the volume of information but how it’s being delivered. And when a lie can spread on social media just as fast as the truth, so-called vaccine ambassadors have to meet people halfway.
“The power of that data and information is lost compared to a story, so that’s a real struggle,” Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, communications and health promotion administrator for the Washtenaw County Health Department, said. “Obviously, by having a conversation with somebody, it’s a lot easier to figure out what those questions are and how to address them.”
Meet the Vaccine Ambassadors
Anand is a part of the Washtenaw County Health Department’s vaccine ambassadors program. Still in its formative stages, the program enlists community members to reach out in different circles they’re plugged into to raise awareness and correct misconceptions about the vaccine.
Ambassadors are already making progress. Anand had a particular call in which she was able to walk through a friend’s concerns to fill in gaps and help lead her to an informed, secure decision-making space.
“I came to realize it wasn’t her being against the idea. She was just unsure how to approach it,” Anand said. “We just had a conversation. I answered any sort of questions she had, or if there were questions I couldn’t answer, I pointed her to the right resources. And by the end of it, she was a lot more sure about the vaccine.”
That’s not all.
She’s also working with a vaccine advocacy initiative delivered through miRcore, an organization that opens dialogue and facilitates personalized research about health topics. Working directly with high school and college students, miRcore takes a personalized and empathetic approach.
Anand connects to that.
Sometimes, promoting vaccine awareness is sharing the numbers and process—such as, that 98% of hospitalizations in Michigan are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated people.
Other times, she said, it’s about just hearing someone out. They often have legitimate concerns that they feel aren’t being addressed, like knowing someone who had a bad breakthrough infection.
There, a little more information and a listening ear can go a long way.
“It’s important to recognize that there’s a lot of reasons that could convince somebody,” Anand said.
As for Anand, her next step is picking a college. Wherever she winds up, she’s pursuing a career in public health or medicine.
“I’m still figuring that out right now, but I do definitely want to pursue public health or the health care field in general, both in college, and beyond,” Anand said.