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People are celebrating their COVID-19 vaccine shots with selfies. Some think it’s time to give it a rest

Initially, Dr. Alan Drummond welcomed the idea of the so-called vaccine selfie — people sharing their COVID-19 vaccination pictures on social media — as a celebration and triumph of science over disease.

But the Perth, Ont., emergency room physician soon soured on the trend and began resenting the action as an insensitive reminder to those in the medical community, particularly in rural areas where he practices, that they had not yet received the shot.

“It was kind of rubbing a little bit of salt into our wounds as we watched health-care administrators, hospital administrators, PR officials, government officials getting vaccinations while we were still very much in the dark,” he said.

“The idea of the celebratory selfie started to wear a little thin when, you know, a month, six weeks into the vaccination process, we were still across the country, largely ignored.”

While vaccine selfies may be the new social media trend, people like Drummond believe such posts may be causing irritation, resentfulness and anxiety among those who have not yet been inoculated. 

Last month, the Washington Post published a story titled To selfie or not to selfie? Why the joy of getting vaccinated is drawing backlash. It cited a Boston Globe opinion column titled Cool it with the vaccine selfies for a while. In it, author Miles Howard questioned whether such posts were causing irritation.

“Will they bring us together as we aspire for mass vaccination, or will they leave people feeling sidelined during the deadly and terrifying final chapter of the pandemic,” Howard asked in the column.

Have nots vs. have lots

In January, Dr. Karim Ali, an assistant clinical professor at McMaster University, co-authored a Toronto Star opinion piece titled Why we are not posting our vaccine selfies.

He said the piece was prompted, in part, because vaccinations were just rolling out at that time, and many hard hit areas hadn’t yet received their vaccines.

“We would see people posting [their vaccinations] on social media, and specifically non health-care workers. It just created a sense of have nots and have lots,” he told CBC News.

Even though the rate of vaccinations has increased since the column was published, Ali said he still wouldn’t post a selfie. 

“There are still people who are considered high risk and their turn hasn’t come up,” he said. “So that’s why, if you want to [post a selfie] maybe think twice”

Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton who also co-authored the Star column, said he worries about the “downstream effects” of posting such a selfie.

“I worry about the people that are sitting there in complete fear of COVID. They are just saying, ‘Well, I’m feeling even more fearful and down because my colleagues across the border are getting it and I don’t even have a shot for another six months.’ 

“I think people need to realize that as you start pushing that self promotion out there, that equity feeling does start. People are happy [for those who are vaccinated] but are anxious in their own world wondering when their turn is going to come.”

Dr. Ben Huang, who chronicled other concerns about vaccine selfies for an article in The Conversation, said he refrained from posting about his own vaccination, and that he was somewhat self conscious about provoking jealousy or anxiety among others. 

However, Huang said he may have reconsidered if many of his friends were vaccine hesitant.

Normalize the experience

For health experts like Samantha Yammine, a neuroscientist and science communicator, combatting vaccine hesitancy is why she’s such an advocate for posting vaccine selfies, which she believes help normalize the experience.

“We know that hesitancy begets hesitancy and similarly, confidence begets confidence. So if people are posting a selfie and that’s going to make other people want to [get vaccinated] even more — even if they’re frustrated they can’t get it right away — that is a positive.”

“There’s a multi-billion dollar influencer industry because we know that posts on social media can influence behaviour,” Yammine said. 

She referred to an experiment conducted by Facebook during the 2010 U.S. Congressional elections that found an increase in those willing to vote after finding out another Facebook friend had voted.

samantha yammine
Dr. Samantha Yammine believes vaccine selfies can help influence others to get the COVID-19 shot. (Michael Barker)

She said there’s “pretty good evidence” that seeing people in your close network model a certain type of behaviour might influence you to then have that behaviour as well. 

“We need more positive association with getting vaccinated. And seeing your friend excited about getting vaccinated, smiling through their mask, posting and celebrating the caption with that picture is now giving people a positive association with vaccination that will save lives.”

While Yammine said she can understand the frustration of those who have yet to be vaccinated, “we need to stop treating other people getting vaccinated as an insult personally.”

“This is not a personal health crisis. It is a public health threat.”

‘A selfie is a little story’

Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in health law and policy at the University of Alberta, agreed that the bigger issue is around vaccine hesitancy. 

He said there is good evidence that sharing stories about yourself that resonate with your community can have an impact on vaccination rates. 

“A selfie is a little story,” Caulfield said. “It’s a little story about you getting vaccinated, you’re celebrating the science, you’re celebrating this moment and you’re normalizing the behaviour.

“So I think in the aggregate, it is worthwhile. I think that it should be encouraged,” he said.

“I understand this idea that people will find it grating, you know, frustrating. ‘I can’t get a vaccine. How come this person got it?’ I get that.”

However, he said concerns about vaccine hesitancy far outweigh concerns that people would find vaccine selfies annoying. 

Doctors Drummond and Ali still questioned just how effective a selfie from the average person would be at convincing others to get a shot. But they did acknowledge a celebrity vaccine selfie may have an effect.

Chagla said instead of selfies, he would encourage people who’ve been vaccinated to speak to friends and neighbours who might be hesitant. 

“I think, for every 100 selfies, having five minutes to actually talk about the vaccine is probably a whole lot better in that sense.”

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