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Sandra Lindsay got the first U.S. COVID jab. Here's her secret to motivate others

Nurse Sandra Lindsay, the first person in the U.S. to get the COVID shot, serves as grand marshal of the Hometown Heroes parade in New York City in July. The event honored essential pandemic workers.
Cindy Ord/Getty Images
Nurse Sandra Lindsay, the first person in the U.S. to get the COVID shot, serves as grand marshal of the Hometown Heroes parade in New York City in July. The event honored essential pandemic workers.

When she rolled up her sleeve nearly one year ago on Dec. 14, Sandra Lindsay, a nurse at Northwell Health in New York, didn't realize she'd become the first person in the U.S. to get the COVID-19 shot — or that her life would change.

She had signed up for the shot along with a bunch of colleagues following the emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine.

"When I got there, I saw the cameras set up," says Lindsay. Within minutes, images and video footage of her getting the jab began circulating in media outlets around the globe.

Her phone started buzzing. Her mom called first, then friends back in her home country of Jamaica. "It was just wild," she says, because everyone was so excited to see her face in the news.

Since then, it has been a whirlwind.

In July, she served as the grand marshal of New York City's Hometown Heroes Parade for front-line workers. Then she was honored by President Biden at a White House ceremony for "becoming a shining example of exemplary civic service," according to a press statement.

Meanwhile, she was completing her doctorate in health sciences while holding down her job as director of nursing for the critical care division at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, part of Northwell Health.

But over the past year, Lindsay says she has been most passionate about encouraging people to get vaccinated — especially those who may be hesitant.

Along the way, she's learned the secret to changing minds, and it starts with what happens in the heart.

Lindsay gets her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 14, 2020, becoming the first person in the U.S. to do so.
Mark Lennihan / AP
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AP
Lindsay gets her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 14, 2020, becoming the first person in the U.S. to do so.

Lead with love, she says

If you're trying to persuade a hesitant friend or family member to get vaccinated, it's best to lead with love. Yes, love, she says.

"People need to feel love and not shame," she adds. Shaming someone is more likely to shut them down and it can be hurtful and destructive.

Don't badger them to get vaccinated

If you're planning a holiday gathering and you're anxious about including an unvaccinated family member or friend, badgering or threatening them to get vaccinated is unlikely to work.

"Saying 'you can't come here' is not the answer," says Lindsay. Instead, "let them know you really want to spend time with them" — but that you also have concerns. Tell them the family would all feel safer if everyone gathering had done all they could to protect each other.

Ask them to stand in your shoes

For some people, not getting vaccinated is a matter of control. People who are resistant often say they don't want people telling them what to do.

"So turn it around," Lindsay says. She recently advised a colleague on how to deal with a grown son who was not vaccinated.

"Ask him to put himself in your shoes," Lindsay told her colleague. Pretend he's the parent. "Ask him how he would deal with it."

This strategy can help prompt reflection, she adds. And it may help them see your main goal is to make sure everyone is safe and protected.

Have a one-on-one

You may want to pick a time and place for this conversation that is least likely to lead to confrontation, says Lindsay. So, not in front of family members, but perhaps on a walk with just you and the other person.

This may also be a good time to ask the hesitant person if they have any unanswered questions about the vaccine. With so much misinformation, Lindsay says you don't know what's holding people back until you ask. To help answer their questions, point them to online resources that offer evidence-based answers or to a trusted health care provider.

Influence those around you

Despite continued hesitancy (72% of adults in the U.S. are now fully vaccinated), Lindsay believes there's been progress. For instance, polls show that compared to a year ago, vaccine hesitancy among Black adults in the U.S. has diminished.

There's no single magic bullet to get to 100%, says Lindsay. "One strategy is not going to get us all there."

But each person can influence those around them, she adds.

Recently, she says, she was at the Jamaican Embassy and a woman came up to her. She recognized Lindsay and couldn't stop thanking her.

The woman explained how she and her family were not planning to be vaccinated. But after seeing Lindsay on TV, the woman told her, "We all went and made an appointment. So I want to thank you so much for inspiring us."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.