A jumble of voices comes from a room at the MUMC+. Inside, there are seven students, wearing headsets and staring at computer screens filled with diagrams of side effects and information about vaccines, all of them busy answering phone calls. Every Dutch person who phones the Vaccination Doubt Hotline this Tuesday afternoon, will be directed to this place in Maastricht.
Medical student Floor Harmsen van der Vliet is keeping an eye on things. As a student co-ordinator, she is supervising the new telephonists. Since last December, Maastricht – together with Utrecht, Amsterdam and Nijmegen – is taking part in an initiative started by the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam at the end of November: answering questions by people who have doubts about vaccination. Senior students from medical programmes supply the callers with information and advice, enabling them, when necessary, to consult doctors.
Expansion was required due to the large number of callers. This hotline has been operating for a couple of weeks, with the MUMC+ taking responsibility for the Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. But it was hard work: everything had to be set up within a week. “Especially finding students was a challenge,” says Harmsen van der Vliet. Eventually, we managed to find nineteen – mainly medical students – who together man the lines during those two afternoons.
There was no time for extensive preparations. “They received an hour’s briefing on how everything works. They also read up on the way the vaccines work and what the side effects are. There is also a list of answers created on the basis of the most frequently asked questions – as a supplement to the knowledge they already have.”
What followed was an overwhelming first week, she says. We often had more than ten callers waiting. “That caused considerable work pressure. This was most likely due in part to the fact that the start of the national hotline was given a lot of attention. Currently, the number of callers is lower, but there are still constantly one or two people waiting.” The students help a total of about 150 people with their questions each afternoon, Harmsen van der Vliet estimates.
Those questions are very diverse, although a number of subjects come up often. Those who are partially or fully vaccinated want to know about the side effects of the second jab or the booster. Those who are unvaccinated want to know if an injection could be harmful in their specific situation, such as during pregnancy.
“At the beginning of the year, there was a brief period when the vaccine was advised against for pregnant women, because there were insufficient research results at the time. Because of that, there is still a lot of doubt, while we now know that the injection can do no harm. Fortunately, these are short chats. Such callers are often only looking for confirmation. We think that most of them get the injection after the call.”
The same applies to people with a particular disorder, disease or medication. In most cases, vaccination can do no harm. If the students are not sure, they can ask the doctor who is present. If the doctor is in doubt, the student advises the caller to contact their GP or medical specialist. “In doing so, you gain more knowledge along the way,” says one of the students. “In some cases, you remember the doctor’s answer from the last time. Although you sometimes hear the doubt in the caller’s voice if you give an immediate answer. Then you ask the doctor, just for form’s sake.”
“You are participating in committing genocide”
Not every caller is looking for medical advice, however. The students also have to deal with people who want to provoke, or who have an aggressive tone, says Harmsen van der Vliet. “For example, there are callers who accuse the students of participating in genocide and say that they are recording the telephone call. There are also people who want to have a discussion. Or those who say: ‘I feel as if I am being compelled by the government to be vaccinated. Well, come on, convince me.’ I often get the idea that they just want to frustrate matters.”
“Those calls are unpleasant, also because it is not always immediately clear what someone’s intention is,” says one of the students. “You put a lot of time and energy into it, while your gut feeling is telling you that this person doesn’t want to be vaccinated anyway.” That is why the students will soon take a course on how to deal with such cases, says Harmsen van der Vliet. “We are there to inform, not to convince people to get vaccinated. Still, you don’t want to immediately hang up when you get a call like that. You want to explain why you can’t help them, so that they don’t keep phoning.”
Despite everything, the students are in a cheerful mood at the end of the afternoon. “There were a lot fewer awkward calls compared to last time,” one of them remarks. “About 80 per cent of the people who call have a serious, medical question. It gives you a lot of energy when you have been able to give someone good advice.” Moreover, it is interesting to hear the various reasons why people have doubts about vaccination, another one adds. “You are also gaining useful experience in talking to patients.”