Terrance Lewis is afraid that taking a coronavirus vaccine might kill him. Daphne Richmond believes that her immune system will protect her without a shot. Maushawn Anderson doesn’t know a single person who wants to get a vaccine, including his elderly grandparents.
Vaccines are available to everyone age 16 and older in Shelby County, and appointments are plentiful. Still, hundreds of slots go unfilled daily, according to online sign-up links. And as officials work to increase the turnout, some of the biggest hurdles they face may be vaccine skepticism and misinformation.
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism spoke to nine people in ZIP code 38127 in Frayser, which had the lowest vaccine uptake rate in the county at about 15% last week. Of those interviewed, only one person – a nurse – actively wanted and got a vaccination. Two others had received at least one dose because they thought it would help protect vulnerable family members with whom they lived. And six people said they didn’t want the vaccine, though one man changed his mind while being interviewed.
“I don’t know too much about them,” Richmond, 56, said. “I don’t know anybody in my family has gotten the shot.”
On Thursday, CNN and The Wall Street Journal reported Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data that showed that of the more than 77 million people who’ve been fully vaccinated, about 5,800 developed COVID-19, a rate of about 0.008%. Only 396 were hospitalized and 74 have died.
In Shelby County, nearly 94,000 people have been infected and just under 1,600 people have died, a fatality rate of 1.7%.
The nine people MLK50 spoke to for this story are just a small sample of vaccine hesitancy or rejection in the city and across the state and nation, which continue to be a problem. A statewide poll conducted by the Tennessee Department of Health in the first week of April found that 53.7% of respondents were “willing but hesitant to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.”
Though polls early in the vaccine campaign showed high hesitancy among Black Americans, those rates have dropped. And unlike the people interviewed in Frayser, the state poll showed white conservatives were the least likely to change their mind about wanting the vaccine, while Black respondents were much more likely to be willing, but not yet ready.
But in 38127, where 84% of the population is Black and which has a median income of just over $19,300, according to census data, the faster-spreading COVID-19 variants are taking hold. A Shelby County Health Department press release on Monday noted the ZIP code “has produced more variant cases per 100,000 population” than any other – at least 80 per 100,000. It also noted people in Frayser “have suffered disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Hitting the ‘vaccine wall’
Nationwide, more than 131 million people have received at least one shot of either the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot. In Shelby County, nearly 294,000 people have gotten at least one shot. That’s just over 30% of the population, or 42% of the county’s goal of 700,000 people vaccinated.
While ZIP code 38127 has the lowest vaccination rate, 38138 and 38139 in Germantown and Collierville have the highest at more than 55%. They are wealthier and 87 and 92% white, respectively.
Vaccine appointments are elusive in other parts of the country, but in Shelby County, sites regularly have unfilled slots. Other jurisdictions also are facing what may be decreased demand, leaving some to worry that the country is fast approaching a “vaccine wall,” where supply outpaces demand.
As a result, the FEMA-run Pipkin site in Midtown frequently doesn’t require appointments in an effort to make it more accessible. Shelby County Deputy Health Director David Sweat said the Pipkin site, which can accommodate 3,000 slots a day, had 416 appointments on Wednesday. But they also served about 1,200 walk-up appointments.
“I think that some people are resisting the vaccine, but other people may be… resisting a certain part of the process,” he said, such as the structure of an appointment.
Sweat noted the city had been averaging just under 6,000 vaccinations a day – but city data shows in recent days that number has fallen to 3,300. And 60% of those are second doses, meaning fewer new people are coming out.
That tracks with hesitancy rates too. The CDC estimates that nearly 24% of Shelby County residents are vaccine-hesitant, with just over 14% “strongly hesitant.” The CDC predicts that the low vaccination rate, combined with other barriers people in the county face like poverty and low health care accessibility, leaves Shelby County highly vulnerable to the repercussions of a coronavirus outbreak.
Barriers to vaccine access were initially a problem across the county, with internet users getting priority over those without internet access, typically low-income, older and Black people. The county’s age-based vaccination program also initially prioritized older white residents, because the elderly population is disproportionately white.
The Rev. Ricky Floyd of Pursuit of God Transformation Center in Frayser said access and skepticism are intertwined. He was frustrated that the sites in his community opened later than in Midtown.
On Monday, the city and county announced a walk-up site in Frayser, which is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In a press release, the health department said it was the “first regular weekly vaccination site” in Frayser, though there have been single-day pop-up clinics. At one event held by his church April 9, about 375 people were served, Floyd said.
“There’s a trust that’s associated with an institution that buried your grandmama, that helped your child go to college, that helped your sister get a job,” he said.
“I think we have supported the fears of the people by not making the vaccine available.”
‘Once you get the shot, it might kill you’
Issachar Dukes, 37, got a vaccine because his family members asked him to, but he didn’t feel strongly one way or the other.
“It seemed like it may be necessary. Even though I believe that God’s my vaccination, I took it anyway,” Dukes said. “I do live with family members – just to ease their mind, if nothing else. But better safe than sorry.
“I’ve heard that it’s actually killed some people,” he said. “Is that true?”
All the evidence indicates the vaccines are safe, and the CDC says it “has not detected patterns in cause of death that would indicate a safety problem with COVID-19 vaccines.” The CDC is currently investigating a single death of a woman in Virginia after a very small number of people developed rare blood clots from the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Conversations with people in 38127 show that misinformation and trust issues are problems officials will have to contend with. Several people interviewed said they’d heard that vaccines contain a live virus and could give people COVID-19 or that vaccines regularly killed people. The recent CDC pause on Johnson & Johnson distribution also hurt some people’s perception of safety.
Still, misinformation has penetrated communities.
Family members, friends and other people had convinced Lewis that the vaccines aren’t safe. “It’s been explained to me that once you get the shot, it might kill you,” he said. But when he later learned from a reporter that very few people have had significant adverse reactions to the vaccine, he wanted to know where he could get one.
Anderson, a 32-year-old military policeman in the Air Force, said he believes people can get a vaccine if they want one, but many people don’t want shots, including him.
“I don’t want to take it because I’m not sure what’s in it, and it just doesn’t sound like it’s very well tested,” he said. “And I think a lot of people are afraid to take it.”
He thinks concerns over the virus are overblown, because he knows a few people who were sick but have ultimately gotten better. Neither he, his partner nor his children have gotten sick, he said, and he wears a mask only because it’s required.
Even people who agree with other public safety recommendations don’t necessarily think the vaccine is safe or effective.
Richmond wears a mask and abides by other safety guidelines, but said she relies on her robust immune system to protect her. She thinks her 30-year-old daughter and her grandchildren who have asthma should get the vaccine, as well as other elderly people. But she doesn’t intend to get one herself.
“I understand the vaccine doesn’t prevent you from getting (COVID-19). It just doesn’t make it bad if you do get it,” she said. “I’ve been here 56 years and so far I’m doing just fine.” So far, no one in her family has been vaccinated.
The CDC says the vaccines do prevent people from getting sick. A study of health care professionals shows that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines reduce the risk of infection by 90% after two doses. Even after just one dose, people were 80% less likely to be infected.
On Apr. 1, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris announced he was forming the COVID-19 Community Council of “ambassadors” to help encourage hesitant people to get vaccinated.
“One of the more important things we can do in addition to taking the shot ourselves is to encourage our friends, our neighbors, and our loved ones to take the vaccines. Vaccine skepticism is real,” he said.
Public health officials are trying new ways to encourage vaccination, including eliminating appointments by making the mass vaccination Pipkin site a walk-up and offering $20 Kroger and Walmart gift cards to the first 2,500 people who got vaccinated on Friday and Saturday. However, fewer than 1,600 people were served each day.
Floyd, the pastor, said it’s not too late to get accurate information out. He thinks classes on the vaccines, videos that can be played at churches and conversations with people like him, who’ve had the shot and can talk about their experiences, will help get people the facts they need to make the right decision for themselves.
“If we don’t have the information available, and if all we have is conspiracy information, that’s what they’re going to eat, that’s what they’re going to consume.”
Of the nine people interviewed in Frayser, only Rhonda Taylor, a patient care assistant nurse at Baptist Memorial Hospital, was excited she got a vaccine. Her first dose was in January, because she wanted to be fully vaccinated before she went on a birthday trip to Las Vegas in February.
She went on the trip – her first since the beginning of the pandemic – because she wanted a break from working at the hospital, which she said had been “flooded” with people with COVID-19. “It’s really kind of scary and spooky to see the floor full of people with it. It’s just crazy. I just think everybody should get a vaccine.”
It’s a personal decision, she acknowledged, and she understands people want some time to make sure it’s safe in the long term. Still, they’re free, safe and effective, she said, and definitely worth it.
“I think if everybody gets vaccinated we could get back to normal,” she said. “We really could.”
Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.