Six months ago, Patricia Rogers was sure she would not get vaccinated against COVID-19. She was worried vaccine development had been rushed and there wasn’t enough data to know whether the shots were safe and effective.
But on Monday, Rogers, 62, went to a Walmart, rolled up her sleeve, and received her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
What changed between December and June? As Shelby County government and businesses lifted mask restrictions and expanded or removed capacity limits, Rogers felt less safe being unvaccinated.
“People are still dying and a lot of people just think, ‘Well, you know everything’s over,’ but it’s not… I just felt like it was just time to get it done,” Rogers said.
She was part of the group of people local, state and national health officials are trying to win over: The hesitant or skeptical who could still be convinced to get vaccinated. They might be reluctant but are also open, and some have already changed their minds.
A national poll from September conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and ESPN’s The Undefeated showed Black Americans nearly evenly split on whether they would likely get the vaccine or decline it, but hesitancy has been declining steadily.
59% – vaccinated or want to be
22% – still considering vaccination
12% – refuse vaccination/only receive shot if required
15% – still considering vaccination
19% – refuse vaccination/only receive shot if required
10% – still considering vaccination
18% – refuse vaccination/only receive shot if required
Data collected between May 18 and 25 by KFF showed that 22% of Black American respondents were still considering whether they would get the vaccine, while 59% said they were already vaccinated or wanted to get the shot as soon as they could. Only 12% say they would get it only if required or definitely would not get it.
That compares to 15% of Hispanic and 10% of white Americans who want to wait and see, and 19% of Hispanic and 18% of white Americans who don’t plan to get the vaccine or will only get it if required.
Meanwhile, a Tennessee state poll from April showed that nearly 54% percent of respondents of all races were “willing but hesitant” to be vaccinated. White conservatives are the least likely to change their minds about wanting the vaccine, according to the poll, while Black respondents were more likely to be willing but not yet ready.
Anecdotally, hesitancy has been steadily declining for a while, said the Rev. Keith Norman, vice president of governmental affairs at Baptist Memorial Health Care and who serves on the city and county’s joint COVID-19 task force. However, drops in hesitancy slowed after the news that a very small number of people developed rare blood clots after receiving the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
But the Rev. Ricky Floyd said he hasn’t noticed a decline in hesitancy. His church, Pursuit of God Transformation Center in Frayser, held a pop-up vaccination clinic in early April, which served more than 300 people, he estimated.
The pause on Johnson & Johnson solidified some people’s anxieties, he said. And the initial inequities in the vaccine rollout “gave people time to think their way out of making, in my opinion, the right decision,” he said.
In Shelby County, nearly 370,000 people – or just under 40% percent of the population – have gotten a shot. However, in some predominantly Black ZIP codes, such as 38127, that drops to as low as 23%. As a result, officials in Memphis and Shelby County have started door-knocking campaigns and other measures to encourage vaccinations.
But some who formerly were against getting vaccinated now believe the benefits outweigh possible drawbacks. Rogers, who is Black, said her decision to get the shot was largely influenced by her wariness of being around people who do not wear masks or social distance. On May 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks, and Shelby County lifted its mask mandate for vaccinated people two days later.
Without being able to tell who’s vaccinated and who isn’t, Rogers couldn’t feel safe in public. She also conducted her own research and watched TV news segments featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and CDC officials, she said.
She’s seen the toll of the virus up close. Members of her church, Greater Harvest Church of God in Christ, have died from COVID, which was “devastating.”
“That kind of really changes your mind about the vaccine,” she said.
‘The only responsible thing to do’
Getting the virus was a major reason Timothy Moore, 39, changed his mind about being vaccinated. When he spoke to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism in December, he was worried about the long-term side effects of the vaccine.
Those fears have subsided, though they haven’t entirely disappeared, Moore said. He will probably wonder about long-term side effects for years.
Still, Moore, his girlfriend, and two of their three daughters all got shots in May. Ultimately, what changed his mind, he said, were “trauma and grief.”
The whole family caught the virus during the winter surge, Moore said, and they all were hit badly. His oldest daughter, who is 20 years old, was hospitalized for three days, he said.
“It was bad,” he said. “It was really scary.”
Moore is an educational consultant, and as it became clear he’d have to work in person in the spring, he used his personal days to delay his return. Finally, he decided it was safer to get the vaccine.
As with Rogers, COVID-19 has killed people he loved, including a friend, a colleague and a cousin. He was scared of bringing the virus home to his daughters, including his 17-month-old.
“What if I bring something back, my baby girls catch something and they die? I couldn’t deal with that,” he said.
“I felt like it was the only responsible thing to do as a father – take it (the vaccine) and go” back to work.
Moore was raised in Tuskegee, Alabama, home to the notorious syphilis study where 600 men with the disease were left intentionally untreated as part of a 40-year study, so researchers follow its long-term effects. The study’s scars deeply affected how many perceive the medical community, which has a history of racism.
After he was vaccinated, Moore learned more about the development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines from a microbiologist he knows. As he came to understand that the technology used in the shots had been worked on for decades, his worries about vaccines being rushed eased.
‘On their own terms’
Educating people and answering their questions helps quell fears, said Norman, who is also the pastor at First Baptist Church Broad, which was a vaccine site for the Baptist hospital system.
Allowing people to ask questions to qualified health professionals and having events in churches helped people feel more comfortable, Norman said. “Easing the tensions around all of the components of vaccination is very important.”
If people change their minds now, Norman said, it’ll likely be because of workplaces requiring vaccines or mandating masks for unvaccinated people. And as time passes and the unvaccinated see the continued long-term safety of the vaccines, they may choose to take the shot.
As Rogers filled out her pre-vaccination form at the Walmart in Hickory Hill on Monday, Nicole Wells waited for her friend to finish her second shot.
Wells had just gotten her second vaccine as well, coincidentally on her 48th birthday. She’d been skeptical for a while, too, she said. But after praying and talking with her doctor, she decided in May to get the shots.
She has underlying health conditions and said the threat of catching the virus was much scarier than any worries about the shot. Getting vaccinated will allow her to eventually take off her mask and feel safe, she said, though she expects to keep her mask on for at least a little longer.
“I feel like everybody should (get vaccinated), but on their own terms. Because we do have so many mixed feelings with it, and it can be scary,” Wells said.
“I’m glad I came to the conclusion to get it done.”
After the pharmacist administered the shot to Rogers, she smiled and gave a big thumbs up, then headed off to do some food shopping. A day later, she said she still felt fine, with no major side effects.
Now, she’s worried that there aren’t enough people getting shots in Shelby County, she said. So would she encourage other people to get vaccinated?
“Oh, most definitely.”
Hannah Grabenstein is a reporter for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rafael Figueroa, a journalist with La Prensa Latina, translated this story to Spanish.
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