Shanata McMillian-Shepard was ready to get the vaccine back in March. She scheduled her first shot as soon as she was able, and was so excited to finally be vaccinated that she cried.

“It was overwhelming,” she said. “There were so many people dying.”

However, around the same time, McMillian-Shepard lost her driver’s license. Her appointment required a picture ID, so she was forced to cancel it. Getting a new license took weeks amid the pandemic. Then, complications with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine surfaced. McMillian-Shepard was now torn. She began thinking about how a vaccine might interact with her body. She has an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s disease, in which her immune system attacks her thyroid. The condition leaves her fatigued, with bodily aches.

“I was scared that it was going to exacerbate my symptoms,” she said. “And between me already feeling bad because of my autoimmune disease, and not being sure how the vaccine would affect me, I was thinking, How am I gonna be able to take care of my 6 and 14 year old?”

At that point, McMillian-Shepard decided not to get the vaccine.

As COVID-19 numbers continue to rise due to the proliferation of the Delta variant, anger and resentment from those who have been vaccinated towards those who are not is also swelling. More than 17 months into a global pandemic, many are weary, facing what some are calling, “COVID fatigue” and it’s contributing to a rift between those who are vaccinated and those who are not.

This week, TCB spoke to six different individuals who were previously vaccine-hesitant but then changed their minds. They explain why they felt wary of the vaccines, why they ultimately changed their minds and what helped them to do so.

Shanata McMillian-Shepard (Black, female, 41)

‘I feel like I should have done it earlier.’

After McMillian-Shepard decided not to get the vaccine, a few months passed. Then this summer, her older son, Chancelor, expressed interest in playing high school football. And despite her hesitation with getting the vaccine, McMillian-Shepard had been consistently monitoring the COVID-19 numbers and tracking where outbreaks were happening the most. She knew from her research that team sports created a vulnerable situation for student athletes, and that her son would need to get the vaccine if he wanted to play.

“I knew we were all going to have to get it and suck it up,” she said. “I said, ‘If you play football, you have to get the vaccination,’ and we weren’t going to make him get anything that we weren’t going to get ourselves.

“That really is what changed my mind was my older son,” she continued. “Play time is over. I guess it’s kind of like as a mom, I didn’t worry about how it was gonna affect me anymore. I wanted to make sure we were doing everything possible to ensure his safety.”

On July 17, McMillian-Shepard and her family, including her son and her husband, all got vaccinated with their first dose of Pfizer. In doing so, they decreased the risk of passing the virus on to Ar-jai, her 6-year-old son, who is not eligible to get the vaccine yet because of his age.

In the end, she said, her family hardly experienced any side effects. She has no regrets.

“I feel like I should have done it earlier,” she said. “I feel good. It’s a selfish act really because you’re doing it for you, but also for the community too, to keep everyone safe.”

As a Black woman, McMillian-Shepard said she was initially wary about taking a new vaccine because of the country’s history with medical racism and experimentation on Black bodies, but then reasoned with herself that one of the principal scientists who worked on the Moderna vaccine was a Black woman too — Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.

“I don’t believe a Black woman is going to invent something that’s going to kill us,” she said.

For those who are still hesitant to get the vaccine, McMillian-Shepard said people should reach out to doctors they trust and make the best decision for themselves. For her, that meant getting vaccinated.

“Don’t wait,” she said. “If you can do it, do it, you know? It’s like it’s not getting any better and we need everybody to do it, because there are people who can’t do it so those of us who can do it just need to do it.”

For a list of common misconceptions about the vaccine and how to respond to them, visit our post here.

Dawn Watlington (White, female, 41)

‘If someone is anxious, it’s understandable.’

When Dawn Watlington finally got the COVID-19 vaccine in early July, it was the first vaccine of any kind she had gotten since 2008. Watlington says she suffers from medical anxiety and that when the COVID-19 vaccines first came out, that she was very unsure about putting a new vaccine in her body.

“Anything having to do with my health causes me a great deal of anxiety,” she said. “I’m not a great medicine taker as it is, so it was frightening because I didn’t know what the side effects were.”

Still, Watlington had always vaccinated her children and both of her daughters had already gotten a COVID vaccine. The problem was more about her own personal anxiety. Then, in April, Watlington got COVID-19. She didn’t have to go to the hospital but she says she still suffered from fatigue and was bedridden for days. That’s when it got her thinking about how the virus might affect others.

“I started thinking about it then like, Man I’m a 41-year-old woman; I’m very healthy and if I got as sick as I did, I can’t imagine how it’s going to affect other people,” she said.

While she and her husband were at the Fun Fourth Festival this year in downtown Greensboro, they spotted a pop-up vaccine site and took the plunge. Ultimately, she said her decision was about making sure that she didn’t spread it to other, more vulnerable people.

“The anxiety of getting the shot was still there but I thought to myself, it can’t be any worse than when I had COVID and, it can’t be worse than someone being on a ventilator,” she said.

As for symptoms, Watlington said she didn’t feel well for a couple of days but said it was much better than she expected. Now that she’s gotten the COVID vaccine, she says that she’ll likely start getting the flu vaccine yearly too, something she hasn’t done since 2008.

“The coronavirus vaccine was huge for me,” she said. “For the way that I struggle with anxiety it was really big for me to overcome that. I thought, If I can do this, I can get the flu shot every year.

Leading up to her decision, Watlington said she spoke a lot with her doctor, who has helped her deal with her medical anxiety. She also spoke with family members who had gotten the vaccine like her daughters.

“If someone is anxious, it’s understandable, but having the support was really important to me; having other people meant a lot,” she said.

In the end, she said she had to let empathy drive her decision.

“I felt like did a good thing,” she said. “I really do feel like it takes a village to do so many things in my society. I felt like an asshole that it took me so long. I felt so selfish that I let my anxiety keep me from doing something I should have done a long time ago. Even if I don’t save anybody or if I keep like five or six people from getting it, I felt like it was my duty as a member of this society to do it.”

For a list of common misconceptions about the vaccine and how to respond to them, visit our post here.

Aly Jones (White, female, 37)

‘I just wanted to learn more.’

These days, Aly Jones hears a lot of the same arguments that kept her from getting the vaccine.

That it feels experimental. That the side effects are unclear. That the long-term side effects could be dangerous.

Jones, who worked as a teacher for 13 years, said that she never got the flu vaccine during that time. However, she did get a Tetanus booster and HPV shots. Still, despite the fact that her parents and her in-laws had decided to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Jones was still unsure.

“I felt like, Why am I going to take this experimental vaccine that’s a crapshoot? That doesn’t seem worth it,” she said. But as time went on, Jones did her research.

She found out about how long the mRNA technology had been in development, and monitored how vaccine rollouts were going in European countries. She found out that an mRNA vaccine has nothing to do with injecting an inert virus, and that long-term side effects were highly unlikely. She found out that even if side effects do occur, they would manifest in the first couple of weeks or months afterwards, not years. And that’s been true virtually for all vaccines in history. Given that information, Jones said she felt much more confident getting the vaccines. She scheduled her shot in March and had her second dose by the end of April. One of the biggest things that helped her change her mind in addition to learning more about the vaccine was learning how detrimental COVID-19 can be for immunocompromised individuals for whom vaccines aren’t as effective or are not possible to get.

“I have become much more aware of how my vaccine status affects immunocompromised people, and how my medical decisions affect people in my community,” Jones said. “That had a big impact on me, that really hit me hard. That I can help other people by doing this thing that is just a week and a half of discomfort; that’s in general been a huge shift for me.”

Now that’s she gotten the vaccine, Jones said that knowing all of the information ahead of time would have played a huge role in making her feel more comfortable with getting vaccinated.

“If other people in my life were educated about the things I was concerned about and had been able to talk to me about those things, I think it would have made a difference,” she said. “I just wanted to learn more. If someone had had that information to educate me on, that would have made a difference, but everyone in my life was operating on gut feelings.”

And even though she was vaccine-hesitant, she says she understands the frustration many feel against those who haven’t gotten the vaccine. But she says the best thing to do is to be patient.

“Not everybody who oppose this vaccine is necessarily anti-vaccine,” she says. It’s the newness that seems to be freaking people out…. For people who are frustrated with others take a step back and try to empathize and see and ask. That asking piece is just so important; try to understand why they are not getting vaccinated.” And for those that are still hesitant, Jones recommends the same thing.

“I urge them to also take a deep breath and take a step back and ask yourself what is stopping me?,” she said. “Is it because it is new? Is it because the medical community has not cared for me in the past? And have I given it a fair chance?… Because I understand being afraid, but it’s hard when we let fear be our controlling factor.”

For a list of common misconceptions about the vaccine and how to respond to them, visit our post here.

Bobby Johnson (Black, male, 43)

‘We’re not going to be guinea pigs….’

Bobby Johnson has a healthy distrust of authority. As a Black man who grew up in this country, he knows the history of medical racism and experimentation that have been enacted upon Black and Brown bodies throughout American history.

“My feelings are compounded by the fact that I’m Black,” he said. “They’ve treated us in the past like lab rats. I think Black people are a lot more hesitant because it feels like it’s something that we’re being experimented on.”

Johnson, who lives in Greensboro, said that he was a healthy child and that he hasn’t gotten vaccines since 2007. He also said that the expedited appearance of the COVID-19 vaccines made him hesitant at first.

“I feel like if we have so much chronic illness and different problems, how come we can’t come up with a solution in under a year, but all of a sudden a worldwide pandemic gets solved in under a year?” he wondered. “It just seemed a little iffy from a production perspective.”

Still, many in his family, like his older aunts, got the vaccine when it came out. His wife, who is white, also got it when she was eligible.

Johnson said the thing that really changed his mind was thinking about the future and having conversations with his wife about traveling.

“We were talking about how we probably wouldn’t be able to catch a plane and things like that,” he said. “And I don’t like restrictions so that’s one of the reasons why I yielded.”

Earlier this summer, Johnson got vaccinated with either Moderna or Pfizer, he doesn’t remember which. And despite his hesitations, he said he felt fine after his shots and that his arm was sore for a while, which is a common side effect, but that was pretty much it.

Even after getting the vaccine, Johnson remains distrustful of government entities and corporations.

He said that a more unified message towards the beginning of the pandemic would have assuaged some of his concerns.

“They shouldn’t release information too soon,” he said. “I understand the need to inform the public, but looking at it from a Black perspective, I think our antennas are up for BS. If the government says one thing and someone else says something else, we’re already jaded…. As a minority, we’re not going to be guinea pigs when history has proven that it doesn’t work out for us.”

In the end, he said he had to think about the safety of his family when considering the vaccine.

“We don’t know what the long-terms effects are going to be, but the short-term problems are going to be if you contract it, you may be fine, but is it worth spreading it to your loved ones when you can avoid it?,” he said. “It’s not worth it. Not taking it, the risk is too high at this point.”

Gonzalo Leal Alegría (Latinx, male, 47)

‘Not anyone who wants the vaccine can get it anywhere.’

Gonzalo Leal Alegría got his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine in July. Before then, he had been learning about the vaccine by watching CNN in Spanish but hadn’t been convinced yet.

“It was so new and we were basically not sure of what is it and is it really going to work,” Alegría said. “I think now we’re still understanding how it’s working.”

But in February, his sister in Mexico got sick and died after complications from COVID-19. She had been hospitalized for two weeks and was released, but by the time she got home, her lungs were weakened and she regressed. Some time later, Alegría also got sick and got his own COVID-19 test but the results came back negative. That’s when he decided to get vaccinated.

“I keep seeing people who are sick around us,” Alegría said. “I feel more safe because we haven’t gotten sick. I just learned about a family from a friend who all got sick with COVID and I asked them if they were vaccinated and they hadn’t been. So this makes me feel like we are doing what we need to do to be safe.”

Alegría also considers the fact that back in his home country of Mexico, the vaccine is not as readily available.

“I know that in Mexico it wasn’t until recently that people have been able to be vaccinated,” he said. “But in my experience once I was able to make up my mind, I was able to get an appointment so fast. And even with COVID tests, here they’re free, but sometimes in other countries, like Mexico, you have to pay for it out of pocket. Here we have those benefits where in our countries of origin they may not have them. Not anyone who wants the vaccine can get it anywhere.”

Now that his entire family is vaccinated, Alegría says he’s trying to talk his friends who are still holding out to get vaccinated too. He believes that eventually, it’s going to be mandated.

“Either way you’re going to have to get it,” he said.

Alex Goldstein (White, male, 53)

‘It’s about people always meeting everyone’s needs in the moment.’

Alex Goldstein thinks a lot about the choices he makes for his life. So when the vaccine first came out earlier this year, he took a long time to think about whether he wanted to get it and what the possible outcomes might look like. He also searched for information from reputable sources and talked to his parents — he trusts their opinions on the vaccine too. As someone who is on the autism spectrum, Goldstein said that gathering information and understanding different perspectives is important to him.

“There’s this aspect of wanting to be thinking critically and thoughtfully,” he said.

And because Goldstein says he has a mixed relationship with authority, it took him a long time to come to the decision to get vaccinated.

In June, he got the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine.

He said that he didn’t really have a reaction to the shot, and the crowd at the mall where he got the vaccine caused him much more stress. But now they he has gotten it, he says he feels safer.

“I’d rather be on the safer side of things,” he said. “I feel a little bit safer because I feel more protected, but I don’t want to take anything for granted. There’s some peace of mind but I don’t want to let my guard down either.”

Now, as someone who was vaccine hesitant and then changed their minds, Goldstein wants more people to be empathetic and understanding of those who may still be wary.

“I think the more that we can approach things as a human experience, the better,” he said. “It can be hard because of what people have been around as far as political, but I think the more we can just approach from a thoughtful place and relate in a way that makes people feel comfortable is better…. Caring for each other and seeing how we are in relationship to each other can be hard, but it’s not about having an agenda. We just want to be thoughtful about the barriers and helping people find another way to navigate this. The more we can just as human beings see ourselves in each other, and that’s not just with COVID and the variants, the better. COVID has helped us see more clearly of how people are all connected.”

Even now, Goldstein hesitates to say that others should get the vaccine. For him, it’s more about understanding how the other person feels and going from there.

“I’m big on meeting people where we are in the moment,” he said. “I don’t want to tell people what to do or not to do. I’m big on sharing information and putting things out there and saying, ‘I understand, I had hesitancy, too.’”

For a list of common misconceptions about the vaccine and how to respond to them, visit our post here.

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