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A day at a St. Louis County walk-in clinic shows why some vaccine holdouts are changing their minds

Michele Munz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Health & Fitness

BERKELEY, Mo. — Charlotta Brooks had gone to four funerals in the past three weeks for loved ones who died from COVID-19. She lost her 81-year-old grandma as well as two cousins and her son's godmother, all in their 40s.

"Right around my age," said Brooks, 43.

Last Wednesday, Brooks walked four blocks from her home in Berkeley to the walk-in vaccination clinic at the John C. Murphy Health Center, headquarters for the St. Louis County Department of Health, and got her first dose.

She had been afraid to get the vaccine, having heard claims it was risky and that she could end up in an emergency room. But after seeing family members sickened from COVID-19, she sought information from her church leaders and friends who work in nursing homes and dentist offices. They encouraged her.

"If they got it, I should go ahead and get it, too, to prevent getting COVID-19 or giving it to someone else," Brooks said.

Convincing people to get vaccinated has proven a challenge for public health and hospital leaders, even as Missouri became an epicenter for the spread of the infectious delta variant now taking hold in the U.S. Despite rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, vaccination rates remained stagnant, state data shows. Just 47% of Missourians have initiated vaccination.

Health officials are trying everything they can to change the course: mobile vaccination teams, free rides to clinics, virtual question-and-answer sessions, enlisting residents to share their vaccine stories and making shots available at baseball games, churches, libraries, breweries and job fairs.

Last Wednesday, Gov. Mike Parson's administration launched an incentive program that will award prizes of $10,000 to 900 people who received the shot.

The scattershot approach shows the challenge in overcoming the various reasons why people have not yet gotten vaccinated.

"It's the only way forward. We have to meet people where they are," said Christopher Ave, county health department spokesman. "It takes supreme effort."

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey of unvaccinated individuals shows the most wary come from a range of demographics: Republicans, rural residents, younger people and people of color. Some say the shots are too new or they are worried about the side effects. Others don't trust government or don't think they need it. Smaller numbers are worried about missing work or having to pay for the vaccine, even though it's free to everyone.

Those filing through the doors last Wednesday at John C. Murphy, the county's busiest walk-in site, provided a glimpse into what finally convinces the holdouts to decide to get vaccinated.

Some said they were nudged by friends who work in medical fields or their church clergy. They saw others around them do fine after their doses. They were finally able to do their own research into the vaccine myths circulating on social media and in backyard get-togethers.

Some got sick from COVID-19 and don't want to get that sick again. Others had to meet travel or work requirements that they get vaccinated. Many were frightened by the increasing hospitalizations — even among younger adults.

After getting her dose, Brooks took a seat in the room full of empty chairs where people wait during their 15-minute observation period. The stress of working hectic, short-staffed night shifts at Wendy's along with losing family had weighed her down. The shot helped a bit.

"I feel relieved," she said. "I feel much better."

'I have five kids'

Jesse Williams, 67, is lean and strong. He still works, rehabbing homes on his own. He and his friends had not been worried about their chances of dying from COVID-19.

They didn't bother getting the vaccine, Williams said, thinking they were going to die of something anyway.

In the past two months, however, he lost three friends to COVID-19. He's watched the news about hospitals filling up with unvaccinated patients. He realized his odds were getting worse.

"I have five kids, all in their late 30s," he said. "It's time to watch out for them. They are just beginning life. My life is set.

"I want to see my daughter walk down the aisle."

Last Wednesday, Williams got his second shot of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine. He got his first a few weeks before at a pop-up clinic at Busch Stadium, which he happened to see while working on a home nearby.

"Plus," he said excitedly, "I got a free baseball ticket."

To keep others safe

Tameka Anderson, 31, of Breckenridge Hills, was getting her second dose but admitted, "Even now, I'm still on the fence about it."

From coffee to eggs to red wine, what's been found to be healthy later turns out not to be, she said. While the vaccines are effective now, she worries that will change as new variants emerge.

"Science changes," Anderson said.

Before getting vaccinated, she looked up information on the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. She read studies in medical journals. She talked to her mentor at church. She talked to her dad.

She and her dad eventually decided to get vaccinated around the same time.

"It's mainly to keep people around me safe. I don't want to risk giving it to them," Anderson said. "Even if it doesn't make a difference for me, it makes the people I love feel better."

 

'Do my part'

Dante Wiggins, 45, of Spanish Lake, was never against getting vaccinated.

"I was listening to people's reasons they don't do it, and they sound dumb," Wiggins said. "I don't want to be that guy, especially with all this stuff going on."

The surge in cases made him finally pull into the health clinic instead of driving past and get his first shot, with his smiling, snuggly 7-year-old daughter in tow.

"It's mainly for her. I don't want anything to happen to her," Wiggins said, because those younger than 12 aren't yet eligible for the vaccine. He's also a school bus driver.

"At this point, we should be done" with the pandemic, he said. "We are still dealing with this, and I need to do my part."

Trusted advice

If it wasn't for her daughter, a pharmacist, telling her about the safety of the vaccines, Linda Govan, 65, says she would never have gotten a shot.

"I was concerned about how quickly they came out," said Govan, of St. Louis. The technology behind the vaccines has been in the works for decades, her daughter explained, and they still underwent large and rigorous studies.

Now with two doses done, Govan said she feels safer being around her grandchildren given her age and being a recent breast cancer survivor.

She feels better protected doing her job in custodial work for the county health department and hopes to get rehired at Mercy, where she worked as a patient benefit adviser before getting laid off last summer. Mercy employees are required to get vaccinated.

Life-or-death issue

Pam Bryant, 64, of St. Charles, got her first dose despite being adamantly against it. She resisted, she said, because of a history in medicine marred by racial injustices, such as involuntary medical experimentation, forced sterilizations and unequal access to care.

"They've done so much to us. You don't know what's in these shots really," Bryan said. "I'm just skeptical of government and what has transpired in the past."

But she sees unvaccinated people filling up hospitals. She is older and has high blood pressure, placing her at higher risk.

"It's a life-or-death issue now, as far as I'm concerned," she said.

Her husband, however, is refusing to get vaccinated, and she's not trying to convince him.

"I respect his decision because I feel the same way ... that's his choice," she said.

'So much further to go'

A total of 51 people got doses last Wednesday at the health center. Thirty-four were getting their first dose, and most were walk-ins.

Site supervisor Lawanda Crayton said that's a switch from just a couple of weeks ago, when most were appointments for their second doses and less than a dozen people were getting vaccinated in a day.

Numbers were increasing, she said.

"They are saying, 'I have a family member in the hospital,' or, 'I have someone close to me get sick,'" Crayton said.

Nurse Rebecca Rozycki said she is spending more time with people, answering questions before they get the jab. Many are in her chair because they've lost loved ones, or a trusted person told them they should get the shot.

"They thought they didn't have to worry about it anymore," Rozycki said. "But now it's back."

The county health department has data tabulated for doses it has given out only through July 15. It has mirrored the statewide trajectory.

After giving more than 18,000 shots a week in mid-April, that number dropped to just about 500 a week in June and the first half of July.

State data shows 51% of county residents have initiated vaccination, with the lowest percentages in northern ZIP codes where a large percentage of Black residents live.

But the ZIP codes are starting to show some of the biggest increase in percentages, said Ave, of the county health department. They could be signs that outreach efforts are working.

"We have seen some progress. We are seeing people in our most vulnerable areas get vaccinated," Ave said. "We haven't turned a corner, but we are encouraged to a degree. We know there's so much further to go."

(c)2021 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.