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In their words: Hesitant at first, they got vaccinated — and are glad they did
Vaccine hesitancy: How do you convince an unvaccinated person?
Better late than never, as the saying goes.
Massachusetts residents who only recently got immunized against COVID-19 cited a variety of reasons for waiting: a torrent of misinformation on social media, concern that the vaccine would exacerbate preexisting medical conditions, and skepticism of the health care industry deeply rooted in many communities of color.
Over the past week, as the Delta variant continued to rise, The Boston Globe spoke to several people who for months were wary of the vaccine. Now that they‘ve got it, they don’t regret doing so — and are calling on others to get vaccinated, too.
Sherlyne Jean, 29, Everett
Some people respond to the carrot-and-stick approach, but Sherlyne Jean wouldn’t be pressured by peers or pulled in by prizes. The only thing that could persuade her was good, hard evidence.
“The nurses were the sacrificial lamb of the pandemic,” said Jean, 29, a nurse at CHA Everett Hospital. “The fact that they had the vaccine be rolled out for health care workers first, I just felt like it wasn’t safe.”
Jean said she’s one of many health care workers who initially had reservations, but that most stay quiet to avoid ostracization.
“When I would talk to my colleagues and they would ask me if I was vaccinated, I could see the looks and the voice intonality when I told them I wasn’t,” she said.
A Black woman, Jean cited the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study — a four-decade government research project in which doctors withheld treatment from Black men with the disease — as a major reason for her hesitancy.
“They just keep telling everyone, ‘Get vaccinated, you’ll win the lottery!’ or ‘Win a free chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-A!’ and it’s offensive,” Jean said. “People are really scared about getting the vaccine, so these politicians and higher-ups need to figure out a way to get that information to the people safely and as clearly as possible.”
She decided to get vaccinated after she saw that people weren’t experiencing any extreme side effects from the shots, and also because of rising cases among patients. Jean — who shares a home with her mother and a brother who has asthma — is happy she took the step. But she’s even happier that it wasn’t a decision made in fear.
“Don’t listen to what your manager or your sister or your friend is saying,” she said. “Do your research and really look up the facts.”
Jason Melendez, 17, Everett
Getting the shot wasn’t much of a priority for Jason Melendez or his siblings, until the “vaccine passport“ became a reality.
“To travel out of the country, that’s the main reason we got it,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to get vaccinated at first, but we had to.”
Melendez’s family is originally from Latin America, and they like to go back to visit relatives. Since the pandemic, travel outside the continental US has only become more complicated, and he’s eager to hop back on a plane as soon as he can. A number of Latin American countries, including Ecuador, El Salvador, and Guatemala, require travelers to either be fully vaccinated or present a negative COVID test within 72 hours of departure.
A student at Everett High School, Melendez said he “didn’t really trust the shot,” especially after watching a series of TikTok videos of people who claim to have suffered horrible symptoms after getting it.
Ultimately, though, his family decided it was best for everyone to get vaccinated before the fall. On Wednesday, his mom drove Melendez and his siblings to a vaccination clinic in Somerville so that everyone over 12 could get a Pfizer vaccine.
“School’s coming around, and they’re gonna require the shot,” he explained. “Plus you never know when you might have to travel or go somewhere” unexpectedly.
Melendez said that people worried about the jab should know that it’s no big deal.
“I thought it was going to hurt at first but it didn’t,“ he said, adding that young people who are hesitating “might as well just get it out of the way.”
Shirley Walker, 55, and Chantelle Allen, 20, Dorchester
As someone with numerous medical conditions, Shirley Walker had much to fear about the virus. But it wasn’t until last week that she believed the vaccine could stop that panic, instead of adding to it.
“I’m already a very sickly person and I don’t want to get COVID because I heard it’s different for people like me,” said Walker, who has high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma. “I could get really sick, so I just made the decision to get vaccinated, even though I’m scared of it. I just wanted to do the right thing for my safety and for my family.”
When the vaccine was first announced, “I was like ‘Hell, no. I’m not getting that!’ I was scared,” said Walker, who sat beside her daughter in the Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Dorchester after her first dose. One of Walker’s biggest fears was how the vaccine might interact with her prescriptions. “I don’t want to put something in my body that’s going to make me even more sick.”
Clear information about the side effects of the vaccine, allergic reactions, and other details on what to expect were hard to come by, while antivaccine messages seemed to be everywhere.
“It’s just been a lot,” said her daughter, Chantelle Allen. “She doesn’t really go on social media, but if you do, you see a lot of conspiracy theories, a lot of people faking getting the vaccine and having crazy reactions. It’s a lot of stuff that can redirect your attention to the wrong people.”
Ultimately, Walker’s concerns about her health overrode worries about the vaccine. As she learned more about how the shot worked, she began to feel safe.
“I’m not too scared anymore … except of that needle,“ she said, laughing.
Allen wasn’t planning to get vaccinated either, until she tested positive for COVID a couple weeks ago. Now, she’s just waiting for a negative result so she can come back to the Prince Hall clinic and get her shot.
“I’m not used to getting sick, and I’ve never had to deal with a constant fever or chest pains, so it scared me really bad,” she said. “It’s a really big eye-opener once you get it, it makes the vaccination look a ton less scary.”
Emmanuel Kabonge, 25, Somerville
As a recent nursing school graduate, Emmanuel Kabonge knew that getting vaccinated would protect him from COVID-19 — he just wasn’t sure what else it would do to his body.
“I didn’t know how the vaccine was going to treat me or how I would feel afterward,” Kabonge said. “I just didn’t trust the system.”
He received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in May “for the sake of my patients.” But he didn’t feel particularly compelled to get the second shot until recently, when he made his way to the CHA Somerville Vaccine Center for round two.
“I got the first shot when COVID was at its highest peak, so it seemed like a necessity for me to get it. They said the first dose was 89.9 percent effective, so I felt like the second dose was just a booster,” Kabonge said. “But finishing school, I know now I should have it. The variants are coming back again, and I see that those who are fully vaccinated have a greater chance of not being affected so much.”
Even without the rise of the Delta variant, Kabonge said he would have gotten his second dose eventually.
“I travel a lot, and I think it should be one of the requirements for you to travel. And those who resist in the beginning, they end up getting it anyway,” he said. “So I definitely support it 100 percent.”
Lucienne Clerge, 82, Malden (as translated by her daughter, Marie Clerge)
For 82-year-old Lucienne Clerge, the decision to get vaccinated was a family affair.
“The whole family already had [the vaccine], but I didn’t because of the blood-thinner medication I was taking,” she said in Creole, sitting across from her daughter in the waiting area of a Somerville vaccine clinic. “I wanted to make sure I was in good health before I was vaccinated, but our family figured I should have it and … the doctor said it’s OK, so this is my second dose.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Clerge was in her native Haiti when she was diagnosed with a lung disease, on top of her existing high blood pressure and diabetes. After her family brought her to the US for treatment, another set of medical problems further weakened her health.
By the time the vaccines rolled out, Clerge and her family worried the shot might harm her already fragile respiratory system. But once her condition improved and information about the vaccine’s safety became widely available, Clerge and her family decided it was time. Plus, after weeks of isolation for her own protection, Clerge was beginning to miss the things she used to do, like going out with friends and family.
“We all know what’s going on out there, so it’s best for me to have the vaccine,” she said.
Fully vaccinated, Clerge is looking forward to visiting relatives in Haiti one day.
“The vaccine is a good thing to do right now,” she said. “You’ll feel better when you can start doing the things you weren’t able to do before.”
David Brennan, 61, Tewksbury
David Brennan headed to the North End last week to host a carnival game at the annual Fisherman’s Feast Festival. He returned home to Tewksbury with an unexpected prize: a vaccination card.
While walking through the neighborhood that afternoon, Brennan stopped to rest at a bench in front of North End Waterfront Health. Before long, a staffer struck up a conversation — and offered him $25 if he consented to the shot.
“Might as well,” he thought to himself. “I got a couple of hours to kill.” Plus, he said, “Cash is always good.”
Inside the clinic, Brennan opted for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it’s just one shot; he didn’t want to bother with a second. For just a moment, it “hurt like hell.” Then it was over, and his arm felt fine.
Brennan said he had been “on the fence” about the vaccine for awhile. “I wasn’t antivax, but I wasn’t pro-vax,” he explained.
Still, he said, “it was just a matter of time.” If he were to contract COVID-19, he knows he’d be at risk of severe infection — even hospitalization or death.
“I’m 61 years old, I’m overweight, and I smoke,” he said. “I’ve got three great kids, all grown up, a great granddaughter. I’m good. I don’t want to get [the virus].”
Brennan has a relative with cancer, whom he wants to visit soon. He hopes his vaccine will protect them both.
The spate of vaccine mandates announced in recent weeks by public and private entities also influenced his choice.
“It seems to be the world is going this way,” Brennan said. “I am a hippie, and I am rebellious, but I’m not going to stop and fight any vaccine. I’m going to go with the flow.”
“At least then I can say I got it,” he added. “I have the card, the proof, all that.”