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‘I’m learning firsthand how difficult it is to be shunned by people you love’: The vaccine wars are getting personal

The Rev. Miniard Culpepper, senior pastor at Dorchester’s Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, said he struggled to get his brother in Atlanta to get his shot.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The catcher was pretty and outgoing, but not so popular at Black Hawk Junior High School that she was unapproachable. The pitcher was the new kid in town who joined the softball team to make friends. By the end of the first warm-up, they were pals.

The girls are women now, middle-aged, their days playing for the Braves over. But they have remained teammates, supporting each other through life’s inevitable challenges.

“There is that comfort level with people who knew you way back when,” said Tracy Clements, once the new seventh-grader in a small town in Iowa, and now a radio producer living in Medford.


But in August — a few weeks before Clements’s visit back to the Midwest — there was a planning phone call, an inadvertent revelation, a long silence, and then a goodbye.

“I assume you are vaccinated,” Clements said.

“Well, I’m not,” replied her friend, now a chiropractor.

What? Why hadn’t she revealed this before?

“Because we don’t talk about vaccination status at work,” the chiropractor said.

“But I don’t work for you,” Clements said. “I’m your friend.”

But for now she’s keeping her distance.

With the Delta variant continuing its deadly march, the headlines are full of hatred. “As COVID resurges, vaccinated Americans rage against holdouts,“ WebMD reported. “The anti-vaccine con job Is becoming untenable,” wrote The Atlantic. “Doctors like me have a lot of anger at this new COVID-19 surge,” read an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

But alongside the rage aimed at unvaccinated strangers, a more intimate, more uncomfortable fury is boiling.

“This is tearing families apart,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, senior pastor at Dorchester’s Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church.

Tensions are flaring wherever you look:

At Boston Medical Center, where Katherine Gergen Barnett, a family medicine physician, sees patients tangling with relatives who don’t want them to get a shot. “It’s pitting loved ones against each other,” she said.


At a ladies’ gathering in the suburbs, where an unvaccinated but masked guest was suddenly treated like a pariah. “I feel a little bit sorry for her,” said one guest. “She will be ostracized, unfortunately.”

In Medford, where a grandmother from a close-knit family said she got a letter from her older sister telling her she wouldn’t see her if she remains unvaccinated, even though she regularly masks and takes other precautions.

“It was like a dagger to my heart,” she said.

The strife has gotten personal for Culpepper, too. As a pastor, he’s been working hard to inoculate parishioners and strangers through community outreach. But for months — despite prayers and near daily calls — he made no progress with his own brother, down in Atlanta.

“He would say, ‘Don’t ask me about that vaccine,’ ” Culpepper recalled. “He didn’t hang up on me, but he was pretty close.” (The brother was recently scared straight by a trip to the ER for a cut and saw up close what COVID does to a person.)

The vaccine has also strained an old friendship, Culpepper said, describing a painful scenario that involved an unvaccinated pal driving up from New York hoping for a visit.

“He called me [from his car] and said, ‘I’m here,’ but I said, ‘I told you not to come.’

“Then he went to another friend’s house and that friend called me and said, ‘He’s here, and I’m not letting him in.’ ”


“He drove back to New York,” he said. “We were all upset.”

At BMC, Gergen Barnett, the family medicine physician, thought about one of her older, unvaccinated patients, a man with diabetes, high blood pressure, and a history of strokes — a man who would become extremely ill should he get COVID, she said.

She recently engaged him in yet another conversation about getting the vaccine, and this time, her message sunk in — but the man was afraid to tell his wife.

“He didn’t want to disappoint her,” Gergen Barnett said. “It was almost like they had a compact.”

If the vaccine-related hostility started off flowing in one direction, from the vaccinated toward those who refuse to think of the public good, now some of the unvaccinated are the ones turning resentful.

“I’m learning firsthand how difficult it is to be shunned by people you love,” an unvaccinated woman, an associate director of statistics, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

She was so eager to vent that she created an anonymous account to get in touch with a reporter, and reiterated her desire to remain publicly unidentified in a follow-up phone call. She believes she has natural immunity from a bout with COVID in late 2020, she said, but people are treating her like a “leper.”

“A handful of friends are very vaccine-conscious but not necessarily risk-conscious,” she wrote. “They will go to a . . . highly dense mask-free outdoor gathering with strangers who have unknown vaccination statuses but are not willing to be near me even outside.”


(On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people who have already had COVID should still get vaccinated: “Research has not yet shown how long you are protected from getting COVID-19 again after you recover from COVID-19,” the website states. “Evidence is emerging that people get better protection by being fully vaccinated compared with having had COVID-19.”)

But no matter which side of the vaccine divide they’re on, few want their differences to end a relationship. Even as Clements’s trip to Iowa remains canceled, she’s driving around Medford hoping one of “our songs” will come on the radio.

She plans to snap a picture of the dashboard display and text it to the catcher, in hopes it will remind her of their days cruising southeastern Iowa, Roxette blasting. “After I got my license, she was the first person I was alone in the car with,” she said wistfully.

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her @bethteitell.