The pandemic has transformed our lives over the past 16 months in ways that won’t even be evident to us until way down the line. We’ve been through stay-at-home orders, Lysol and toilet paper shortages, mask mandates, and unspeakable loss and tragedy. And throughout the devastation, scientists around the world have been working to quickly develop a safe and effective vaccine to stop this deadly virus.
Last month, all adults in the U.S. became eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine. We’re now able to schedule jab appointments — or, in some cases, get walk-up appointments — for the Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer vaccines at doctors’ offices, drive-through sites, local drug stores, and more. It seems easy — but while some people jumped at the chance to have a Hot Vax Summer, for others, the choice to get vaccinated hasn’t been so simple. In fact, one in four Americans would flat out refuse a COVID-19 vaccine if offered, according to a recent NPR/Marist poll.
Before we get enraged about classic anti-vaxxer nonsense, not everyone’s vaccine skepticism is unwarranted. For many people of color, there’s good reason to be apprehensive about a medication or procedure being aggressively pushed on them. The U.S.’s historical atrocities of medical experiments like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and decades of systemic medical racism explain some Black Americans’ general distrust in vaccines and the U.S. healthcare system as a whole.
And then there’s the fear around how fast the pharmaceutical companies dropped the vaccines. The fastest vaccine to ever be developed (before COVID-19) was the mumps jab, which took four years to reach the public. So, it's fair to wonder how the COVID-19 vaccine could be developed so swiftly. The truth is though, that this type of vaccine has been in the works for years; the specifics were just refined recently year to specifically address COVID-19.
On a more baseless end of the vaccine mistrust spectrum, then there are ridiculous (and totally debunked) conspiracy theories floating around the internet in abundance. The reality is that both COVID-19 and vaccines have both become so highly politicized, nearly half of Republicans have no plans to get inoculated.
But many Americans who weren’t originally planning to get the vaccine have changed their minds, and I spoke to some of them. While their reasons for initial distrust in the COVID-19 vaccine varied, there’s one common thread: People who overcame their apprehensions are happy they did. Here are their stories.
Amanda Ghent, 38, Rock Hill, SC
I contracted COVID-19 in December. It rocked my world to be a healthy athlete — one who shouldn’t get the “death disease,” as I called it — and contract the virus. It affected me greatly and altered my training for four months.
For personal reasons, I’ve never been one to get a flu vaccine and have been very grateful to never contract the flu. Just like with the flu vaccine, there was a hesitant part in my body that told me that I didn’t know the whole truth about the COVID-19 vaccine. I also didn’t want somebody to tell me I had to do something — so I was a little apprehensive.
I would say I was slightly peer pressured into getting the COVID-19 vaccine. I just want to spend time with the people around me, have fun, and make them feel comfortable. Besides the appointments becoming easy and convenient — I could literally walk out my door to Walgreens down the street and get a vaccine — I’m too much of a social person not to get it. There are too many areas of life I have yet to experience, like traveling the world, and it sounds like in order to have certain experiences, you’re going to be required to have the vaccine. We are all doing the best we can, and if getting the vaccine is the best I can for the people around me, then I’m going to do it.
Now that I’m vaccinated, I’m excited to take my oldest daughter to Spain. She turned 10 last year, and we were supposed to celebrate there, but of course, that didn’t happen. If anything, I got my vaccine in order to go to Spain, because it will definitely be required for international travel. I’m also going to a running camp this summer that requires their campers to be vaccinated. I didn’t want to be kept from anything fun in my life. I don’t feel like I gained a lot of joy after getting the vaccine, but I know my joy won’t be taken away now. Plus, now I can walk into a room and if somebody says — because it’s a part of every conversation — ”Have you been vaccinated yet?” I can say, “Yep, sure have!”
Nick Beller, 27, Chicago, IL
I have been working in a hospital setting and bartending since the beginning of the pandemic. I’ve been living in these two worlds of getting weekly updates about how many people are dying, having severe reactions to COVID-19, hospitalized, and on ventilators, and also hearing from people at the restaurant where I bartend that COVID isn’t real and that the vaccine is fake.
When it was announced that my peers and I at the hospital would have first priority access to the vaccine, I was hesitant to sign up right away and a little apprehensive based on the timeline in which they were able to develop the vaccine. So I sought out some outside resources. I contacted members of my family who work in biotech and asked their thoughts, because I work in psychology, not virology, and I didn’t want to make assumptions in an area that I’m not an expert in.
After getting more information, I felt kind of dumb about my hesitations, because COVID-19 is not the first SARS virus we’ve had. It’s not like COVID-19 was a totally novel virus — even though the way it has impacted the world has been pretty novel — so scientists were basically just building off of what they’d already started working on and what they had information about for decades.
I also learned that economic and scientific resources have all been funneled toward COVID-19, whereas before the pandemic, they were dispersed across many domains. The pandemic created a bottleneck effect, where scientists pushed other existing projects aside and shifted gears to figure out COVID-19. Hearing this, it started to make sense why the vaccines were approved faster than under “normal” circumstances.
Working in psychology, most of my job is about effectively communicating to people when they’re scared.
I had no reaction to my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, but after the second dose, I was really sick for 48 hours, which brought me back to my initial hesitation. But after 72 hours, I was completely back to normal, and I learned that my reaction was a sign my immune system was working properly (although you can have absolutely no reaction to the vaccine, and your immune system will still be working). That helped ease my anxiety and allowed me to more effectively explain my experience to the people I engage with.
Working in psychology, most of my job is about effectively communicating to people when they’re scared. I’m in a very unique position to ease their fears about any uncontrollables right now, while also letting them know that getting the vaccine is the best way to get back to “normal.”
I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to get the vaccine and that, in the U.S., we’re in a position where anyone who wants it can get it. The next steps are on an international level, because there are parts of the world — like India — that are experiencing massive surges of COVID-19 cases. We need to figure out how we can expand outward to make sure everyone on a global level has access to this vaccine.
Kevin Johnson, 46, Ypsilanti, MI
My apprehension about the vaccine came down to risk assessment. It’s a new vaccine; it hasn’t been tested for a long time; and my wife, my son, and I aren’t in a demographic that’s considered high risk for COVID-19.
My apprehension about the vaccine came down to risk assessment.
The pressure to get the vaccine came from my wife. I might’ve stood my ground, but I realized if you don’t have a vaccination, the rules will be different, which we’re already starting to see now. My favorite gas station and grocery store just switched to no masks for fully vaccinated people, and I didn’t want not being vaccinated to be an issue for travel or cause any arguments. It wasn’t a life or death decision for me, but I wanted to join the numbers.
Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I did go to my favorite local grocery store, and for the first time in a year, walked in without a mask on. It was uncomfortable at first, but then I walked around feeling exhilarated, knowing I’m protected now. My son is 15 and just made the choice to get vaccinated too, so now everyone in the family will have their vaccine passports.
Brianna Ferraro, 27, Los Angeles, CA
My hesitation to receive the vaccine was personal. I tend to not even get the flu shot, just because I always got sick from [the side effects], and ultimately I believe in allowing our immune systems to do what they need to do to fight viruses. And when the COVID-19 vaccine came out, I think everyone — myself included — was a little nervous about how quickly it was made.
I know the mRNA technology used to create [the Moderna and Pfizer] vaccines already existed, but no one had ever used the mechanisms for a vaccine, and the FDA hadn’t approved it yet. When people started getting vaccinated, you would hear these weird horror stories about people getting sick, and I decided I didn’t mind waiting a bit. But I work in the healthcare field as a medical assistant, technician, and future nurse; so I ended up getting the vaccine, as I feel it’s my due diligence to be protected and protect patients I treat.
I feel totally fine after getting the vaccine. I still have my reservations about it, but I do trust it now more than I did prior… And now, even for going to a Dodgers game, you have to have your vaccine and show proof that it’s been two weeks since your last shot. I’m excited to get going, travel more, and go to Dodgers games and concerts again.
*Interviews have been edited for length and clarity