Why Are Some Houstonians Afraid to Get a Covid-19 Vaccine?

Houstonian Juan Sabogal, 21, has been working through the pandemic as an essential worker at H-E-B, but he doesn’t mind. Sure, he’s putting his health on the line, but for Sabogal, it’s for the greater good during these difficult times. It’s an act of kindness, he says, to be useful to those in need.

But although he’s put at risk everyday working at a grocery store, he’s not sure he wants to get a Covid-19 vaccine.

“I go back and forth when I think about whether or not I want to take the vaccine,” says Sabogal. “I feel as if I am getting forced into taking the vaccine with immediacy and am not being heard when I express being skeptical.”

Mixed Emotions

Ever since Gov. Greg Abbott reopened Texas at full capacity and removed mask mandates on March 10, there’s been a big push from local governments and public health officials for people to get vaccinated to prevent future Covid-19 spikes. That push only got stronger once vaccine eligibility opened to all adults in the state of Texas on March 29.

“It’s a good thing to get vaccinated,” said U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson Lee at a March 29 press conference, where she and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner encouraged students and alumni at University of Houston, Texas Southern University, and the University of St. Thomas to sign up for a shot.

Some, like UH junior Alexa Perin, 23, are enthusiastic about getting the vaccine and have been from the start of the test trials.

“I want to get the vaccine to ensure my safety and finally get back to a sense of normalcy and provide extra protection while I continue following all CDC guidelines,” she says.

But despite the eagerness of some and the push from local authorities, many Houstonians are reluctant to get a Covid-19 vaccination.

“I am not comfortable taking the vaccination because I think the clinical trials were not long enough to come out with this vaccine in less than a year,” says 48-year-old Monica Roberts-Jenkins, a heart attack survivor. “I am afraid of long-term effects it may have on my body.”

Robert-Jenkins says she even finds it difficult to get her seasonal influenza vaccination, which has been around for ages.

Minority populations are especially hesitant—of the total number of vaccines that have been administered in Harris County, only 10 percent have gone to Black or African American populations and another 10 percent to Asian populations (for context, 35 percent have gone to white populations and 23 percent to Hispanic populations), according to data from Harris County Public Health.

For some, this hesitancy results from mistrust and mistreatment by the government and healthcare system, as well as fears about the science behind vaccines.

“At first, I was on the fence about getting the vaccine due to rumors I have heard regarding the vaccine,” says Edna Davis, 65, who is Black. “It scared me.”

Changing Minds

Although health care professionals are breathing a sigh of release now that vaccines are here, they’re not blind when it comes to people’s reluctance to take the vaccine. After all, it’s human nature to be concerned about what we put in our bodies.

Learning about how the vaccines work is one way to assuage fears, says 23-year-old Kenna Sacky, a Covid-19-unit nurse at Memorial Hermann–Sugarland.

“Research how vaccines are curated,” she suggests. “Go to your trusted health care professional and ask us questions. We will be glad to make patients feel at ease when discussing the vaccine and any future concerns regarding your health.”

Still unsure? Richard M. Mizelle Jr, 45, a medical researcher and professor at the University of Houston, says researchers have been testing vaccines for types of coronaviruses since the 1980s. Both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccines use mRNA technology, which scientists began developing after SARS was identified in February 2003 in Asia. Mizelle says scientists have done their due diligence over the past two decades with countless research studies and the mRNA vaccine is safe. (Want to know more about how mRNA works? Check out our interview with Dr. David Persse.)

Of course, the widespread impact of the virus has also played a role in changing people’s minds about the vaccines. As of March 31, there have been 183,860 total cases of Covid-19 in Houston, according to the Houston Health Department, and 2,221 deaths. Of those deaths, 54.23 percent were Hispanic and 20.85 percent were Black. Many have lost loved ones, including Edna Davis.

“After losing a family member from Covid-19, my entire thought process has changed,” she says, with tears in her eyes. “That is when I knew getting the vaccine would be the best choice for me. The loss put into perspective just how real and how close the virus is. I did not want to be another victim to it.”

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