For these five Michigan residents, getting a COVID vaccine is ‘a hard no’
Whether fueled by faith or fear, beliefs tied to their own health or conservative politics, a significant portion of Michigan’s adult population agree on this: they want nothing to do with receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Public health officials say that’s of urgent concern, since at least 70 percent of the population must be vaccinated to reach “herd immunity” that will allow Michigan to escape the pandemic.
Bridge Michigan spoke with five residents about the beliefs that animate their opposition to COVID vaccines now approved for emergency use in the U.S. Their concerns ranged from the breakneck pace of vaccine approval, to confidence in their own immune systems, to a reliance on conspiracy theories that have been largely debunked.
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Three of the five people who shared their stories are white, one is African American and one is Hispanic. Most expressed wariness toward government or politicians. Four said they voted for or admired former President Trump, who has offered mixed messages on the need for vaccination and has amplified conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
Their views, expressed below, are similar to findings in recent surveys on Michigan attitudes toward vaccination.
A statewide poll by EPIC-MRA revealed just 46 percent of self-described Republicans said they would get the vaccine, compared with 90 percent of Democrats who said they would get a shot. Fully half of poll respondents who identified themselves as Trump supporters said they did not plan to be vaccinated.
Three vaccines are currently approved for emergency use in the United States and are deemed safe and effective by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Millions are scrambling to secure doses. Michigan now has the second highest case rate in the nation, including a high number of variant cases which are more likely to speed transmission of the virus.
Of the five people interviewed, none said they were inclined to change their mind.
POLITICAL IDENTIFICATION: Independent
A few weeks ago, Marine Corps veteran Bill Johnson got a call from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Did he want to sign up for a COVID-19 shot at a local clinic?
“There’s no way,” he told Bridge Michigan. “I turned them down.”
“I am not ready for vaccines that have not been tested and proven. I don’t understand the purpose of being a guinea pig.” [Fact check: The vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States each underwent clinical trials that tested the vaccines on tens of thousands of recipients, with high rates of effectiveness in preventing serious COVID-19 disease, before they were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug administration.]
Johnson’s doubts are underscored by what he said he hears on a police scanner he keeps in the Upper Peninsula bait and tackle shop he runs near Lake Superior with his wife, Jill.
“I hear people going to the emergency room, especially after the second shot,” he said. “That’s just way too much of a coincidence.”
Johnson does not consider himself a Republican ─ he voted for Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. He voted for President Trump, twice, and holds high regard for his work as president.
“Trump did this country a great service. He basically said America has to come first.”
Johnson, 58, said he answered his own call to service when he joined the Marines at 17, out of a small community west of Kalamazoo where he grew up. He was inspired by his grandfather, who served as a medic in World War II and who taught him to shoot when he was 9. Johnson served from 1979 to 1985, retiring to the U.P. in 2008 after a couple decades as a truck driver and dispatcher.
He believes government overreach needs to be guarded against.
“One of the last things my grandfather said was, ‘Don’t let them take your guns away,’” Johnson said.
He said there’s no chance he’ll let any government do that. He owns several handguns and an AR-15 rifle.
“My job is to protect my household,” he said.
Johnson said his wariness of government, and the emergency approval process for the COVID-19 vaccines, may have been sharpened by his own encounter with state bureaucracy.
In 2017, he sued the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services after he said it barred him from carrying a concealed handgun in his home, as he sought to become a foster parent to his grandson. The case caught the attention of the Fox morning news show, “Fox and Friends,” where Johnson said: “God gave me the right to defend my family. I’m not going to let a state agency tell me I can’t do that anymore,” he said.
The case was rendered moot when the state returned the grandson to his mother’s care.
Johnson said he harbors other suspicions about the COVID-19 vaccines. He’s skeptical of the science behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which rely on snippets of genetic code to trigger an immune response to the virus.
“They say it’s not an actual vaccine because there’s no dead virus in it, that it actually does something to change your DNA,” he said. [Fact check: Allegations that the vaccines alter human DNA have been widely disproven.]
Though Trump recently revealed he received the vaccine before leaving the White House and that it is “safe” and “something that works,” Johnson said the former president’s comments won’t change his mind, either.
“Trump was good for the economy,” Johnson said, “but he’s not a doctor, either.”
RESIDENCE: Grand Rapids
POLITICAL IDENTIFICATION: Independent
RACE/ETHNICITY: African American
Looking back on her childhood in Grand Rapids, Canary Mosley recalled piles of leafy vegetables on her dinner plate.
“Collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens. I was raised by an old Southern woman,” said Mosley, 65, who lives in a house on the city’s southeast side not far from where she was raised. She retired a decade ago, after working various factory jobs, as a school bus driver and paraprofessional.
Mosley said she learned early on that what you put in your body shapes your health.
“Anything that comes out of the dirt is good for you,” she said.
And so Mosley strives to eat and live right, a credo she says has served her well — and one she believes will protect her during the pandemic without a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I very seldom get sick. I very seldom even get a headache,” she said.
“For me, the bottom line is, if you maintain your health, you don’t have to worry about getting COVID,” she said. [Fact check: Good health is no guarantee of protection against COVID-19, with even healthy young people sometimes dying or suffering long-term health effects. Deaths from the virus are disproportionately high among older Black and Hispanic residents.]
Mosley said she does not share the views of some African-American friends who also do not plan to get vaccinated. They relay theories that billionaire Bill Gates wants to implant tracking microchips in the vaccine, or that wealthy elites spread the virus to make a profit. [Fact check: The claim that Gates plotted to microchip the world has been debunked multiple times.]
“They are all into that conspiracy stuff. I just look at them like they are crazy,” Mosley said.
Nonetheless, Mosley said she is suspicious of government at any level, and of both major political parties.
“The government is the biggest crooks in the country, Democrat or Republican, or however you want to put it, everybody is out to fill their own pocket,” she said. “They’re all crooks.”
Mosley has a cousin who’s been active in registering other African Americans in her area for COVID-19 vaccines.
“She’s talked to me a few times about it,” Mosley said, conversations that failed to make a dent in her thinking.
“I’m not going to change my mind. I’ve never been one to follow the crowd.”
POLITICAL IDENTIFICATION: Republican
On a wall of her small suburban Grand Rapids apartment, Joan Langeler keeps a photo gallery of her three grown children.
Below those pictures, there is a framed aphorism she embroidered decades ago that sums up her approach to life: “Life is fragile, handle with prayer.”
Sitting at her kitchen table, Langeler shared what she said her Christian faith tells her about COVID vaccines: “God has control of everything. When you put a vaccine in your body, you are messing around with God’s creation.
“Getting a vaccine, for me that would be a hard no,” she said.
At age 68, Langeler is winding down her work life, after more than two decades as a personal care aide. She juggles seven clients in a 36-hour weekly schedule, tending to older adults living at home dealing with everything from dementia to strokes to rehabbing from falls.
Her refusal to get a COVID vaccination tracks with some national polling of frontline workers, particularly early in the vaccine rollout. In early January, a significant minority of health care workers said they won’t get a shot. In Wayne County, roughly 40 percent of emergency responders declined to be vaccinated in early January. More recently, a March 19 national poll by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found 30 percent of healthcare workers have either not decided to get a vaccine or will not get one.
Langeler also questioned the value of wearing face masks — though she wears them as required by her employer. She said she’s skeptical that a layer of cotton or plastic fabric can stop a virus you can’t see.
“They say you have to look under a microscope to see the virus. These masks, they are not tight fitting. There are holes. They don’t do anything,” she said. [Fact check: Numerous studies have shown links between correctly and consistently wearing a mask and lower transmission rates of COVID-19.]
Langeler’s doubts about vaccines were nurtured by an upbringing in rural Kent County, where her parents grew organic fruits and vegetables. Langeler said they declined to vaccinate their five children.
“We went to a Christian school, where they did not say you have to be vaccinated. My mom didn’t like the idea of having all that stuff in our bodies.”
Langeler said she also grew up in a politically conservative household, where GOP President Ronald Reagan was a particular hero of her parents.
“I am very conservative,” she said. “I was raised Republican.”
She also is a fan of Trump. She voted for him twice.
“Trump was trying to really turn the country around, get some things accomplished and do things right. But he was fighting the media and they wanted him out from day one.”
Still, she’s not about to take vaccine guidance from any politician — even Trump.
“God has control over everything,” she said. “If he wants to take you home over any kind of illness, then it’s time.”
POLITICAL IDENTIFICATION: Independent
As often as not, Luz Calvo spends part of her day on a computer in her living room, searching for uncovered truths about COVID-19.
One of her primary sources: RT en Español, the Spanish-language version of RT (Russia Today), which is the state-controlled television network funded by the Russian government. While Russian officials tout RT as a legitimate news source, it is regarded by many experts and U.S. intelligence as a Kremlin propaganda tool.
Calvo lobs similar charges back at the media in the U.S.
“Right now, we have a lot of media in the United States that is working for the government,” she said. “They are manipulating it right now to make the virus look scary. It’s fake news.
“You don’t have to be scared about it,” added Calvo, a native of Mexico who has lived in West Michigan since 1993. She and her husband are in the Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming, parents to three grown children. She has no intention of getting vaccinated.
National polling shows higher doubts about the vaccine among Hispanic residents. A survey of U.S. adults in January by KFF, a nonprofit health care research organization, found just 36 percent of Hispanic adults would “definitely” get vaccinated, compared to 46 percent of white adults. A follow-up survey in February found growing gaps in vaccination rates for Hispanics compared to whites, a difference it linked to reluctance to get the vaccine and lack of access to vaccines.
Andres Abreu, editor of El Vocero Hispano, a Grand Rapids-based Spanish language news publication, told Bridge that rumors spread by social media and word of mouth over sinister vaccine plots and government control of the population are still holding back some Hispanic residents from getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
“Fortunately, these rumors have started to fade and people are more receptive to getting vaccinated,” he said.
Calvo, though, also raised other theories about COVID-19, including doubts about the medical theory that the virus jumped from animal species to humans in China.
“I think it came from a lab in China,” she said. “They planned it, government and pharma ─ they know what strings to pull.” [Fact check: This claim, a far-right talking point and a theory that has been pushed by Trump, is so far unsupported and has been linked to violence and intimidation against Asian Americans.]
While people who identify as Republican compose the largest survey group opposed to vaccination, Calvo considers herself neither Democrat nor Republican ─ expressing admiration both for liberal Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Trump.
“Trump was saying the truth about political corruption,” she said.
In the meantime, Calvo said, she will continue to put her health in her own hands.
“I don’t drink pop. I don’t smoke. I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables and drink a lot of water. I think this helps my protection.”
Calvo said there’s one unlikely option that would convince her to take a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I would only get the Russian shot,” she said, referring to Sputnik V, a vaccine developed by Russian scientists that is being exported to nations including India and Brazil. There’s little chance the Russian vaccine would be approved for U.S. use.
RESIDENCE: Three Rivers
POLITICAL IDENTIFICATION: Republican
Steve Carra figures he might have inherited a couple traits from his mother, Veronica Carra.
Her immune system. And her doubt that vaccines hold the answers to beating COVID-19.
“My mother is a tough lady,” said Carra, a Republican state House member from Three Rivers.
“She raised eight children and 17 grandchildren and did home day care,” he said, recalling the sometimes crowded house where he grew up outside Kalamazoo.
Carra believes his mother built a robust immune system, owing to multiple exposures to viruses that circulate among young children.
“My mother hardly ever gets sick. And she doesn’t plan to get the vaccine. She doesn’t trust it. She’s probably even more skeptical about it than I am.”
Carra said he likewise does not intend to get vaccinated. At age 32, he said he’s better off relying on his own immune system than a vaccine he doesn’t trust. [Fact check: Deaths among younger adults are less likely, with those aged 30 to 39 accounted for just 5,583 U.S. deaths as of Wednesday — or about 1 percent of 526,028 total U.S. deaths. An unknown number of individuals from various age ranges have developed significant “long-haul” COVID symptoms.]
“I think building up my immunity and being exposed to people is going to make me prepared. To hide from it would weaken my immune system and would not prepare me for potential future fights,” Carra said.
While polling shows widespread doubts among rank-and-file Republicans over COVID-19 vaccines, Carra is among a very few GOP lawmakers to openly state their intent to decline a shot.
GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, who tested positive for the coronavirus Dec. 23, said in late January he would “make the assessment” on getting a shot after all others had been vaccinated.
Carra worked for three years as a staffer for state Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, regarded as among the most conservative House members.
Carra is fiercely anti-abortion, and favors “heartbeat” legislation that would ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually in the first six weeks of fetal development. That squares with the EPIC-MRA poll that found 42 percent of Michigan voters who identify as pro-life said they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine. He’s also an unabashed supporter of former President Trump.
Carra’s suspicion of big government and the pharmaceutical industry – “The system is corrupt,” he said ─ also leads him to question how COVID-19 vaccines were developed.
“I struggle with the idea of taking a vaccine that used human embryonic cells in the development stage,” he said.
Experts say cell lines derived from fetal tissue taken from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s were used in research for both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, but add that no cell lines, aborted or otherwise, are used in vaccine production. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine uses cells that are descended from tissue taken from an elective abortion in its production, prompting some Catholic bishops to denounce its use. Pope Francis has been vaccinated for COVID-19 (as has former Pope Benedict) and has said people have “an ethical obligation” to be vaccinated.
Carra accepts no such responsibility.
“Government coercion and trying to pressure people into compliance out of fear is something I’m not interested in,” he said. “And I will stand strong against it.”
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