This story is reprinted with permission from The Cleveland Observer.
The wider availability of coronavirus vaccines in recent weeks has many Clevelanders weighing whether to get the shots, which can protect against severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
In Cuyahoga County, as of April 16, more than 490,000 people had at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine. Black and Latino residents were about half as likely to have gotten a dose as white residents.
Cleveland Documenters interviewed more than 40 friends, family members, neighbors and residents from across the city over the past several weeks to understand their views, which in some cases were still evolving.
Quite a few folks jumped at the chance to take the vaccine, though some still worried about barriers that could keep their neighbors from having the same opportunity.
Many who had decided against being vaccinated or who were on the fence said side effects were a primary concern. Others worried about missing work if they felt ill.
Overall, residents who told Documenters that they got information from their doctors, health centers, or government sites such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were more likely to be vaccinated or to have a plan to sign up when they were eligible. No residents who took vaccines said they regretted their decision.
Barriers, hesitancy and conflicted feelings
Anita Smith, a 51-year-old educator, trusts the medical system and thinks that vaccines work, but she has not scheduled one for herself, she told Documenter Janenell Smith.
“I think I will get sick,” Smith said. “And I cannot afford to get sick, especially on purpose.”
Jake Corrigan, a resident of the Euclid-Green neighborhood, believes access for working residents needs to be expanded.
Some people can’t afford to miss work, and employers aren’t obligated to excuse absences for people being vaccinated.
“Too many people can’t or won’t afford the time and/or pay lost from missing work for a vaccination,” the 42-year-old told Documenter Tina Scott.
Charliene Arrington also was concerned about barriers and information that could prevent some residents from accessing vaccines. The 65-year-old said vaccine opportunities need to be available “close to home” for people who lack access to computers and transportation.
“It is good that RTA is offering free transportation and parking is free around the Wolstein Center,” she told Documenter Sharon Lewis. “I just don’t know if that is enough.”
Undecided, feelings often evolve
Judith Knight hadn’t decided whether to take the vaccine yet when Documenter Sharon Lewis chatted with her in March.
The Mount Pleasant resident, who is retired, still had questions, like: Are the shots covered by health insurance and do they require a copay? How severe will the side effects be?
(Note: If people have insurance it must cover the vaccine. If a person does not have insurance, it is free.)
“I’ll hear about someone who had a good experience with the vaccine,” the 56-year-old said. “Then I’ll hear about someone who had a bad experience with the vaccine.”
“My mother is going to be 90 years old this July, and I worry about it being safe for her. Once I do my research, the whole household will probably get the shot.”
Kalim Hill, a 25-year-old Cudell neighborhood resident, is conflicted about the vaccines.
He said as a Black male he does not trust the vaccine. But he was happy when his grandmother got her shot.
“It’s kind of hypocritical of me, because I want people to be safe, but I’m not getting it,” he told Documenter Giorgiana Lascu. “I’m in a weird gray area.”
Hill lost people he knew to COVID-19, people exposed at their jobs. The trauma of losing over 500,000 Americans made him question the country’s morality.
“I’m getting emotional just thinking about it,” he said.
But he isn’t surprised by it because past harms, like the war on drugs and the AIDS epidemic, were not addressed until white America was impacted.
“I bring this up contextually because history repeats itself and I truly don’t believe that people then, now, or in the future will value the deaths of Black people until a white life is lost from the same cause.”
Vaccinated and grateful
Chris Bell was among the first groups of people to be fully vaccinated. Bell, 28, lives in a long-term-care facility and has health conditions that put him at high risk for complications from the virus.
“The vaccine will change my life and hopefully keep me alive longer if this pandemic does continue for more years,” he said.
Even if Bell’s own risks weren’t high, he’d still want the vaccine “to protect my health and to protect other people’s health,” Bell told Documenter Dan McLaughlin.
Isabel Merriman-Velez, 16, signed up for her vaccine in March through United Way’s 2-1-1 help line. “I was actually really surprised by how easy it was to schedule an appointment,” she told Documenter McKenzie Merriman.
At first, Velez said, her parents wanted her to “hold off” on the vaccine because of her age.
“I was a little like ‘Oh, I should be able to have a say in this, I want to get it, it should be my choice,’ but I let them do their research.”
Her mother checked with her doctor and made sure it was safe for her to get because she lives with a blood clotting disorder, which Velez said means she “doesn’t scab easily.”
In the end, her parents supported her decision and her dad took her to the Wolstein Center mass vaccination site because she is still a minor. There, Velez saw: “so many people, all kinds of people, young people, old people, men, women, all different races.”
“It was like the chairs in this big stadium and a bunch of Army people in their Army uniforms, so it did feel kind of out of a book or a sci-fi movie.”
The Ohio City resident said a lot of her friends are getting vaccinated, which is good because they are also socializing and going to games and parties. One friend, who is 15, was feeling a little left out when others were posting their vaccine cards.
“It’s a silly thing, but we’re still in high school, so if someone has something, you also want it.”
Detroit-Shoreway resident Antonio Stacy Foushee said his wife, Hilary, spotted on Instagram an opportunity to schedule shots and jumped on it.
Foushee, 34, was impressed with the operation at the Wolstein Center. It gave him hope because it was the most organized operation he’d ever seen in Cleveland.
“It feels like Cleveland is aware of the challenges it has and CAN rise to the challenge to act swiftly and do things well for its citizens,” he told Documenter Angie Pohlman.
Science, history and lived experience influences choices
Mount Pleasant resident Alan Bedingfield understands why fears exist about the new vaccines. But he’s also a “science buff” and his sister works in cancer research, so he leaned on her expertise and his own personal research before deciding the vaccine was worth the risks.
“I understand that some may worry since the vaccine was created so quickly, and we don’t know the side effects,” Bedingfield, 57, told Documenter Candice Wilder.
And while long-term vaccine side effects are unknown, the same is true for those who get the virus and could experience long-term harm to their health.
“Overall, it can save your life in the now,” he said.
Amanda Light, 26, told Documenter Chau Tang that she would get the vaccine when it is available for her and was not concerned they were developed too quickly. “They’ve been researching viruses like this before coronavirus happened,” she said. “These types of strains happen organically, and that’s why we were able to develop a vaccine so quickly.”
Joseph Patrick Meissner was one of the Cleveland residents who turned to doctors and medical professionals for trusted advice on the vaccine. He also studied up on the public health responses to past crises such as the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, the spread of smallpox and the Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague.
The 78-year-old Cudell resident used to rely on television but now sees it more as a “giant propaganda machine.”
Meissner had a positive experience getting his vaccines at the recreation center in his neighborhood, through an initiative with the city’s Department of Aging.
“I think most people have become a little more positive in the last several weeks. … They see the example of others getting it,” he told Cleveland Documenter Rosie Palfy.
Rhonda Wilson, 61, got her vaccine at East Technical High School because she works at a learning pod at the Fatima Family Center.
What’s on Wilson’s mind, though, are folks who don’t believe in vaccines or the virus, told Documenter Sheila Ferguson.
“What will that mean for the rest of us who care about living and not being super spreaders?”
Keep our local journalism accessible to all
Reader support is crucial as we continue to shed light on underreported neighborhoods in Cleveland.
Will you become a monthly member to help us continue to produce news by, for, and with the community?