Early COVID-19 vax skeptic changes her mind: ‘Our family was making this decision’ 

By: - August 6, 2021 8:38 am

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Jennifer Smith was planted firmly in the COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy camp during the winter of 2020-21. 

She was skeptical of the arrival of the federal government-led vaccine process. After all, the 44-year-old African American Grambling State University graduate remembered learning about the infamous Tuskegee Experiment, where the federal government injected Blacks — some unknowingly — with syphilis between the 1930s and 1970s as part of a research study to learn more about the disease. 

“It was a challenging feeling of being insecure,” said Smith, founder and college success coach for Closing the Gap Detroit, an organization that provides a blueprint for students to navigate their college education.

More importantly, she questioned whether medical professionals had thoroughly tested the vaccine. 

Jennifer Smith photo

“Do they have enough information?” she recalls thinking. “Did they get enough from the clinical trials?” 

“I was concerned about how the vaccine was going to affect my body,” Smith said. “I was adamant that I wasn’t going to take it.”  

Scientists began clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccine in mid-March 2020. Research into earlier forms of coronavirus have been taking place for years. Top medical professionals, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, vouched for the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness. 

Nonetheless, Smith took a wait-and-see approach. But in March, she took her first dose. 

So what changed her mind?

Smith said she was heavily influenced by her brother, who conversely could not wait to get the vaccine. Soon after, her elderly parents took their shots in the arm, too. She also discovered that seven friends who were skeptical about the vaccine had contracted COVID-19.

“Our family was making this decision,” said Smith. “I was met with a ton of emotion.” 

Study on vax-hesitant Americans 

Smith’s vaccination decision mirrors survey results from a recent Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) “COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor” report that finds that people who were initially hesitant to get a vaccine in January and ultimately did so often said that family, friends and their personal doctors helped change their minds.

KFF surveyed Americans between Jan. 14 and 18 and June 15 and 23.

One in five (21%) of all adults are now vaccinated after expressing some level of hesitation in January, saying then that they planned on waiting to get vaccinated, would only get it if required, or would definitely not get vaccinated. 

Those in this group gave several reasons for changing their minds: 

  • 25%: Seeing friends and family members get vaccinated without serious side effects 
  • 11%: Conversations with their personal doctors
  • 9%: Easing restrictions for vaccinated people
  • 8%: Pressure from friends and family 
  • 3%: Being able to safely visit family members 

Two-thirds of vaccinated adults say they have tried to persuade their friends and family members to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and 17% of adults who are now vaccinated after being hesitant in January say they were persuaded to do so by a family member and 5% say they were convinced by a friend. 

The Protect Michigan Commission was formed in December to serve as a bipartisan advisory group to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). It is designed to elevate and reinforce the importance of an approved COVID-19 vaccine, identifying barriers that may impede the acceptance of the vaccine by Michigan residents. That includes identifying areas or groups within the state that are likely to experience vaccine hesitancy, and develop an outreach action plan designed to overcome these barriers. 

Brian Loussia of West Bloomfield | Screenshot

It has led the “MI Shot to Win” lottery-style raffle for Michiganders vaccinated against COVID-19, along with private partners. It offers $5 million in cash prizes and nearly $500,000 in college scholarships.

“Gov. Whitmer continues to use every tool in the toolbox to get more people vaccinated so we can save lives and get back to normal once and for all,” Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy told the Advance on Thursday. “We know that studies have shown people are willing to get vaccinated if they have an incentive to do so.”

Brian Loussia, 59, of West Bloomfield on Wednesday was one of several $50,000 “MI Shot to Win” winners. The COVID-19 survivor, who is white, spoke about “being on the fence” for months before taking the vaccine in July. His daughter encouraged him to take the vaccine. 

“She is planning to start a family and didn’t want me to get sick again,” said Louissia, who is a real estate agent. “She wanted me to be able to spend some time with them. That’s one of the main reasons I got it, she really encouraged me and I’m glad I did.’’ 

‘I just wanted to go to school’ 

But for some, the decision to take the vaccination has more to do with being able to earn a living, or earn a college degree. B’Nathaniel Orlu, a 19-year-old African-American Detroit resident, remains skeptical of the vaccine, although he was immunized in July.

“I just wanted to go to school,” said the Morehouse College sophomore.

B’Nathaniel Orlu photo

The historically Black college in Atlanta, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and noted filmmaker Spike Lee studied, is requiring all students to have been vaccinated before taking in-person courses. So have several colleges in Michigan, including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University. 

Like Jennifer Smith, Orlu’s concern was whether the vaccine had been thoroughly tested during the trial period. They both live in a city where only 40.4% of residents aged 12 and older have at least a vaccine dose as opposed to 58.4% of Michigan residents in the same category who have been vaccinated. 

By contrast, Oakland County, which borders Michigan’s largest city, has a 12-and-older vaccination rate of 68.5%. 

The difference in percentages is striking when considering that the Motor City was one of the top areas in the nation rocked by COVID-19 during the early months of the pandemic. The New York Times reported in March 2020 that in less than two weeks, 35 people with the coronavirus had died in Detroit. At one point in March 2020, nearly 500 city police officers — about 25% of the force — were in quarantine because of the virus.

The pandemic hit leaders hard, too. City Council President Brenda Jones and then-Police Chief James Craig, who’s running for governor as a Republican, contracted COVID-19 and survived. So did Detroit state Reps. Karen Whitsett and Tyrone Carter. It’s believed that the late Issac Robinson, also a Detroit House member, was the first state lawmaker in the nation to die of the coronavirus. 

In recent months, Detroit officials and other institutions have implemented various efforts designed to encourage more people to take the vaccine. Mayor Mike Duggan has stated he is disappointed in the city’s vaccine rate. He has led efforts to improve the percentage such as door-knocking, opening vaccine sites in trusted community spaces like community centers and homes of worship, and carrying out home visits to seniors who can not readily leave their residences.  

Kim Mitchell, a 45-year-old African American Montessori school teacher in Detroit, described herself in December as “No. 50 million and one to get vaccinated.”

Kim Mitchell photo

“Don’t get me wrong. I knew that COVID was real,” she said. “But I was just going to stay in the house and see what happened to other people first. I wanted to see what happened in six months.”

Mitchell also was concerned about whether the vaccine would work. However, the fear of contracting COVID-19 from school-age children or adults in the workplace and then passing it to her elderly mother was all that she needed to get vaccinated in January, when educators were first given the opportunity to take the shot.

Like Mitchell, Smith does not regret her decision to take the vaccine.

“The only way that we are going to get on the other side of this thing is for people to get vaccinated,” said Smith. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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