Real women share the reasons behind their hesitancy toward getting inoculated, despite the consensus among experts.
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As of publication, roughly 47 percent or more than 157 million Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, of which more than 123 million (and counting) people have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, not everyone is rushing to the front of the vaccine line. In fact, some 30 million American adults (~12 percent of the population) are hesitant about receiving the coronavirus vaccine, according to the latest data collection period (which ended April 26, 2021) from the U.S. Census Bureau. And while a new survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research suggests that, as of May 11, fewer Americans are reluctant to get immunized against the virus than recorded earlier this year, those who remain hesitant cite worry about the COVID-19 vaccine side effects and distrust of the government or the vaccine as their biggest reasons for the reluctance.

Ahead, everyday women explain why they're choosing not to get the vaccine — despite the overarching sentiment from infectious disease experts, scientists, and global health agencies that inoculation is the best way to win in the fight against COVID-19 globally. (Related: What Exactly Is Herd Immunity — and Will We Ever Get There?)

A Look At Vaccine Hesitancy

As a community health psychologist in Washington, D.C., Jameta Nicole Barlow, Ph.D., M.P.H., is outspoken in her efforts to help push back against the "blaming" language around the vaccine, such as that about Black people simply being afraid of it. "Based on my work in various communities, I don't think that Black people are afraid to get the vaccine," says Barlow. "I think Black communities are using their agency to critically think about their health and community and making the best decision for their families."

Historically, there has been a fraught relationship between Black people and the advancement of medicine, and fear of that mistreatment is enough to make anyone pause before signing up for a fairly new vaccine.

Not only have Black people suffered at the hands of the prejudical health care system, but from the 1930s through the 1970s, one-quarter of Native American and one-third of Puerto Rican women endured unauthorized forced sterilization by the U.S. government. More recently, reports surfaced of women in an ICE detention center (most of whom were Black and Brown) being coerced into unnecessary hysterectomies. The whistleblower was a Black woman.

Given this history (both past and extremely recent), Barlow says vaccine hesitancy is especially prevalent among Black communities: "Black communities have been harmed by the medical-industrial complex for the last 400 years. The real question is not 'why are Black people afraid?' but 'what is the medical establishment doing to earn the trust of Black communities?'"

What's more, "We know that Black people have disproportionately been turned away for care during COVID-19, as in the case of Dr. Susan Moore," adds Barlow. Before dying of COVID-19 complications, Dr. Moore took to social media to give a scathing review of her mistreatment and dismissal by her attending physicians, who expressed that they weren't comfortable giving her pain medications. This is evidence that "education and/or income are not protective factors for institutionalized racism," explains Barlow.

Much like Barlow's take on distrust of the medical system in the Black community, pharmacist and Ayurvedic expert Chinki Bhatia R.Ph., points out the deep-seated distrust within holistic wellness spaces as well. "Many people in the U.S. seek solace in Complementary and Alternative Medicine or CAM," says Bhatia. "It's mainly practiced together with standard Western medical care." That being said, those who use CAM typically prefer a more "holistic, natural approach" to health care vs. "unnatural, synthetic solutions," such as laboratory-created vaccines, says Bhatia.

Bhatia explains that many who practice CAM avoid the "herd mentality" and often lack trust in large-scale, for-profit medicine (i.e. Big Pharma). Due largely in part to the "spread of misinformation through social media, it is not surprising that many practitioners — wellness and conventional — hold misconceptions about how the COVID-19 vaccines work," she says. For example, many people incorrectly believe the erroneous claims that mRNA vaccines (such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) will alter your DNA and affect your offspring. There are also misconceptions about what the vaccine can do to fertility, adds Bhatia. Despite scientists disproving such claims, myths persist. (See more: No, the COVID Vaccine Doesn't Cause Infertility)

Why Some People Aren’t Getting the COVID Vaccine
Credit: Getty Images - Design:Alex Sandoval

Why Some People Aren't Getting (or Didn't Plan to Get) the COVID-19 Vaccine

There is also the belief that diet and overall wellness are enough to protect against the coronavirus, which is keeping some people from getting the COVID-19 vaccine (and even the flu vaccine, historically, for that matter). London-based Cheryl Muir, 35, a dating and relationships coach, believes that her body can handle a COVID-19 infection and, thus, says she feels there's no need to be inoculated. "I've researched how to boost my immune system naturally," says Muir. "I eat plant-based foods, work out five days a week, do daily breathwork, get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of water, and watch my caffeine and sugar intake. I also take vitamin C, D, and zinc supplements." It's important to note, however, that not all of these methods have been shown to be effective at improving immune response. And while, yes, taking vitamin C and drinking water may help your body ward off a common cold, the same cannot be said for a deadly virus such as COVID-19. (Related: Stop Trying to "Boost" Your Immune System to Ward Off Coronavirus)

Muir explains that she also works to reduce stress and prioritize her mental health, which does affect your overall wellbeing and physical health. "I meditate, journal for emotional regulation, and talk to friends regularly," she says. "Despite a history of trauma, depression, and anxiety, after a lot of inner work, today I'm happy and emotionally healthy. All of these activities are linked to a healthy self and a strong immune system. I won't be getting the COVID vaccine because I trust my body's ability to heal itself."

For some, such as Jewell Singeltary, a trauma-informed yoga instructor, hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine is due to a distrust in medicine because of racial trauma and her personal health. Singeltary, who is Black, has been living with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis for nearly three decades. Despite the fact that both are immunocompromising conditions — meaning that they weaken the immune system and in turn, can increase patients' chances of developing complications from coronavirus or other illness — she's reluctant to take something that is supposed to give her a fighting chance against the virus. (Related: Here's Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus and Immune Deficiencies)

"It's impossible for me to separate the history of how this country has treated my community with the present-day reality of the rates at which Black people with pre-existing conditions are dying from COVID," shares Singeltary. "Both truths are equally terrifying." She points to the notorious practices of the so-called "Father of Gynecology," J. Marion Sims, who conducted medical experiments on enslaved people without anesthesia, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, which recruited hundreds of Black men with and without the condition and denied them treatment without their knowledge. "I am triggered by how these events are part of my community's daily lexicon," she adds. "For now, I am focused on boosting my immune system holistically and quarantining."

Historic prejudice and racism in medicine aren't lost on organic farm owner Myeshia Arline, 47, of New Jersey either. She has scleroderma, an autoimmune condition that causes hardening or tightening of the skin and connective tissues, so she explains she was hesitant to put anything she didn't understand into her body that she felt was already difficult to control. She was particularly wary of the vaccines' ingredients, worrying that they could cause an adverse reaction with her existing medications.

However, Arline consulted her doctor about the components of the vaccines (which you can also find on the Food and Drug Administration's website) and any potential reactions between the dose(s) and her current medications. Her physician explained that the risks associated with her contracting COVID-19 as an immunocompromised patient far outweighed any malaise from getting the vaccine. Arline has now been fully vaccinated. (Related: An Immunologist Answers Common Questions About the Coronavirus Vaccines)

Jennifer Burton Birkett, 28, of Virginia is currently 32 weeks pregnant and says she isn't willing to take any chances when it comes to her and her baby's health. Her reasoning for not getting vaccinated? There isn't enough information yet about side effects for pregnant women, and her doctor actually encouraged her not to get it: "I'm not trying to harm my son in any way," explains Burton Birkett. "I'm not going to put something in my body that hasn't fully been clinically tested on multiple subjects. I'm not a Guinea pig." Instead, she says that she'll continue to be diligent about hand-washing and mask-wearing, which she feels is certain will prevent transmission.

It is no surprise that women would be hesitant to put something new into their bodies that would, in turn, be transferred to their babies. However, a recent study of more than 35,000 pregnant women found no adverse side effects to the mom and baby from the vaccine, outside of the typical reactions (i.e. sore arm, fever, headache). And the CDC does recommend that pregnant women get the coronavirus vaccine since this group is at risk for severe cases of COVID-19. (What's more, there's already been one reported case of a baby being born with COVID antibodies after the mom got the COVID-19 vaccine while pregnant.)

Having Empathy for Hesitancy

A part of bridging the gap between minorities and the medical communities is building trust — starting with acknowledging the ways that people have been wronged both in the past and present. Barlow explains that representation matters when trying to reach people of color. Black health professionals should be "leading [the] efforts" to boost vaccine trust amongst the Black community, she says. "[They] should [also] be supported and not have to deal with institutionalized racism themselves, which is also rampant. There must be multiple levels of systemic change." (Related: Why the U.S. Desperately Needs More Black Female Doctors)

"Dr. Bill Jenkins was my first public health professor in college, but more importantly, he was the CDC epidemiologist who outed the CDC for the unethical work done to Black men with syphilis at Tuskegee. He taught me to use data and my voice to create change," explains Barlow, adding that instead of harping on people's perceived fears, they should be met where they are and by people who identify similarly.

Similarly, Bhatia also recommends having "open discussions about the effectiveness of vaccines with the latest data." There's so much misinformation out there that simply hearing accurate accounts and details about the vaccine from trusted sources — such as your very own doctor — can have a powerful impact on those who are reluctant to get immunized. This includes teaching people about vaccine technology and explaining that if they're really skeptical about how the immunizations are made, in particular, they should consider getting "other COVID-19 vaccines developed using older techniques, such as the J&J vaccine," says Bhatia. "It was developed using viral vector technology, which has been around since the 1970s and has been used for other infectious diseases such as Zika, flu, and HIV." (As for that "pause" on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine? It's long been lifted, so no worries there.)

Continuing to having open and honest conversations with friends or family members who might feel iffy about getting the COVID-19 vaccine is one of the best ways to help encourage vaccination, according to the CDC.

At the end of the day, however, those who are unvaccinated are likely to stay that way. "We know from experience with other vaccination programs that reaching the first 50 percent of a population is the easier part," Tom Kenyon, M.D., chief health office at Project HOPE and former director of Global Health at the CDC, said in a recent statement. "The second 50 percent gets tougher."

But given the CDC's recent update on mask-wearing (i.e. fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks outdoors or indoors in most settings), perhaps more people will reconsider their hesitancy on the COVID vaccine. After all, if there's one thing seemingly everyone can agree on, it's that wearing a face-covering (especially in the upcoming heat of the summer) can be a lot more uncomfortable than a post-shot sore arm. Still, as with anything having to do with your body, whether or not to get the COVID-19 vaccine is your choice.