In Florida, some vaccine skeptics change their minds: NPR

Roger West (right) columnist for the Westside Journal reviews the copy of the news with his wife Dawn, owner and editor, on Aug. 10. Openly about how he spoke out against COVID-19 vaccines, West reconsidered after the virus returned with deadly revenge in mid-July. John Raoux / AP Hide caption

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John Raoux / AP

Roger West (right) columnist for the Westside Journal reviews the copy of the news with his wife Dawn, owner and editor, on Aug. 10. Openly about how he spoke out against COVID-19 vaccines, West reconsidered after the virus returned with deadly revenge in mid-July.

John Raoux / AP

CALLAHAN, Florida – In a rural area in northeast Florida where barely half of the people have received a coronavirus vaccination, Roger West had no problem telling others that he was “firmly against vaccinations.”

The co-owner of the weekly Westside Journal used his voice as a columnist to voice his doubts about the vaccine and his distrust of US health professionals who urge everyone to get it.

“I don’t trust the federal government,” West wrote recently. “I don’t trust Dr. Fauci, I don’t trust the doctors or the pharmaceutical giants.”

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But something changed his mind: Two of West’s close friends fell ill with the virus, and a third died. Frightened and stressed, he prayed for guidance. When his mother and another relative urged him to get vaccinated, he took it as a sign from God. West drove to the Winn Dixie grocery store and rolled up his sleeves for the first of two injections of the Moderna vaccine.

“Suddenly it hit very close to home,” he said.

The west is not alone. In this inland area of ​​Nassau County, between Jacksonville and the Okefenokee Swamp on the Georgia-Florida border, a devastating coronavirus resurgence is making even die-hard vaccine skeptics reconsider the shots.

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In the week ending July 29, the district with 89,000 residents recorded 810 new cases of the coronavirus. At the time, it was the highest rate in Florida, one of the epicentres of a nationwide surge in infections fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant.

Some residents of the county, who thought the pandemic was all but over, suddenly saw several family members infected during the last wave. A young woman in Callahan, a town of around 1,000 people, saw her fiancé, mother and grandmother die of COVID-19 within a week.

Pastor Dwight Allen of the Anchor Church of God stands outside the church in Callahan, Florida on August 10th. Everyone has been vaccinated and encourages their parishioners to do the same. John Raoux / AP Hide caption

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Pastor Dwight Allen of the Anchor Church of God stands outside the church in Callahan, Florida on August 10th. Everyone has been vaccinated and encourages their parishioners to do the same.

John Raoux / AP

“I’ve seen fear seize people like never before,” said Dwight Allen, pastor of a 200-person congregation in the Anchor Church of God. When members ask him questions about the shot, Allen tells them it was stung with no side effects.

Dr. Phillips Cao, a family doctor who treats patients at a University of Florida health clinic at Callahan, said many elderly people in the area received coronavirus vaccinations months ago, while younger adults turned them down as infections dropped sharply in the spring.

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“Everyone thought it was going to die out or go away … Then this new variant came along,” he said. “It was just ripe for another bad climb.”

Before July 4, Cao said he might see a coronavirus patient every two weeks. Now, he said, he often tests seven patients a day. Five of them usually come back positive for the virus, and often two are so sick that he sends them to hospital.

The rise in infections could lead more people to get injections. State health data shows that in the three weeks leading up to Aug. 12, nearly 4,400 people in Nassau county were vaccinated – enough to increase the county’s total immunizations by nearly 11%.

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Prior to this latest wave of the virus, the Callahan Funeral Home had not made any provision for COVID-19 victims since April. In the meantime, that has changed. Owner Ellis McAninch said he oversaw funerals for five people who have died from the virus since July – more than half of his entire business last month.

Despite his age, proximity to virus deaths, chronic lung disease, and his own recent battle with COVID-19, McAninch, 61, was still not vaccinated when he spoke to a reporter recently. He first said he was careful how quickly the footage was developed. But then he decided that he had waited too long to make up his mind.

“I should have done that,” he said. “Now is the time to take a bite of the bullet.”

Vaccine development was unusually fast, but it was the result of years of research. The vaccines have undergone clinical trials in thousands of people and have since been given to tens of millions of people in the past eight months without serious safety concerns.

Frances Sims views a family photo at her home in Hilliard, Florida on August 10th. Although some of her family members have been vaccinated, Sims remains unshaken in her decision not to get a coronavirus injection. John Raoux / AP Hide caption

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Frances Sims views a family photo at her home in Hilliard, Florida on August 10th. Although some of her family members have been vaccinated, Sims remains unshaken in her decision not to get a coronavirus injection.

John Raoux / AP

Nevertheless, there are some who will not be deterred.

In Hilliard, a town of 3,100 in Nassau County, 80-year-old Frances Sims refuses to be vaccinated. Long before COVID-19, Sims said she feared vaccines required for schoolchildren could have harmful side effects and urged that some of her grandchildren be exempted based on religious beliefs.

After several members of her large family contracted the coronavirus, two of Sims’ children persuaded their husband to have the vaccine. But she doesn’t move.

“Some of them are kind of angry with me,” she said. “They say, ‘Mom, if you got it you could die,'” said Sims. “I trust the Lord to take care of me. When I die, it will be my time.”

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Her son, Kenny Sims, a Hilliard alderman, was stabbed in the spring after his employer announced plans to reduce paid vacation for workers exposed to the virus.

He’s glad he did. As the summer wave hit, Sims and his wife had to look after their adult son and daughter and a one-year-old grandson who contracted the virus. He believes the vaccine saved him and his wife from getting sick, although he is still not convinced that the vaccinations are completely safe.

“I don’t see that this vaccine is the answer,” said Kenny Sims. “But I think it’s the lesser of two evils.”

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