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Voices of the unvaccinated: Why some refuse to get COVID-19 shots

Cote Mei of Quaker Hill, who just battled COVID-19 last month, said she hasn’t completely closed the door on the idea of getting vaccinated against the coronavirus that causes the disease. She just wants more time.

"I have not been vaccinated because I don't trust the science ... yet," she said.

The 33-year-old said that throughout her life, she’s received plenty of other vaccines and would gladly get them again. She isn’t an "anti-vaxxer," she said, but plans to remain unvaccinated against COVID-19, even as the positivity rate has spiked in recent weeks in Connecticut.

“I would be open to getting the COVID vaccine years down the road, once long-term side effects can be accurately recognized, studied and understood,” she said.

Right now, she said she is a healthy young woman with no underlying health conditions, so she doesn’t see the need. It’s the same reason she doesn’t get flu shots, she said, but plans to when she’s older.

Since she works for a small insurance business with only a few employees, she has not been mandated to get the vaccine. She said her boss knows she is unvaccinated and doesn’t mind. She wears a mask when she’s in public, has become much more of a homebody since the pandemic struck and gets tested if she’s having symptoms.

In December, mild symptoms led her to go to a drive-thru testing site at Mohegan Sun. On Dec. 14, she received an email that said she had tested positive for the virus.

Mei was sick for about two weeks, but said she didn’t panic like she might have at the start of the pandemic.

“To be honest, it was almost a relief,” she said. "I spent two years tip-toeing around trying to avoid it and I was tired of it.”

In 2020, she may have felt differently. “If I got in in the beginning I would have been terrified but as this has progressed, it’s mutated. I was not concerned when the positive came back in my email,” she said in a phone call this past week. "I felt like ‘OK, it's inevitable because I’m going around in the world and I’m being around people.’ It was almost like I checked a box, 'OK, I've done it.' Next time I go out, I won’t be worrying as much.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people be vaccinated even if they already have had COVID-19. Getting the shots "can lower your risk of getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19,” the CDC says on its website, and “can also help prevent serious illness and death.”

For a few weeks after she tested positive, Mei said she had body aches and was exhausted. She also lost her senses of taste and smell — what she said was the worst symptom. “I feel like people don’t talk about that enough, it was terrible. When you don’t feel well, all you want is comfort items like a candle or a bowl of soup, and I couldn’t enjoy those.”

Mei said she feels mostly back to normal and, nowadays, her concern has shifted to the vaccines.

“I am more scared of the potential (although rare) side effects from the vaccine than I am the virus itself,” she said in an email. “I feel that doctors and nurses understand how to handle (COVID-19) significantly more than they know how to handle vaccine reactions and side effects.”

She’s worried there are long-term side effects that may have no treatment. “That is simply not a risk that I'm willing to take,” she said.

According to the CDC, proper testing has been done and “Serious side effects that could cause a long-term health problem are extremely unlikely following any vaccination, including COVID-19 vaccination.”

Although Mei is choosing not to get vaccinated right now, she doesn’t judge those who do. Her father is vaccinated, her mother is not, and she supports both. “I fully support everyone making the decision for themselves," she said. "This is absolutely not a one-size-fits-all scenario."

She doesn’t feel like being unvaccinated has impacted her, but she avoids places that require proof of vaccination — such as New York City — and will stop patronizing local businesses if they start doing the same. She said her “biggest gripe” is friends who say unvaccinated folks can't come to their gatherings or social events.

“How is me walking into the room with people who are vaccinated more threatening?” she said.

She added that she wishes vaccination status didn’t bring forth so much judgment. “Let people make their own decisions. When people smoke their whole life and get lung cancer, people don't say, ‘That's what you get,’ she said. "But if you aren't vaccinated, people do say, 'Well, that's what you get.'” 

Another woman who works for a large hospital system in southeastern Connecticut said she’s made a similar analogy in her workplace. As a respiratory therapist, she said she’s seen fellow health care workers judge patients who have chosen not to get vaccinated. She’s tried to remind them that they wouldn’t treat a cancer patient differently if he or she were a smoker, and so they shouldn’t treat unvaccinated COVID-positive patients any differently.

The health care worker, who did not want her name published because she feared she’d be fired, said she received both doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in January 2021, as soon as she possibly could. But after the vaccine, she said she experienced new autoimmune issues, and she doesn’t want to get a booster. Because of a vaccine mandate, she faces losing her job if she doesn’t get a third shot that she said she thinks made her sick.

In rare cases, the CDC says, a COVID-19 vaccine can cause myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart muscle, or pericarditis, inflammation of the outer lining of the heart in young adults. Common symptoms after getting a shot include pain, redness or swelling in the arm where the vaccine was injected, along with tiredness, a headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea.

On its website, the CDC says, "the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination outweigh the known and potential risks."

In Groton, mother of three Brianna Johnson has chosen not to get her and her children — two are old enough to be eligible — vaccinated against COVID-19. She said they’ve all received other required and recommended vaccines, and most of her family members have had COVID-19 already and had mild symptoms.

She doesn’t want to take the risk of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, she said. She doesn’t mind wearing a mask — in fact she said she even likes it in the cold winter months — but she doesn’t agree with vaccine mandates. “I don’t enjoy feeling forced into putting anything in my body or my kids' bodies that doesn't need to be there,” said Johnson, who has a 4-year-old son, 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.

In Johnson’s case, bad reactions to prior vaccines have made her wary of the recently developed COVID-19 vaccines, she said.

Johnson said that after receiving vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella and for hepatitis B, she noticed her 8-year-old son withdrawing, showing signs of ADHD and autism. Then, she said, the same thing happened to her 4-year-old. She had genetic testing done, she said, and learned that her children may have a genetic mutation that affects the way their bodies process vaccines. She doesn't want to take the risk with a vaccine that hasn’t had long-term studies, she said.

She also questions whether the COVID-19 vaccine works. “I’m concerned that family and friends that have received the vaccine as well as the booster are still contracting (the coronavirus) and giving it to others," she said. "That to me shows that it isn't working to stop the virus but it's only partially helping individuals be more asymptomatic.”

Not being vaccinated hasn’t impacted their lives, Johnson said this past week. “We still work full time and still enjoy activities that don’t have us needing the vaccine. Being outside and making memories shouldn't be compromised due to a vaccine.”

Vaccine monitoring has shown, historically, that side effects from vaccinations normally happen within six weeks of receiving a dose, according to the CDC. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration collected data on each of the three authorized COVID-19 vaccines — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — for a minimum of eight weeks after the final dose, and the CDC is continuing to monitor the vaccines.

The CDC said “all steps have been taken to ensure that vaccines are safe and effective for people ages 5 years and older.”

Connecticut’s COVID-19 positivity rate was reported at 19.35% on Friday.

t.hartz@theday.com

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