'People are scared': Vaccinations pick up steam as delta gets attention of unvaccinated
They were unmoved by the urgings of President Joe Biden to get vaccinated. They've spurned calls from the nation's leading doctors, as well as from sports heroes and movie stars. But one thing is finally grabbing the attention of millions of unvaccinated Americans - the invasion of the hyper-contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.
"My friend works at the hospital, and she told me there's 18-year-olds on ventilators. That scared me," said Tyler Sprenkle, a recent high school graduate in Goodman, Mo., who got a shot this month.
In nearby Bella Vista, Ark., 25-year-old Chelsah Skaggs said she had been avoiding the shots, citing false reports that they might cause infertility.
But as delta hit her area, she did her own research and became convinced she should get vaccinated. "Skepticism is a good thing," she said. "But to be ignorant is a different issue. My only regret is not doing it sooner."
More than 4.7 million newly vaccinated Americans have made similar calculations in the past two weeks, as misgivings about the shots based on ideology, apathy or fear have taken a back seat to the desire to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Half a million shots were given just on Friday, the highest daily tally since July 1, deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a briefing Friday. This was also the third week that states with the highest numbers of coronavirus cases also had the highest vaccination numbers, she said.
Vaccine-hesitant pockets of the country turned hot spots, including Louisiana, experienced a 114% increase in uptake, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arkansas recorded a 96% increase, Alabama, 65%, and Missouri, 49%.
Texas last week reported its highest single-day vaccine administration in a month; the numbers, while still far from the peak earlier this year, are more than 25% higher than a month ago.
"There's a rush to get shots that correlates with delta's rise and hospitalizations," said Tesha Montgomery, who runs vaccine clinics for Houston Methodist Hospital. During the week of July 12, the system was giving first shots to about 400 people a day, she said. The week of July 19, that number jumped to 600 a day, and by this Monday, it was up to 1,000 a day.
Unfortunately, Montgomery added, some people do not make their decision until they have had personal encounters with the virus - "family members and other loved ones who have gone through illness, hospitalizations and even death."
In Arkansas, where the governor on Thursday reimposed a state of emergency and reported that all pediatric ICU beds were full, the number of vaccine doses being administered over the past month has gone from 27,000 a week on average, to 70,000 on average now.
"We have had to bring in more vaccine. For the first time in two-and-a-half months, we are making a new large-scale order, said Col. Robert Ator, who heads the state's vaccine effort. "People are scared."
Nationwide, 67% of the eligible U.S. population ages 12 and over has had at least one shot, with 57.7% fully vaccinated, as of this week. But in some parts of the country as few as 20% to 30% of people have been immunized.
Meanwhile, as the early promise of a coronavirus-free summer has given way to new mask mandates and other restrictions, public hostility toward vaccine holdouts has spurred accusations of politic grandstanding, ignorance and selfishness. This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, blamed low vaccination rates in some areas on misinformation by a "'right-wing echo chamber," naming individuals including Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
But the reality among those still trying to decide on vaccines is often more nuanced. Several of those in line for shots this week said they had taken a wait-and-see approach, and now that the vaccines had been taken by millions, they were willing to roll up their sleeves. Others said they were newly concerned about exposing parents or grandparents, or young children, to the virus. A few got the vaccine shots to keep their jobs.
The boost in interest may also be driven in part by new incentive programs and campaigns by prominent conservative leaders. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, wrote in an opinion piece this week that those "pushing fake news and conspiracy theories about this vaccine are reckless and causing great harm." In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, has traveled the state to combat the idea that the shots are a "bioweapon."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, is preparing ads to run on more than 100 radio stations in his home state of Kentucky.
"These shots need to get in everybody's arms as rapidly as possible, or we're going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don't yearn for - that we went through last year," McConnell has said. "This is not complicated."
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On Tuesday morning, a half-dozen vehicles idled in the 15-minute observation area of the drive-up vaccination site in Tropical Park near South Miami. Among those who had just received a shot was 19-year-old Annette Gonzalez.
"I believe in the science, but I didn't want to be one of the first in line. ..." she said. "I felt now was like a good time to get vaccinated."
Nelson Torres, a 54-year-old who got his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, shared Gonzalez's anxiety and had planned to wait even longer. But with cases surging in Florida, he decided he should get it over with. "You have too many young people getting together in crowded places," he said.
Madison Carballos, 18, said she wanted to get the vaccine now because she spends a lot of time with her grandparents and works as a youth camp counselor with children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. "It's getting a little scary out here with the delta variant," she said.
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On the other side of the country in Los Angeles, Hector Medina, 28, said he hadn't been particularly worried about COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic because he knew he was young and healthy, and friends who had been infected with the coronavirus had recovered. But Medina's parents, whom he sees about once a week, were vaccinated earlier this year and had been pressing him to do the same.
"Every time we go visit them, they are like, 'Did you get your vaccine already?' " he said after he got his second dose at a Kaiser Permanente walk-up clinic in Hollywood. "So that pushed me."
Anador Velazco, 66, and his wife, Marta Silva, 67, left the walk-up clinic in good spirits after getting their second shots. It meant they were one step closer to visiting their families in Mexico and El Salvador. Silva's three sons in El Salvador all contracted the virus and survived. Velazco's younger brother also got it, although he was supposed to be the healthy one.
Velazco said he and his wife delayed getting the shots because she had heard friends complain of feeling sick afterward. "We've been kinda uncomfortable with that, so that's why we waited until almost the last minute."
Twelve-year-old Shanuan Alcantar also was unsure she wanted to get the vaccine, largely because of the baseless reports she saw online that it would make her arm magnetic.
"I was really scared seeing all of those TikToks of the metal spoons and the magnets" hanging from people's arms, she said as she visited a clinic in East Los Angeles with her mother, Bellanira Reyes. "I was pretty scared of it, but I decided whatever happens, happens."
Now that she's fully vaccinated, she's excited to be able to go back to school, see her friends and do fun things again. "I want to go back to normality, go see my friends and all of that," Alcantar said. "It's been really hard, not having friends, not talking to anyone."
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In North Philadelphia, 49-year-old Shonda Finley said she was getting vaccinated because she had to do so for her job at a public health organization.
"I never had the time earlier during the pandemic to get the shot twice, and I didn't trust getting the 'one and done' from Johnson & Johnson," she said.
Finley said she "wouldn't have gotten it anywhere else" but at the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium (BDCC), a vaccination clinic in a Black church that has seen a major uptick in community interest. "I felt more comfortable being taken care of by people of color," she said.
Daniel Turner, 31, an artist, said he came there to get a shot because "my grandmother told me that I couldn't come see her if I wasn't vaxxed."
"I kept trying to dodge getting one cause I hate shots," he said. "But this time, she was dead serious about me coming around. I'm here for her."
Brenda Cunningham, 54, a caregiver who got her second Moderna shot, said she thought that the coronavirus "could never get me until I lost someone last month."
"I felt like, 'Hey, I can't control how I go, but I don't want to be the reason why I go.' So far, so good with this shot," she said. "I can't complain."
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When Tyler Sprenkle, 18, announced his new vaccination status to his friends on Facebook this week, he made sure to include the reassurance that he was still a Republican.
"I was afraid people would look down on me, say I was turning into a liberal or a raging Democrat," he said. "But I'd still rather take that chance than get put on a ventilator and dying."
Some friends still gave him a hard time, but others were inspired. His parents, younger brother and a high school friend received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine the day after he did.
Vaccination rates hover around 20% to 40% in rural southwest Missouri, but demand is increasing. Sprenkle said he believes in vaccines but had felt the development of the coronavirus vaccines was rushed. He is against making vaccines mandatory, saying people will choose the shots once they get correct information.
Sprenkle graduated from high school in May and has been working at his family's tire shop while studying to be an auctioneer and taking care of his grandparents. He said thinking of them and his own future made him finally decide to get the shots.
"I would feel really bad if I brought it to them," he said. "Even me being so stubborn, I finally did it."
In the town of Neosho, population 11,000, an hour from Springfield, about 100 people a day are lining up to get vaccine shots from a local pharmacist. That includes Tim Booyer, 57, a welder who had fretted for months about worrisome Facebook posts detailing the vaccines' purported side effects.
Although Booyer dismissed reports that the vaccines contained microchips that could be used to track people as absurd, he wasn't sure what to make of the other allegations of bad side effects. Then, three weeks ago, the delta variant killed a close childhood friend.
Booyer, a metal artist whose work is commissioned by Bass Pro Shop, said he had fabricated his friend's cremation urn.
"This morning, I had to seal her in a box, weld that shut over her ashes," he said. "It was rough. Then I made my mind up: I'm gonna get that shot."
He said he has been sharing his changed thinking with several unvaccinated friends.
"We should have had covid knocked in the head if there weren't so many hardheaded people like me," he reflected. "I think we could have saved more than a few lives."
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Hansen reported from Missouri. Francisco Alvarado in Miami, Miranda Green in Los Angeles, and The Washington Post's Ernest Owens in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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