The Backstory: My brother is one of millions who won't get the COVID-19 vaccine. I asked why. Here are his reasons, my responses.
I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
Today, our front page encourages people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. I agree completely with the message because overwhelming evidence shows vaccines save lives, but wonder if it will make a difference. Those against the shot are adamant in their beliefs.
One of them is my brother.
About 2,000 people a week in the U.S. are dying from COVID-19, mostly infected by the fast-spreading delta variant, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data. About 99% of deaths today are people who did not get vaccinated. Patients dying in hospitals are telling loved ones they regret not getting the vaccine.
Given the dire situation, I wanted to know what is keeping so many from getting vaccinated. So I asked my brother, why won't you get a vaccine? It's a conversation many family members are having (or need to have).
First of all, he doesn't trust it. He's worried about long-term effects years down the road.
I pointed out that all three U.S. vaccines went through rigorous clinical trials. Moderna was tested on 30,000 people, Pfizer on nearly 44,000, Johnson and Johnson on more than 39,000. Side effects, including pain at the injection site, headache, fatigue and nausea, were mild to moderate and resolved within a few days.
And since then, about 165 million Americans (about 50%) have been fully vaccinated. Long-term side effects “are extremely unlikely,” according to the CDC, because historically vaccine monitoring has shown side effects appear within six weeks.
A study out Wednesday, published by JAMA, showed that for every 1 million Americans vaccinated against COVID-19, only 60 developed heart problems. Complications were short-lived.
My brother, Chris Carroll, also says fully vaccinated people are getting breakthrough viruses, so why bother. The vaccinated can get COVID. Sen. Lindsey Graham announced this week he tested positive despite being vaccinated. But, as Graham pointed out, those with the vaccine generally have mild cases and are far less likely to die than the unvaccinated.
Fully vaccinated people made upnearly three-quarters of COVID-19 infections after Fourth of July events in Provincetown, Massachusetts. CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement the findings "raised concern that, unlike with other variants, vaccinated people infected with delta can transmit the virus." But experts agree the outbreak, where seven were hospitalized and no one died, could have been much worse without vaccines.
And breakthrough infections overall are rare. A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of data available from 23 states and Washington, D.C., found the rate of breakthrough cases among the fully vaccinated was below 1% in each state. More than nine in 10 COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths were in people either not vaccinated or not fully vaccinated.
My brother says he's also cautious because the vaccines had only emergency FDA authorization. Full authorization for Pfizer could come as soon as next month. I asked him if that would change his mind.
Not really, he said, as the FDA is a government organization, and maybe President Joe Biden pressured them to approve it. "He's going overboard trying to sell it," Chris said. "Because Biden wants me to get it so bad, that makes me skeptical of getting it."
So does politics play into his decision not to get a vaccine? Absolutely, he says. He doesn't trust the president. But the vaccine was developed under President Donald Trump, I pointed out. "He was under pressure" to get a vaccine quickly to reopen the economy, Chris replied.
Chris is a Christian conservative and lifelong Texan. He's bothered by the pressure to get what he calls "the jab," such as lotteries, financial incentives, employer mandates.
Will these types of mandates encourage him to get the vaccine? "No." He had COVID-19 late last year, and while there are people now sick for a second time, he isn't worried about getting it again. He said blood tests have confirmed he has COVID antibodies, and he feels comfortable with his natural immunity.
However, it's not known exactly how long antibodies from infection last or how mutations of the virus may impact that. Research published Feb. 5 in Science magazine found natural immunity can last at least eight months. More recent research, published May 24 in Nature, detected cells producing coronavirus antibodies in patients at least 11 months after they had mild COVID-19 cases.
Chris doesn't look down on those who get the vaccine. He thinks vaccines are purely a personal choice.
"I believe in individual liberty," he said. "We should be able to decide if we want something put in us." But what happens when individual liberty begins to harm the common good?
For example, unvaccinated people can keep the virus spreading to those unable to get vaccines, like kids or those with weakened immune systems. Does he worry his individual decision can harm others?
"Government does have a role to play in community safety," he said. "We should have a police force, a military to protect people, food and water safety. But that's a bit different than requiring the masses to take something."
And what about those who can't get vaccinated, like kids, shouldn't we protect them?
"How many kids were killed in car accidents versus kids killed by COVID," he asked. "Should I be out there driving? There is always some risk. I feel more at risk by driving my car around.
"I don't want to see any kids die; I've actually had a child who died. If I believed me taking this vaccine would stop kids from dying, I would take it."
Medical experts agree that vaccines and masking can help control the spread of the virus, including to kids.
In 2019, 612 children younger than 13 died in motor vehicle traffic crashes and more than 97,000 were injured.
The American Academy of Pediatrics said that as of July 29, almost 4.2 million children have tested positive for the virus, nearly 72,000 of them in the last week. That's almost twice as many as the 39,000 infections from the previous week. Since May 2020, more than 17,000 kids have been hospitalized with COVID-19; 358 have died.
Two children with COVID-19 died over the weekend in Tennessee, according to Le Bonheur Children's Hospital.
"It's important for everyone to know that we're seeing sicker kids, we're seeing more kids be admitted that are sick with actual COVID illness, and that those kids, some of them are in our intensive care unit and some of them are intubated," Le Bonheur's Dr. Nick Hysmith, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, told Memphis Commercial Appeal reporter Laura Testino.
Also, experts have said the longer the virus spreads, the more likely it can mutate and come back into the entire population, making vaccines less effective, endangering lives again.
My brother says he's not sure that's true.
On Tuesday, the CDC's Walensky said it is, telling reporters, "For the amount of virus circulating in this country right now largely among unvaccinated people, the largest concern that we in public health and science are worried about is that the virus …(becomes) a very transmissible virus that has the potential to evade our vaccines in terms of how it protects us from severe disease and death."
Still, he said, "How many things have they been wrong on?"
And that, in the end, is his biggest problem. Trust.
"It's hard to believe anything," he said. "There is so much information out there, and so much bad information out there. There is so much distrust. For me, I try to read everything I can, pray for wisdom, and make the choice I feel is best for myself and my family.”
So, back to my first question. Can professional journalists make a difference? We're giving it everything we have.
We are fact checking statements in the news, giving you original sources so you can see the evidence for yourself. Our expert health reporters followed the trials carefully, watchdogging the process and the results.
And we've got reporters across the country reporting first-hand what is going on in different communities, talking to health care workers, COVID patients, grieving families, stressed out parents.
There is no higher calling in journalism than to give people accurate information to help them make decisions that can save lives.
"We don't know what to believe," my brother said. "We don't know who to trust."
We know that trust is earned.
We work to earn your trust with every story, every day.
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe here.