Why Unvaccinated Aren't Getting Vaccine

Results from Sidewalk Survey

Black residents now make up 80% of coronavirus cases in Washington, DC - a spike that is concerning to public health officials. As the District prepares to return to pre-pandemic status, the need to persuade hesitant populations to get vaccinated is a major public health challenge. “If this virus kicks up again among unvaccinated communities, it could drive our numbers up and shut us down, and none of us wants that,” said DC Mayor Muriel Bowser to WTOP. Full vaccination among Blacks in DC is around 20% while nearly 30% among white residents according to The Washington Post. Vaccine hesitancy - a term used to describe a variety of concerns for resisting vaccination - is not fully understood. Southwest Voice asked two dozen residents passing through 4th and M Street to tell us their reasons for not getting vaccinated. Southwest has had a high capacity vaccination site at Arena Stage since April 9, with walk-in available for about a month. Regardless if the public disagrees with hesitant populations, their reasons provide meaningful insight for creating tailored educational materials and campaign messaging. As we show, there are many myths and misinformation to dispel. At times, as with a lactating mother, the concerns were legitimate.

Our first interview was with a middle-aged interracial couple who reside in SW and had not been vaccinated. Asked to describe their reasons, the husband spoke up first, "They killin' us." His wife described how she had expected to receive something that would cure her if she was sick, "If there is a cure and no one ever catches it, that's different, but you can still get Covid. Positive is positive." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that it takes a few weeks for "enough time to provide protection" or immunity. The next survey participant wanted to know more about "why is the magnet sticking," a reference to fake video conspiracies that the vaccine was implanting a chip. The vaccine does not implant a chip or any device. Period.

An African American male around his early 30s believed that the vaccine was "tied to an evil plot" - whose ultimate aim was yet revealed. A young male in his 20s echoed the chip conspiracy, "Bro, I'm not getting that [profanity]. You shouldn't either. Ain't putting a chip in me." A DC employee returning to work, "They didn't do enough clinically. I feel like we're guinea pigs." Wanting to "wait it out" was common, though two African American men in their 50s did not have an issue with the vaccine as such - fear of needles caused them not to get vaccinated. "It hurts. I'm glad that I talked to you. It built up my courage". Another described his predicament, "I'm scared of needles. I'll wait as long as I can. I have to get it next week [due to job requirements]." An older man in his early-to-mid 50s falsely claimed, "It's the people not taking care of themselves [that get coronavirus]." That was victim-blaming and not true. This unvaccinated man was not masked while speaking closely with two partially-masked African American women from the neighborhood - the kind of scenario that leads to Covid cases and hospitalizations.

A young African American woman with two children under three years of age had concerns since she was still breastfeeding her one-year old, "I was breastfeeding. I didn't know what was in vaccine". Her husband who was nearby volunteered, "I got the vaccine." According to the CDC, "Because the vaccines have not been studied on lactating people, there are no data available on the: safety of COVID-19 vaccines in lactating people or effects of vaccination on the breastfed baby. Based on how these vaccines work in the body, COVID-19 vaccines are thought not to be a risk to lactating people or their breastfeeding babies."

There were plenty of colorful responses. A young male in his 20s answered, "That's private information" in response to a question about his vaccination status. He then proceeded to ask the masked SW Voice reporter if he was vaccinated, to which the reporter responded, "Yes". "You confused," said the man mockingly as he rode down on the escalator - presumably a fully vaccinated person should not wear a mask. A woman in her 30s responded to a question whether she had received the vaccine, "You get your colonoscopy?"

At least two people said that they would take advantage of vaccination at Arena Stage as a result of the exchange with the reporter. Countless others remain to reach full vaccination in Washington, DC. The opinions and perceptions about the vaccine should serve as a word to caution to District as it seeks to return to business as usual. More effort targeting and tailoring specific messages to unvaccinated populations should precede any lift of the public health emergency.

Christopher Williams is a public health researcher and PhD student at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. He is editor-in-chief of Southwest Voice.