Stephen Feehily lives in a suburb of New Orleans, Louisiana, an area where, as in much of the American South, hesitancy to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has been high. While his two sons are too young to get the shots, he regrets that he and his wife opted against inoculation.
“Listen, I can admit I made a mistake,” he told VOA. “I wouldn’t wish what happened to my wife and me on anyone. It was truly horrible and I’m getting the vaccine as soon as I can.”
The change of heart occurred after he, his wife and youngest son all tested positive for the coronavirus while on vacation last month. Feehily said it was the sickest he can remember feeling. In addition to losing his sense of taste and smell, he had difficulty breathing and still hasn’t fully recovered. He had chills, a fever, and his wife had to drive herself to the emergency room because Stephen was unable to do so.
The Feehily family is part of a larger trend in states across the South where lower vaccination rates have resulted in higher infection rates from the delta variant. Louisiana has among the lowest vaccination rates in the country — only 38% of the population is fully vaccinated. Unsurprisingly, the state is leading the U.S. in the number of new COVID-19 cases per capita. Officials say hospitalizations due to the virus are up 124% from two weeks ago and deaths have risen 221%.
Feehily has no issue with wearing a face mask and doesn’t consider himself anti-vaccine. But a false sense of security based on dropping infection rates earlier in the year — and a hesitancy on the part of his wife, a nurse, to get vaccinated — kept him from signing up for the shot.
“I tend to take my cues on health from her,” he said. “I thought her hesitancy was based on data she was seeing that showed some terrible side effect. I now understand she’s just nervous to get it before it receives [full] FDA approval. I don’t fault her, but I also don’t agree. I never want to get that sick again and am definitely getting vaccinated.”
A sudden urgency
Americans like Feehily are feeling a newfound urgency to protect themselves as the delta variant wreaks havoc on unvaccinated populations.
In recent weeks, daily vaccination rates have steadily increased for the first time in months. In Louisiana, officials say more than 288,000 residents have received the first dose of the vaccine over the last month. That surge pushed the percentage of Louisianans who have done so from 39% to more than 45%.
Danielle O’Sullivan is an X-ray technician and has been a health care worker for nearly two decades. She’s employed by a major health care provider in New Orleans and believes the recent uptick in vaccination rates stems from fear.
“When COVID started, the worst effects were reserved for the elderly and those with certain underlying conditions,” she said. “Now we’re seeing anyone can get this delta strain. People in their 20s are getting it, children are getting it and some are becoming really sick.”
O’Sullivan said even some who had mild cases of the virus months ago are still showing signs of long-term physical damage.
“People are coming in for chest X-rays eight months later and are still unable to take a deep breath,” she said. “We can see the damage. And what’s most frustrating is that we know the vaccine is the best answer we have to solving these problems.”
Some Americans report feeling less sympathy for those infected by the virus today compared with last year, when vaccines were unavailable. The majority of current hospitalizations for COVID-19 are among the unvaccinated.
New Orleanian Kami Burgard-Landry said she feels nothing but anger. She feels the poor decisions of others are impacting her family. She and her wife have a daughter with autism, and even though it’s important the 4-year-old has regular social interaction, they are keeping her out of school so she doesn’t get the virus.
“We wouldn’t have to make that decision if others got the vaccine and helped stop the spread,” Burgard-Landry told VOA. “It makes me so mad, and even when I hear of people dying or sick on ventilators, I’m losing the ability to care about them. That scares me more than anything, if I’m being honest.”
Still, millions of Americans remain unvaccinated. Nicole Johnson has a home baking business in New Orleans. She dutifully wears her mask and provides hand sanitizer for her customers, but she said she doesn’t plan on getting vaccinated.
“I made the decision 10 years ago that neither me nor my child would get any vaccines,” she said.
Johnson said she’d heard of people who have gotten sick from the COVID-19 vaccine. While data show the number of people reporting serious side effects is infinitesimally small, Johnson said those personal accounts are enough to keep her hesitant about getting the shot.
“I’m the only one who’s making money in my family,” she said. “If I got sick — or even if I just get those side effects from the shot — I’d have to cancel jobs, and I can’t afford to do that. It just seems best for me and my daughter that I stay safe and do my best to avoid the virus.”
Johnson resents that some might pass judgment on her decision without knowing her situation or trying to understand her reasoning.
“I don’t owe anyone else an explanation,” she said. “My daughter is my first responsibility and I’m doing what I think is best for her. These people aren’t going to pay my bills and they’re not going to take care of my daughter if something happens to me. It’s my decision to make.”
Audrey Smith is vaccinated but she’s frustrated about the rhetoric being leveled at those who aren’t — especially in the South.
“It’s understandable that people are distrustful of our medical system,” she said. “Quality, affordable health care has been a difficult thing for generations of people in the South to get. Now that we have a public health crisis, we expect everyone to just suddenly trust the system that neglected them?”
Smith said she doesn’t think it’s hard to see how that distrust can lead to the spread of misinformation. What she can’t tolerate, she said, is how people are attacking their fellow citizens over their decisions.
“It’s enraging that you have some public officials who are shaming folks, while you have others who are helping to spread misinformation,” she said. “We need care and understanding in this conversation if we’re going to move forward — not more shame. No one wants to hear ‘I told you so’ on their deathbed.”
Stephen Feehily agreed. He said it’s important that people come to decisions like this on their own.
“You can’t expect to ridicule someone and also change their mind,” he said. “That’s not how it works. People are persuaded by those they trust and those they sense care about them.”
Nicole Johnson said she might be proof of that herself. Recent conversations with her doctor and therapist have started to open her up to the idea of getting what would be her first vaccine in a decade.
“I trust my doctor and I know she’s not going to administer something she doesn’t think is good for my specific situation,” she said. “She doesn’t talk about me getting the shot for the betterment of mankind. She talks about how it could benefit me as a single parent, and my daughter. So that got me listening.”