Getting back to business after COVID-19 depends on whether enough people take one of the coronavirus vaccines. But the newness of the vaccines, the nation’s growing political fissures and past shameful treatment of people of color by the medical establishment complicate the push. What kind of leadership can everyday people exercise to help boost the chances that the pandemic will finally come to an end?
Kylee Shae hears just about every worry and rumor swirling around the COVID-19 vaccines. She’s the owner of Paradise Roots Pharmacy in Hill City, and vaccines have been on customers’ minds.
“There was a big scare when it first came out,” Shae says. “People were hearing there was a potential for paralysis and all these side effects.”
Shae listens. She dispenses factual information along with prescriptions, skin creams and the miscellaneous items that an independent drug store in a western Kansas town of about 1,500 stocks for its customers.
“It’s kind of like what goes on with the flu shot,” Shae says. “Every year I have people say, ‘I’ll never get the thing, it makes me sick, I don’t trust it.’ It’s going to be the same thing with this COVID vaccine.”
As one of a limited number of health care providers in Graham Country, where nearly one in 10 residents has tested positive for COVID-19, Shae is keenly interested in seeing her customers get vaccinated. She was thrilled when she learned in February that Paradise Roots Pharmacy would be receiving COVID-19 vaccine to dispense.
“We’re going to help as many people get it as possible,” she says.
And the doubters? Shae doesn’t see the point of arguing.
“I’m not out here pushing people who don’t see the value in it,” she says. “That’s kind of a waste of both of our times. If they have questions and they’re open to discussing the potential benefit of it, I’m totally game to talk to them and help them out.”
In the first months of 2021, most of the buzz around the COVID-19 vaccine has centered on where, when and to whom it will be distributed. Kansans have driven for miles, endured interminable “on hold” stretches and logged dozens of hours on their computers in pursuit of the coveted shot in the arm.
But supplies are catching up with demand and all Kansans ages 16 and older are eligible to receive it. And Kansans who are reluctant to receive a vaccine will have a decision on their hands.
“People are rightfully concerned about things they put in their bodies,” says Brett Bricker, a communication studies researcher at the University of Kansas who researches vaccine skepticism.
News reports highlighted that hesitancy as the first vials of vaccine began rolling into Kansas. A reporter visited the small city of Protection, which in 1957 became the nation’s first town to be fully inoculated against polio. No way would such a consensus occur with the COVID vaccine, residents said. The Coffey County Health Department created a stir when all four of its nurses said they had too many questions about the safety of the vaccine to administer it.
But Bricker says he doesn’t think vaccine skepticism is more prevalent or intense in Kansas than in other states. And he thinks Kansas will achieve high numbers of vaccinations.
“I do want to make clear that, at least from my perspective, we are not in dire straits,” he says. “For the most part, people are ready to put this chapter of their lives behind them and they see the vaccine as a way to do that.”
Nationwide polls bear that out. Earlier this spring, polling from Gallup showed that more than three of four Americans were already vaccinated or willing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, up from just half in September.
It’s not yet clear how many Americans will need to be vaccinated for the U.S. to achieve “herd immunity.” But the number is expected to be high, with as many as 80% to 90% of the population needing to have immunity through infection or vaccination.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert, has mentioned a vaccination threshold as high as 85% to get blanket protection for the entire country.
Some scientists are skeptical that the U.S. will eradicate the pandemic through herd immunity, and that the best case is to render the virus as harmless as the common cold.
Many people’s doubts are expected to ease as others receive the vaccine with no ill effects.
“We have a lot of people saying, ‘I’m gonna wait and see what happens.’ That’s what they’re doing,” says Lavonta Williams, a former Wichita city councilwoman who is involved in vaccination efforts in her community.
Because ultimate success against COVID-19 depends on lots of people getting the vaccine, leaders hope to enlist Kansans from all walks of life in the effort. Very few adverse reactions have been documented from the three approved vaccines. Side effects, when they occur, disappear after a few days. And while the shots won’t entirely protect against the virus, people who get them are highly unlikely to become seriously ill or die. And research increasingly is showing that vaccinated people are less likely to spread the virus.
But the best advocates for vaccinations might not be government officials, or even the scientists who created them. They are sons and daughters, neighbors, pastors, physicians and community pharmacists.
“One thing that’s been consistent with my research is: The power of facts and science and information is actually less than the power of a story or a narrative or an anecdote,” Bricker says.
So, one’s recitation on social media or in a front-lawn chat with a neighbor about those relatively painless 45 minutes in line at the vaccination site is a potent tool. Even more valuable are the stories about the relief and joy people are experiencing as they hug their elderly parents or grandchildren, and make plans to attend summer weddings.
A couple of tactics are more likely to do harm than good. Heated arguments on social media or elsewhere, and attempts at “guilt-tripping” reluctant people, may only harden their reservations.
“Arguing about vaccine beliefs can be counterproductive,” says Christina Long, a communications specialist in Wichita who is active in efforts to allay vaccine concerns.
“Seeking and sharing fact-based and objective information to position yourself as a source for reliable information is a much more effective way to educate and inform.”
And government vaccine mandates, including from schools, should be avoided, Bricker says.
“People very much value that this is going to be their choice,” he says. “And the moment people feel that their choice is being taken away from them, there is a boomerang effect, and opinions become hardened against this.”
‘ A Very Political Vaccine’
Although some may find it confounding that people need to be persuaded to get a simple injection to protect themselves and those they care about against an illness far more lethal than the flu, there’s a relatively simple explanation. Kansas is home to broad groups of people that polling has shown are the least likely to trust a vaccine.
According to a December poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, those include rural residents, Republicans and Black adults.
A separate Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that Hispanic adults are somewhat less likely than white adults to say they will definitely or probably get the vaccine. Advocates are especially concerned about agricultural and meatpacking workers who may fear being questioned about their immigration status if they show up for a shot.
Brock Slabach, senior vice president of the National Rural Health Association, grew up in rural Kansas and now lives in the Kansas City area. He isn’t surprised by the reluctance in rural America.
“I understand it,” Slabach says. “I’ve had relatives in central Kansas tell me, ‘I’m not going to get the vaccine.’”
One of his family members, a younger woman, said she wouldn’t get the vaccine because she feared it would cause infertility. A false claim to that effect was circulating on social media around that time. Slabach sent his relative an article debunking the claim, and she thanked him.
“Anecdotally, I think that social media has a lot to do with it,” Slabach says. “If you look at the political proclivities for people living in the rural states, they obviously trend very conservative. Their activity feeds on their social media accounts are going to reflect a certain bent, and this is where some of the anti-vaccine sentiments get filtered through.”
Bricker says his research also tracks an overlap of vaccine skepticism and conservative Republican leanings.
“We’re dealing with a very political vaccine,” he says. “Like a lot of issues in society right now, how one feels about the vaccine is almost expected to be representative of their political beliefs or their political prerogatives.”
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, a group of Kansans had organized in opposition to mandatory immunizations. While leaders of Kansans for Health Freedom say the group is pro-liberty, not anti-vaccination, its website and Facebook page are filled with anti vaccine testimonials and allegations that the COVID-19 vaccine and other immunizations are unsafe.
The group is supporting bills in the Kansas Legislature this session that would prohibit employers from discriminating against employees because of their vaccination status, and declare that only elected officials, not the state’s health secretary, can add a new vaccine to childhood immunization schedules.
Kansans for Health Freedom does not claim an affiliation with the state’s Republican Party, but some elected Republicans are allies.
“I am so impressed with your group,” GOP state Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, who represents District 117 in western Kansas, told a couple of Kansans for Health Freedom leaders who visited her legislative office, in an encounter videotaped for the group’s Facebook page.
Lee-Hahn said a friend’s daughter “almost died” from a vaccine. “I found out and started educating myself,” she said.
Vaccine skepticism has been associated with the political left in recent years, but research suggests it’s not driven by political ideology but by inclination toward rumors and conspiracies.
It doesn’t take much online searching to find sites that purport to give reliable information about the presumed harm caused by vaccines – but whose claims don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.
“When we’re talking about vaccines years ago, people got most of their information from their family doctor,” Bricker says. “People now get their information and their news from self-selected sources that feed disinformation with basically no counter or no disagreement.
A Shameful History
While vaccine resistance in rural areas and among Republicans has been building in recent years, Black Americans have distrusted vaccines and the government that authorizes them for decades – with good reason.
The history of experimentation on Black Americans by the U.S. government and independent physicians is extensive and shameful. Black slaves were commonly tapped as subjects for medical experimentation in the antebellum period. In the infamous Tuskegee study from 1932 to 1972, Black men with syphilis in a government study were left to suffer and die of the disease even after a treatment became available. In 1951, physicians began years of research using the cells of a Black cancer victim named Henrietta Lacks, but never informed her family of the medical breakthroughs that resulted until decades after her death.
“That has been passed down, that fear of not really believing what the government tells you regarding its intentions about health and wellness,” says Long, who is Black.
And such concerns are hardly remnants of the past. Black people continue to experience disparities in health care, with one startling indicator being the mortality rate of Black mothers during pregnancy and childbirth. Kansas Sisters and Brothers for Healthy Infants reports that racial and ethnic minorities make up only 15% of Kansas’ population, but two-thirds of the pregnant women and new mothers who died from 2016 to 2018 were from those groups.
Research suggests the mortality rate for Black babies is cut dramatically when Black doctors care for them after birth – suggesting that racism can make even the most routine medical interactions different for Black people.
Stack the newness of the vaccine atop cultural reluctance, and perhaps it’s not surprising that there are concerns. Long listed some of them: “It came to the market relatively quickly,” she says. “Has it been properly tested? Were people of all backgrounds able to participate in the trials? Will it do right by us like it does for other people?”
Black residents make up just 6% of Kansas’ population. But they make up more than 10% of the population in Wichita and Leavenworth, and more than 20% in Junction City and Kansas City, Kansas.
Just as leaders in rural areas are looking to trusted sources, such as pharmacists, to build confidence in vaccines, urban leaders are seeking people with credibility in Black communities. Possibilities include Black health professionals, some elected officials, some social service workers and, especially, clergy.
“I have preached on plagues and diseases that haunted our nation and how God came through,” says the Rev. C. Richard Kirkendoll, senior pastor of Bethany Missionary Baptist Church and president of the Greater Wichita Ministerial League. “You don’t know how God’s gonna work it out. This time he came through with a vaccine.”
Bricker, the KU researcher, says his studies have shown that stories are important in overcoming vaccine hesitancy. “The power of facts and science and information is actually less than the power of a story or a narrative or an anecdote,” he says.
Williams, the former Wichita councilwoman who is involved in multiple causes in her city, has heard the same thing. She has posted photos of herself getting the vaccine on her Facebook page, and she posted updates in the days afterward letting people know how she was feeling.
“I’m not saying ‘go do it,’” she says in one post. “But let me tell you my experience and others will tell you theirs and you know what to expect.”
Jarvis L. Collier, pastor of Pleasant Green Baptist Church in Kansas City, feels the weight of the Tuskegee experiments and other medical abuses of Black Americans. But he is also tired of hearing that Black people are “fearful.”
“I personally think African Americans are treated as children,” he says. “The whole narrative becomes, ‘They are afraid.’”
Collier pointed out that a 34-year-old Black woman, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, played a lead role in developing the vaccine.
Instead of repeating the narrative about fear, Collier wants leaders of his city to swiftly get the vaccine to as many Black residents as possible. Wyandotte County has logged about 19,000 COVID cases and nearly 300 deaths.
“I would suggest every church serving in the African American community in Wyandotte County, or the Hispanic community, have a site,” Collier says. “I would suggest they err on the side of too many, rather than too few.”
Indeed, reporting last month by Alex Samuels of FiveThirtyEight points out that lower vaccination rates among African Americans early in the vaccine rollout appear to be more about inequities built into the health system than they are about reluctance.
Long says she agrees that Black Kansans should not “be painted with a broad brush.” But she added, “If we’re going to look at the challenges, then you cannot deny vaccine hesitancy. You have to ask: What are the barriers to getting information to people? Those barriers exist.”
Can’t Afford to Stay Home
One of the most difficult groups to reach with accurate information and messaging is Kansas’ Hispanic residents.
“A good target to me is talking to my mother,” says Blanca Soto, an organizer with Kansas Appleseed and a city commissioner in Dodge City.
Her mother mostly speaks Spanish, and gets most of her information from Spanish-language social media networks, Soto says. “On Facebook, there is a lot of reposting that happens from very untrusted sources. There are a lot of people – I can’t say that they actually are doctors but they’re portraying themselves as doctors. I think their intention is to introduce fear rather than data-driven information.”
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment and some other groups have posted information about the vaccine in Spanish, but not always “with words that are easy to understand and to make sense,” Soto says.
“I think our job right now is to put out that same information in a way that is easy to make a connection with that community and to provide trusted voices in that community that can help with the messaging.”
Church leaders, especially Catholic and evangelical, are trusted sources among many Hispanic Kansans, Soto says. “People really rely on their church leaders for information and guidance.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and some other groups have raised concerns because the three vaccines approved for distribution in the U.S., like other commonly used vaccines, were tested with cells that decades ago were obtained from aborted fetuses.
“I’ve heard comments like, ‘They’ve used unborn babies to develop the vaccine,’ That is not helpful,” says Monica Vargas Huertas, political director of the Wichita-based United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 2.
The bishops’ conference is still encouraging Catholics to take the vaccine “as an act of charity toward the other members or our community.” More recently, the conference urged Catholics to avoid one of the three approved vaccines, saying that, unlike the others, a “morally compromised” stem cell line was used in its actual production.
At least one Catholic church in western Kansas, St. Anthony of Padua in Liberal, has posted statements from the conference prominently on its website.
For Vargas Huertas, the biggest challenge by far has been getting shots to the thousands of workers in the meatpacking plants in Dodge City, Garden City and Liberal. Although those employees have been on the job in close quarters since the start of the pandemic, and logged hundreds of COVID cases, the state waited weeks before prioritizing them to receive the vaccine.
Many of those workers lack papers showing U.S. citizenship, but Vargas Huertas says she thinks the ready access to free COVID-19 testing will make people more confident to take the vaccine.
“It’s been an excellent initiative that serves everybody,” she says. “They don’t require immigration status. They don’t push to show documents. I am hopeful that it will be the same when it comes to vaccination.”
Soto says a bigger fear seems to be the possibility of becoming ill from the vaccine and missing work. “They know they can’t afford to stay home for one or two days if that happens,” she says.
Time on Our Side
At the Rush County Grocery Store in La Crosse, Laurie Zink says she and most of her co-workers were holding off on the vaccine.
“We’re all just kind of waiting to see,” Zink says. “My sister got it and her reaction to it wasn’t really good. That’s why I’ve been putting it off.”
But Zink says some of her customers have gotten vaccinated. And perhaps without knowing it, they are its greatest marketers.
“One of the biggest sources of hesitancy was related to the quick vaccine approval,” says Bricker, the KU researcher.
People worried that the trials weren’t thorough, and that unforeseen consequences might surface, he says.
“I assume that time will make it more normalized, and the lack of high profile adverse reactions will mean that people’s trust in the vaccine will build instead of erode.”
Kansas has endured an exhausting year of sickness, mask disputes and limitations on gathering and movement. If the vaccine comes to be seen as safe and relatively painless, chances are most people will accept a shot in the arm to boost the chances of getting their lives back.
“I really think time is on our side,” Bricker says. “Vaccine views are not hardened. They’re constantly formulating. Only the most fervent conspiracy theorists have a hardened view of the vaccine.”
A version of this article appears in the Spring 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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