Once hesitant about COVID-19 vaccines, some have changed their minds

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(NEW YORK) — Although 150 million people have received a COVID-19 vaccine, 34% of Americans are still hesitant about getting the shots and say they are not sure yet, or don’t want the vaccine, according to a recent Kaiser poll.

Despite overwhelming data supporting currently authorized vaccines — all of which were found safe and highly effective in large clinical trials and in real life since FDA authorization — many Americans have delayed vaccination, citing a range of reasons.

Yet, some who have been hesitant to get the vaccine are changing their minds, they told ABC News.

Haifa Palazzo, a 68-year-old Ohio grandmother, was skeptical about the vaccine, but while she said she elected to “wait and see, ” she said she suffered severe COVID-19, and was hospitalized at the Cleveland Clinic for two months.

She said that at one point, doctors told her family to say their final goodbyes. Now recovered and fully vaccinated, Palazzo encourages anyone who will listen to get their shots.

“Don’t wait,” Palazzo said. She said her prior hesitation was due to a belief that “nothing can happen to me, right?”

Rapid COVID-19 vaccine development was possible because of decades of prior scientific studies demonstrating safety, as well as an unprecedented multibillion-dollar commitment by the federal government to accelerate research.

“If I could spare one person what I went through, then it was all worth it,” Palazzo said. “And then if they do get the shot, maybe they’ll tell a friend or a family member and maybe it can extend from there. I’m hoping and hoping.”

A different worry was on the mind of Dr. Julius Johnson — a nurse practitioner and president of the Greater NYC Black Nurses Association.

“As a Black person, I’m hesitant about health care,” Johnson said, “because of the way, historically we have been treated.” The history of the United States is filled with examples of Black and minority Americans subjected to unethical medical treatment.

Though initially skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines, Johnson said he felt comforted once he understood more about the way vaccines were tested — in over 100,000 people among the three vaccines — and saw people in his community getting vaccinated.

The vaccines were also tested on a diverse group, comprising tens of thousands of volunteers of all different races, ethnicities and life experiences.

Ultimately, Johnson said that he decided it was more important to set an example for his family, his community and his fellow health care workers. Now, he said he’s educating others who are hesitant to get the vaccine and told ABC News that he wants those in his community to understand “the truth about vaccines … their effectiveness … how they were created” and “the positivity that surrounds” them. He said he wants people to make an “informed decision.”

Johnson said he is also helping build trust by running a local vaccination site.

“They look at us and say it’s good to see somebody that looks like us … that helps increase the trust,” Johnson said. “It’s our people that are vaccinating us, we can trust them.”

For others, reluctance wasn’t fueled by history, but rather by lingering questions about the vaccines themselves.

That was the case for a Mississippi nurse practitioner named Smith, who found out she was pregnant two months before COVID-19 vaccines were available. She asked ABC News not to disclose her full name for privacy reasons.

“I was hesitant at first,” she said. “There were not studies specifically with pregnant mothers. There just wasn’t enough research behind that part of it.”

But as new data emerged showing vaccines were safe for pregnant moms and their babies, Smith said she decided it was more of a risk to remain unvaccinated, and vulnerable to COVID-19. Meanwhile, she said was encouraged by evidence that vaccinated pregnant moms pass some of their antibodies to their baby while pregnant and through breast milk.

“If there was a chance that I could give her my antibody of the vaccine then I would prefer to do that,” she said. “I feel more protected. I’ve done what I need to do to protect myself and my baby.”

Alex Carlson, a 26-year-old physical therapist, living with lupus, said she was concerned about how the vaccine would affect her immune system. Similar to pregnant women, many people with immune-compromised conditions were excluded from initial vaccine studies.

Carlson said she found reassurance by reviewing research herself, not relying on the media alone, and by speaking with co-workers as well as her rheumatologist who was “very supportive, even despite the lack of research for immunocompromised people,” she said.

“And so I got it,” Carlson said about the COVID vaccine.

Although the extent of protection for immune-compromised people isn’t well understood, medical experts agree that some protection from COVID-19 through vaccination is better than none. Carlson told ABC News she had to sign a waiver acknowledging lack of research in immunocompromised people when she was vaccinated.

“But I really had no problem signing that because like I said, I had done enough research … I felt good about it one way or the other,” she said.

Others delayed vaccination because they felt unlikely to get very sick from COVID-19. Jacob Clifton, who works as a crop consultant in Arkansas, said he delayed signing up for a shot when he became eligible because he saw himself in a low-risk job and as young, and healthy — but healthy people can still easily pass the virus on to others, experts say.

“I just … wanted the people higher up on the list to get it before I did,” Clifton said.

Meanwhile, his wife Hailey said she was worried because she heard unfounded rumors that the vaccine might lead to infertility.

Ultimately, they both got vaccinated. Hailey Clifton, an emergency room nurse, said she relied on the advice of her colleagues at the hospital, as well as guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists .

Her place of work, St. Bernard’s Medical Center also hosted a video conference with staff and its OBGYN department to provide vaccine education.

Now, the Cliftons told ABC, they no longer have to worry when they are around their almost 2-year-old son and family.

Ohio grandmother Haifa Palazzo said it makes sense that some people have questions about COVID-19 vaccines. But relying on accurate information and trusted sources can help people make informed decisions and help end the pandemic, “so we can get closer to our normal lives and activities,” she said.

“We need to be there just like the soldiers were there for war,” Palazzo said. “Nurses were there on the front line, doctors, we need to do our part, which is to get vaccinated.”

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