As the highly contagious Delta variant ravages New York, vaccination rates are plateauing. An effort by the city to put pressure on New Yorkers to get vaccinated is underway, from monetary incentives to the mandate announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio on August 3, declaring that you can either get vaccinated or miss out on every way the city is coming back to life. Latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control reveal that 50% of Americans are fully vaccinated; the problem is that of the unvaccinated, the group willing to be swayed or waiting for full FDA approval are outnumbered by those vehemently opposed to taking the vaccine. Our Town spoke to four New Yorkers who are opting out of the vaccine; some did not want their names used to protect their family’s privacy.
This vaccination gap divides into those who are against all vaccines, and others who are only against the COVID vaccine. Rita Palma, 58, belongs to the former category. From Blue Point, Long Island, Palma is an officer in the New York chapter of the Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit that opposes all vaccines for children.
“I choose to do other things that maintain a healthy body, I see no reason to invite anything else into it,” says Palma, adding that keeping COVID at bay with a healthy diet, good sleep and exercise aligns with her religious, philosophical and medical convictions. “You don’t have to lean on a vaccine to call yourself healthy.” Palma cites a religious belief held by some that injecting medication corrupts the holy nature of the mind, body and spirit, and is a betrayal of faith in God’s powers.
When asked if it concerns her that there have been documented cases of healthy, fit, diet-focused individuals who have contracted COVID, Palma counters with two points she staunchly holds onto: she believes that the vaccine “has been associated with harm and death,” and therefore is just as dangerous as COVID, and “the mRNA vaccine changes your DNA.” She says that any debunking of these theories belongs to a “narrative that politicians and pharmaceutical companies pedal at the expense of the health of people.”
Ronald Jones (not his real name), a 38-year-old lawyer who lives in Tribeca, shares Palma’s fear that the COVID vaccine is a harbinger of harm, but is open to other vaccines and gets the flu shot regularly. “Full FDA approval is one part of it, but what about people that have experienced life-threatening side effects after vaccination?” he asks. “A friend of a friend had anaphylaxis — shortness of breath and a choking sensation — the whole night. My poor aunt had chest pain and fainted.”
Jones pins it all on the “slapdash, half-baked” way big pharmaceutical brands churned out the vaccine in record time, stressing that he would rather battle COVID than suffer side effects from the vaccine. “And who knows, in the future, what if it gives you cancer or some weird-ass sickness,” says Jones. “Insufficient tests and clinical trials. Too risky.”
Confronted with the idea that contracting COVID over enduring any side effects is a choice that not only affects him, but everyone he may infect and is a hindrance to stopping the pandemic, Jones wrinkles his nose and redirects: “The darn slipshod vaccine is going to kill most of us anyway.”
“Why Should We Trust Them”
Hawk Newsome, a Bronx native, is equally dead set against the COVID vaccine, stemming from a longstanding wariness shaped by discrimination. “I would say the government has shown a disdain to Black people, so why should we trust them,” he says. “There’s been historically the Tuskegee experiment, the testing of syphilis on Black people.”
The 44-year old co-founder of Black Lives Matter Greater New York and Black Opportunities adds that compounding this distrust is widespread confusion, expressing discontent at how the CDC is constantly jumping from one leg to the other. “One week, you need masks, the next week, you don’t need masks. One week the vaccination is safe, you won’t get sick, the next week you’re hearing that they’re super spreaders. Look at the recall of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” Newsome says. “Nobody has convinced us or made us feel safe about this vaccine. This is not a conspiracy theory, it is justified skepticism.”
Newsome thinks there will never be enough scientific evidence backing up the validity of the COVID vaccine to allay the confusion or his doubt in the government that will warrant him getting vaccinated. “I’m not going out there telling people not to take it,” he says. “I tell people to do what makes them comfortable, but me personally, I’m not taking it.”
This suspicion of the vaccine is echoed by some immigrants living in New York, but for more far-reaching reasons. “When my sister had it in Melbourne, she heard a ‘click’ at the end — that’s the microchip going under the skin,” says Rhonda Brown (name has been changed), a 66-year-old Australian who lives in Brooklyn. “Those bastards are trying to catalog and surveil us.”
She explains that her belief in the microchip theory was cemented when a friend forwarded a video that went viral on TikTok, showing a microchip reader for pets scanning numbers off a vaccinated person’s arm. “Mum, that was proven to be a joke,” prompts her son, Luke, 27, who emigrated to New York in 2006 and helped his mother obtain a green card three years ago.
“Well I’m not joking,” Brown retorts. “No matter how much they try to disprove it, I’m not going line up like a bloody lemming and get poked just because the government says so.” Luke, who got fully vaccinated in May, says misinformation spreading on chat groups and social media is solely responsible: “Old people don’t know how to filter, they don’t know the internet is uncensored.”
“How do I convince my mum?” he then asked, at the end of his tether. That is the challenge facing government officials and medical experts — to persuade vaccine resisters to put aside their fears and personal choices and do their part in bringing an end to the pandemic that has brought the world to its knees.