Voices on the Vaccine: Why some Clevelanders are still on the fence about the vaccine

This is part two of the three-part series Voices on the Vaccine, a collaboration between The Cleveland Observer, a member of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEOSoJo), and Cleveland Documenters, a network of residents trained and paid to document local government meetings.

The wider availability of coronavirus vaccines in recent weeks has many Clevelanders weighing whether to get the shots, which can protect against severe illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19.

In Cuyahoga County, as of April 16, more than 490,000 people had at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine. Black and Latino residents were about half as likely to have gotten a dose as white residents.

Cleveland Documenters interviewed more than 40 friends, family members, neighbors, and residents from across the city over the past several weeks to understand their views, which in some cases were still evolving.

Quite a few folks interviewed jumped at the chance to take the vaccine, though some still worried about barriers that could be keeping fellow residents from having the same opportunity.

Many of the people who had decided against being vaccinated or who were on the fence said side effects were a primary concern. For some, the worry was more about missing work if they felt ill.

What Documenters learned offers a unique window into what influences this important decision for Clevelanders.

Overall, residents who told Documenters that they got information from their doctors, health centers, or government sites such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were more likely to be vaccinated or to have a plan to sign up when they were eligible.

No residents who took vaccines said they regretted their decision.

Anita Smith, a 51-year-old educator, trusts the medical system and thinks that vaccines work, but she has not scheduled the first shot for herself, she told Documenter Janenell Smith.

“I think I will get sick,” Smith says. “And I cannot afford to get sick, especially on purpose.”

Jake Corrigan, a resident of the Euclid-Green neighborhood, believes access for working residents needs to be expanded.

Some people can’t afford to miss work, and employers aren’t obligated to excuse absences for people being vaccinated.

“Too many people can't or won't afford the time and/or pay lost from missing work for a vaccination,” the 42-year-old told Documenter Tina Scott.

Charliene Arrington remains concerned about barriers and information that could prevent some residents from accessing vaccines. The 65-year-old said vaccine opportunities need to be available “close to home” for people who lack access to computers and transportation.

“It is good that RTA is offering free transportation and parking is free around the Wolstein Center,” she told Documenter Sharon Lewis.  “I just don't know if that is enough.”

Hesitancy: undecided and evolving 
Judith Knight hadn’t decided whether to take the vaccine yet when Documenter Sharon Lewis chatted with her in March.

The Mount Pleasant resident, who is retired, usually relies on government and science websites and national television news for information, but she had not yet done her own research on the vaccines.

“I haven't decided whether or not I am going to take the shot,” the 56-year-old Knight says. “I'll hear about someone who had a good experience with the vaccine. Then I'll hear about someone who had a bad experience with the vaccine.”

The list of questions she and members of her community have include: Are the shots covered by health insurance (and do they require a copay)? How severe will the side effects be?

“Everybody has a story about somebody that got the vaccine and got sick,” Knight says. “Is this going to be a yearly shot, like the one for flu?”

(Editor’s note: If people have insurance, it must cover the vaccine. If a person does not have insurance, it is free.)

"My mother is going to be 90 years old this July, and I worry about it being safe for her,” Knight says. “Once I do my research, the whole household will probably get the shot."

Danielle Braden also considers herself “hesitant” but is moving toward deciding to take the vaccine. Observing others around her made her more comfortable with the idea, she told Documenter Sheila Ferguson. (Read Ferguson’s story about Braden in The Cleveland Observer).

“I think learning more about it, and seeing other people be guinea pigs with their vaccinations, has changed my perspective,” says the 30-year-old Lee-Harvard resident.

Initially, Braden says, there was little reporting about Black people getting tested or being research subjects for vaccines. Additionally, she was pregnant and nursing when vaccines were first being tested and rolled out.

“There is still not a lot of research on how the various vaccine brands affect pregnant women, babies and those who are nursing,” says Braden. “It all left some health and safety questions in my mind.

Braden says that, as she observed people around her who were vaccinated, she realized the side effects were manageable.

“Now I am a little more comfortable seeing more people who look like me and think like me and advocate for me [deciding] to take it makes me a little more comfortable,” she says.

Kalim Hill, a 25-year-old Cudell neighborhood resident, is conflicted about the vaccines.

He says as a Black male he does not trust the vaccine. But he was happy when his grandmother got her shot.

“It's kind of hypocritical of me because I want people to be safe, but I'm not getting it,” he told Documenter Giorgiana Lascu. “I'm in a weird gray area.”

Hill lost people he knew to COVID-19—people exposed at their jobs. The trauma of losing more than 500,000 Americans made him question the country’s morality.

“I’m getting emotional just thinking about it,” he says.

But Hill isn’t surprised by it because past health crises, like the war on drugs and the AIDS epidemic, were not addressed until white America was impacted.

“I bring this up contextually because history repeats itself and I truly don't believe that people then, now, or in the future will value the deaths of Black people until a white life is lost from the same cause,” says Hill.

Stephanie Lodge, 42, of Kamm’s Corners, had some hurdles signing up online but figured it out, she told Documenter Alicia Moreland. She wishes she was better prepared for the side effects. “I didn't know how sick I would feel after getting the shot,” she says.

Read part one of Voices on the Vaccine.
Read part three of Voices on the Vaccine.