‘I don’t feel like it’s safe’: For many, concerns about long-term impacts drive vaccine hesitancy
When the pandemic first hit, Waynesville resident Sammie Conner was so scared of contracting COVID-19 that she wouldn’t even go to the grocery store. As a 56-year-old woman with COPD, among other health issues, she knew she was a prime candidate for a poor outcome, so she sent her husband to do the shopping.
One year later, Conner goes to the grocery store and to the masks-mandatory service at her church, but not really anywhere else. She’s doing whatever she can to avoid contracting the virus — wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer, avoiding people.
But she’s not signing up for a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I don’t feel like it’s safe, but that’s my personal opinion,” she said. “They developed it rather quickly, and that causes me to be a little leery of it.”
Prior to COVID-19, the mumps vaccine was the fastest to ever be developed, and that took four years. By contrast, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in December 2020 and granted one to Johnson & Johnson in February — all less than a year after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
There is an explanation for how the vaccines were created and approved so quickly. While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are the first on the market to use mRNA technology, the technology itself is not new. It’s been in development since the 1990s and tested against other viruses like influenza, and work on previous coronavirus outbreaks like SARS helped speed development of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, meanwhile, uses viral vector technology, a system that has been studied since the 1970s and used in vaccines for Japanese encephalitis and Ebola. The long research history behind the vaccines, combined with the worldwide focus on ending the pandemic, spurred the rapid development.
Still, they’re new, and that gives Conner pause.
“I don’t think it’s had time for us to see what interactions there may be, what side effects there may be down the road,” she said.
Many people who responded to The Smoky Mountain News’ survey about local attitudes toward the vaccine had similar hesitations.
“I’m very concerned and scared of the virus but equally concerned and scared about any long-term affects from vaccine,” said one respondent, a 48-year-old female who said she might wait a year before getting vaccinated. “It’s still not FDA-approved, only approved for emergency use. That’s what scares me.”
A 38-year-old woman cited the new technology and lack of long-term testing as her reason to stay away, especially because there’s not much data yet on how the vaccine could affect the baby she is now nursing.
“This virus is not life-threatening to me,” said a 19-year-old male respondent. “Therefore there is no reason to put something experimental in my body. I trust the immune system God gave me is good enough if I continue to take care of it and make healthy lifestyle choices.”
Then there are the conspiracy theories — the vaccine contains antifreeze, it’s a government plot to thin the herd, doses contain microchip trackers courtesy of Bill Gates — and Conner has heard them all. She made it clear that she doesn’t believe any of that stuff.
“It’s just crazy,” she said.
Conner herself gets the flu vaccine every year, and she said that in six months to a year she might consider going in for a COVID shot too. Just not yet.
She also believes that the vaccine works, at least in the short term. Her mother, also a Waynesville resident, got the vaccine and never caught COVID despite the fact that her neighbor, with whom she had spent quite a bit of unmasked time, got the virus. Meanwhile, Conner’s 14-year-old cousin, who is not vaccinated, became so sick with COVID-19 that she had to go to the hospital for breathing treatment.
“I feel like it’s effective,” she said. “I just don’t know of the long-term effect.”