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Hesitancy: Three Austinites explain why they would rather risk COVID than get the vaccine

(Stock photo)

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available, public health experts are concerned about vaccine hesitancy, which they say could undermine efforts to achieve herd immunity and leave individuals vulnerable to the disease. Austonia spoke with three vaccine skeptics to learn more about their reasons for opting out.


A calculated risk

Jocelyn Windsor, 63, is a retired nurse who lives in Cedar Park and has chosen not to get a COVID vaccine. "I try to take care of myself so that my own immune system can handle most things," she told Austonia.

Windsor says she is overweight but otherwise in good health; regularly washes her hands and practices natural medicine. She would prefer not to have to wear a mask or social distance. And she has concerns about the vaccine. The CDC's evolving guidance on what recipients can do safely has undermined her confidence in their recommendations, and she worries about possible long-term side effects. "We truly do not know what the end game is going to look like with this," she said. "I'm just praying that we don't all die."

Windsor finds it hard to find information that supports her point of view, shunning the CDC and the World Health Organization in the favor of YouTube channels, like those of David Martin, a financial analyst and self-help entrepreneur who has pushed some pandemic-related conspiracy theories; Dr. Joseph Mercola, who has promoted supplements as an alternative to vaccinations; and Dr. Simone Gold, who founded the pro-hydroxychloroquine, anti-vaccine group America's Frontline Doctors and was arrested after participating in the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.

Windsor also acknowledges the pandemic and the higher risk it poses for some demographics. "The nurse in me, seeing what happened this last year with (more than) 500,000 dead Americans and listening to some of the horror stories, I can see where someone who is not in the best of health should really decide for themselves what kind of risk they're going to take," she said. But for her the risk of COVID is preferable to the risk of a vaccine against it. "If COVID takes me out, at least I'll go out without a mask," she said.

A loudening concern

Del Bigtree, a former television producer and founder of the Austin-based, anti-vaccine Informed Consent Action Network, said these concerns are increasingly common and have been exacerbated by Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership initiated by former President Donald Trump last May to accelerate the vaccine rollout. "This COVID pandemic has really made (vaccine hesitancy) grow exponentially because, prior to this, no one asked the appropriate questions," he said.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., left, who was barred from Instagram for spreading vaccine misinformation, represented ICAN founder Del Bigtree in a 2018 lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (ICAN)

Bigtree has a litany of concerns about vaccine safety, but his number-one is legal immunity granted by the federal government to some pharmaceutical companies that develop vaccines. Former Health and Human Services Alex Azar invoked the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act last February, which protects companies such as Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson from vaccine injury lawsuits through 2024.

Pharmaceutical companies are out to make money, Bigtree said, citing the Oxycontin-fueled opioid crisis and the thousands of lawsuits filed against Johnson & Johnson, whose baby powder was sometimes tainted with carcinogenic asbestos. He argues that, if the federal government waives liability and is also responsible for ensuring product safety, then neither the companies nor the government are incentivized to address vaccine injuries. "It's literally like a murder case where the murderer is doing the forensics," he said.

A slippery slope

Rusty Parker, 61, lives in Georgetown and owns a managing consulting business. He is a Republican who has opted out of the vaccine for a variety of reasons, including his distrust in the government; the CDC's changing messages, including its recently conflicting guidance on whether people who are vaccinated can travel safely; and what he views as the very low statistical probability that he will contract COVID and die from it.

"Another factor in my questioning in the validity of universal vaccinations for all Americans is when I see Gov. Gavin Newsom of California saying there should be no gathering, and then he's at a restaurant at a long table," Parker said, referring to Newsom's widely criticized Nov. 6 outing to the French Laundry for a birthday party.

Like Windsor, Parker is not opposed to people choosing to get the vaccine if they are in a high-risk group. His father is 83 and has comorbidities that make his immune system more susceptible to COVID. "I'm glad he got both shots," he said.

But Parker worries about what he sees as federal overreach during the pandemic, from shutting down certain businesses temporarily to the prospect of vaccine passports, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott prohibited state agencies from issuing.

When asked what his worst fear is, Parker says, "Martial law." He acknowledges that the words feel strange coming out of his mouth, but he is scared of what's to come. "I have dwindling confidence that over the next several years our freedoms will increase."

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