The vaccines are coming: A divided and distrustful America awaits

Health officials are working to ease public doubts about the safety of the injections. PHOTO: AFP

CALIFORNIA (NYTIMES) - As the Lopez family of Truckee, California, gathered to prepare dinner on a recent evening, one subject dominated the conversation: the coronavirus vaccine that will soon be shipped out across the country, giving Americans the first concrete hope that the pandemic will eventually end.

Mr Enrique Lopez, 46, who runs a snow-removal business, explained how he was trying to persuade his skeptical employees that the vaccine is safe. His wife, Brienne, 41, a middle school teacher, said she was desperate for the vaccine after a September bout with Covid-19 sickened her for weeks. Their two daughters just wanted to know if the vaccine would enable them to return to their pre-pandemic lives.

"I know a lot of people are scared. They don't know what the side effects are going to be," said Mr Lopez, who has seen half his workforce stricken with the virus. "It's a risk we have to take. It's going to make us safer and go back to normal." After months of anticipation, the arrival of the first vaccine is near. It lands in a country that is both devastated by the virus and deeply divided over almost everything concerning it.

The first Americans will most likely receive shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the coming days, and the government is expected to approve other vaccines as well. Health officials are working to ease public doubts about the safety of the injections, emphasizing that large numbers of Americans - perhaps between 60 per cent and 70 per cent - must get vaccinated to produce a decisively sharp decline in transmission rates. So far, there is work to be done.

Psychiatric nurse Stephanie Bennett in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said she fully understood the importance of the vaccines and expected to be near the front of the line as they are made available. Still, she is torn.

"I do have risks in being a frontline health worker," she said. "But just being a mother, I do have this crushing guilt in getting a vaccine that my child would not have access to at the same time." Even so, she said she felt doubly responsible as a nurse and a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma to get vaccinated, in part to help ease skepticism among her neighbors.

"There's a lot of distrust in our community," she said. "I want to show people, at least in my family and my community, that this is safe and we've got to do this." Still, wariness persists, even for some who know the toll the virus can take.

Ms Maria Isabel Ventura, 59, who lives in Blythe, California, a rural area near the Arizona border, saw the dangers of the virus up close on Nov 22. That was the day she rushed her husband, gasping for air, to the emergency room. Her husband, Mr Alfonso Velazquez, a farmworker, spent two weeks being treated for a severe case of Covid-19.

"Why not start with vaccinating the president and the people who developed the vaccine?" asked Ms Ventura, a Mexican immigrant who makes ends meet by cleaning, waiting tables and cooking. "I am afraid more than anything of this vaccine because we don't know what reaction we will have to it. Maybe in a few months we'll know more." An Associated Press poll, released this week, found half of all Americans ready to take a vaccine - with a considerable partisan divide. Six in 10 Democrats said they would get vaccinated compared with 4 in 10 Republicans. A recent Gallup survey showed more acceptance, with 63 per cent of Americans now saying they would be willing to get a vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration, up from 58 per cent in October and 50 per cent in September.

Enrique Lopez, who is trying to persuade his sceptical snow-removal business employees that the vaccine is safe, with his family at home in Truckee, California, on Dec 10, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Authorities are working to dispel doubt about the vaccines' safety and enduring concerns over unethical examples of medical research in the United States, especially in African American, Latino and Native American communities that have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus but remain wary because of historical abuses by the medical system.

As virus deaths in the country climb toward 300,000, the toll is influencing how many view the vaccines. Mr Adam Wyatt, the pastor at First Baptist Church in Leakesville, Mississippi, decided to enroll in Moderna's vaccine trial after one of his congregants died of the virus in August.

Mr Wyatt views hospital visits as one of his most important obligations as a pastor, and recalls feeling helpless as he gathered with the congregant's family in a hospital parking lot, barred from entry by pandemic precautions.

But Mr Wyatt, 38, didn't tell many people about his decision afterward to enroll in the trial in Hattiesburg, about an hour's drive west of his small town. "You hear, 'This vaccine is the mark of the beast, don't get this, it's Bill Gates' population control, you'll get the microchips in you,'" he said. "A lot of my folks probably won't get it." Now that the vaccine is on its way, Mr Wyatt is preparing to speak publicly about his participation in the trial, hoping to ease his community's concerns. "It's something I can do," he said.

Bryan Diaz (right) spends an afternoon with family at home in Nuevo, California, on Dec 10, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Bryan Diaz, 15, of Nuevo, California, is also yearning for normalcy. Distance learning has been difficult with his 7-year-old brother, Kevin, vying for his attention, and he misses playing video games and kicking a soccer ball with a friend he hasn't seen since early in the year.

"I feel excited that there's a vaccine so we can go back to the school," he said.

Bryan, whose father is a mechanic and mother is a homemaker, knows several people, including his godfather, who have contracted the virus. But his parents, Mexican immigrants, are suspicious of the vaccine.

"We talked about it, but my parents don't want us to try it until it's 100 per cent," he said. "They want to be sure it's safe."

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