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Despite a spike in covid cases, New Yorkers still remain hesitant about the vaccine

HOST BARONIO : According to the Biden Administration last April, the COVID-19 public health emergency is over. But a year since that announcement, the virus is still with us. According to a study released last month by the Pew (P-yoo) Research Center, COVID cases have been spiking since last fall.

HOST YI: At the same time, the number of New Yorkers getting the vaccine is dropping. Our reporter Cecilia Blotto, tells us why, four years into the pandemic, even those who opted for the first shots are becoming increasingly hesitant about the vaccine.

BLOTTO 1: On a Saturday morning, Danny Dang is quietly typing away at his computer. His desk is tucked away behind endless rows of white metal shelves stacked with plastic medication bottles. 

[fade in pharmacy ambi… pills falling into bottle] 

He’s the leading pharmacist at Esco Pharmacy on 47th street, just off 9th avenue. 

[fade in pharmacy ambi… “We have the flu vaccine we have the hepatitis…” vaccine fade out run under tracks] 

At the height of the pandemic, his weekends looked a lot different. Dang would’ve been in a tiny cubicle giving around 200 covid shots per day, from morning till night. Demand for the vaccine seemed endless.

DANNY DANG: “So it jammed up our phone line, it jammed up our email and inquiry on our website.”

CECILIA BLOTTO: He says he would receive a staggering 4000 vaccine requests each day. But four years later, Dang’s pharmacy is remarkably quiet. [possible sound of cash register exchange] Only one customer is standing at the checkout counter. 

BLOTTO + DANG: “How many COVID vaccines would you say you do in a week?” 

“It’s sad but like one or two a week. It’s not like before and mostly usually the elderly. Today it’s different, so we will forget how serious it was. Just in general, we are getting fatigued. So that expected as a human behavior in general” 

BLOTTO: There are still thousands of Americans hospitalized with covid every week. At the same time, this year has seen the lowest number of people getting vaccinated since the shot became available. 

It’s been proven to be safe and effective, but in the last six months, just under a third of Americans have gotten a covid booster, while almost double have opted for the flu shot. That’s according to the Pew Research Center.  

There are lots of reasons why increasing numbers of people who originally opted for the shot are changing their minds, and some of them have been around since the beginning of the pandemic, like fear of potential bad side effects. 

ALLISON JEFFREY: “It's a continual deliberation for me, and I don't know that I've made the right decision.” 

BLOTTO: Allison Jeffrey is a retired Columbia professor on the Upper West Side. She’s in her late-sixties and was excited to get the first two rounds of the covid vaccine. At the time she was dealing with a slow heart rate and was trying to stay healthy.  

But she says every time she got a shot, her health took a turn for the worse. For example, the night of her first dose her heart rate increased dramatically, a condition known as tachycardia. She’s pretty convinced that the vaccine caused it. 

Jeffrey underwent two operations to treat her heart problem. Given her age and her heart condition, her doctor remains adamant, she must get the recent covid vaccine. But she worries about the potential side effects. 

JEFFREY: “I had so much trouble for a period of months with heart related problems that really kept interfering with my life in a major way, and so the idea of anything that could start that up again, it's just, I just can't, can't face it.” 

BLOTTO: Of course a major reason Americans are saying no to the covid shot, is one we all know well: political views. But none of the New Yorkers I spoke to mentioned that. 

For Carla Stockton, a 77-year-old English teacher at Lehman College, her concern is the newness of the vaccine’s MRNA science. The Pfizer shot was the first to use this technology, and when the pandemic first hit, Stockton looked forward to getting the first vaccines, because of how deadly the virus could be. 

CARLA STOCKTON: “If you were here in New York, when the pandemic was in its initial stages, and every time you’d turn on the television and there’s another picture of bodies sitting in a parking lot, you would want to believe that the government is going to protect you.”

BLOTTO: Times have changed and people are more relaxed about covid prevention measures. But according to medical advice, many senior citizens should be getting the vaccines. And yet, while 1 in 4 Americans have chosen to have the flu vaccine, they chose not to get the covid shot. Stockton is one of them. 

STOCKTON: “I don't know anything about it. It's a whole new thing. It hasn't been around long enough to have a track record. And the flu vaccine has been around forever.”ROBERTS 1: “I would venture to say the COVID vaccine is one of the most studied vaccines of all time at this point” 

BLOTTO: That’s according to Dr Scott Roberts, a professor of infectious diseases at Yale School of Medicine.  He says the covid vaccine is actually more effective than the flu vaccine. 

SCOTT ROBERTS: “This past season, there was a 54% efficacy of COVID vaccine against illness. Flu vaccine was 42%. So usually, the flu vaccine has lower efficacy rates than the COVID vaccines, which I think many don't know about. 

BLOTTO: But it’s not just regular Americans who are vaccine hesitant. Roberts says Those who work in the healthcare field are becoming more vaccine hesitant too

He surveyed his own medical colleagues at Yale. Ones who work specifically with covid patients. He asked them “why are you reluctant to get the vaccine?” 

ROBERTS: “The most common reason was, I don't think the updated vaccine provides me any added protection. The second most common reason was I've gotten too many vaccines already. And then the third most commonly selected reason was, "I'm worried about the side effects of the updated vaccine.”

BLOTTO: But there are also new reasons why people are switching their stance on the shots. Sara Gorman founded an online advice column, like a  virtual ‘Dear Abby’ but for  covid advice. She says one big reason doesn’t have to do with misinformation, just lack of access. 


SARA GORMAN: “It was less convenient to get it because there weren’t vaccine clinics everywhere you turned.” 

BLOTTO: Just three years ago, there were over 250 community-based pop-up sites across the city administering the vaccine. Places like school gyms, churches and libraries became walk-in clinics for vaccinations and testing. Now they’ve resumed their pre-pandemic roles.

And Gorman’s organization has grown into a team of female scientists, called Those Nerdy Girls, who post bite-size science news across social media to an audience of 20,000 people. 

[fade in clip, fade out clip] 

And another concern she’s seen, that persuades those who once got shots to now decline, is money.

GORMAN: “And also, there was a cost barrier in a lot of cases, these weren't universally covered by the government anymore.”

BLOTTO: The vaccine is no longer free for those without insurance and can cost up to $150 per dose, which could also discourage people from getting it. 

So what chould you do if you want to encourage someone in your life to get the vaccine? Gorman says her team has interventionists who work on social media to do just that.  

GORMAN: “And something that we did realize pretty early on is that when there is somebody who is really entrenched. Your ability to talk them down from that is always going to be limited” 

BLOTTO: But she says one must not give up, you may not be able to change their mind but you can try to communicate the facts to them, and hey, maybe you’ll convince someone who’s reading the comments too! 

As for Allison Jeffrey, the retired professor with the heart condition, she’s planning to reconsider the vaccine. 

JEFFREY: “I mean, I really think there's hope. I mean, I think, you know, at some point, I probably will need to bite the bullet. I mean, I’ve continued to mask on the subway. Probably a lot of people think I'm crazy, but you know, I have to take care of my health.

BLOTTO: Jeffrey wants to take the vaccine, but only if she’s confident it has fewer side effects. She’s been doing research on new vaccine technologies and hopes they will become available - one day. Cecilia Blotto, Columbia Radio News. 

CORRECTION: Earlier I stated that Allison Jeffrey was a professor at Columbia Univeristy, she was actually an assistant director at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia.

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