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Shot Or No Shot? Locals Share Reasons for COVID-19 Vaccine Choices

In this photo illustration, Abby, Sarah, Emilee and Michelle Heilman of Wheeling sport bandages to represent the COVID vaccine wall they have tried to build around their household, which also includes dad Kevin. In reality, the Heilmans were vaccinated over several months and for different reasons. Hesitancy was a factor in at least one case. (Photos by Nora Edinger)

WHEELING — With masks fading into memory — at least for now — the public health push is on to get more of those residents who are hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine off the fence.

Can it happen? How might it happen? What are people thinking when they make such a decision?

One key public health official shared his strategy to steer Ohio County toward herd immunity. And, a handful of residents — including those from populations that are statistically less likely to be vaccinated — shared the thinking behind their choice to vaccinate or not.

STRATEGIZING

As of mid June — just before the Gov. Jim Justice’s mask order dropped — slightly more than half of all Ohio County residents had received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, according to state records. Nearly 47 percent of all residents were fully vaccinated. (Both figures include children under 12, who are not currently eligible for vaccination.)

Wheeling-Ohio County Health Administrator Howard Gamble knows reaching the higher percentages generally needed for the community to achieve group immunity won’t happen by accident. The eager and willing are already vaccinated. Only the hesitant and the “no way” pools of residents remain.

The former is where he is looking for progress.

“We’re spinning our wheels trying to convince even one (person who has firmly decided not to vaccinate) when we have a greater chance of working with those who are hesitant,” Gamble said.

“We have a lot of opportunity because hesitancy far outweighs those who are anti-vax.”

With any protection provided by lingering mask wearing now gone, Gamble said public health will push for greater access to vaccines to get numbers up. In mid June, the shots were available only through the Health Department, Health Right and some pharmacies.

Education is also a key component, he noted, adding the hesitant include those who remain concerned about vaccine safety or who wonder if protection from the disease is personally necessary or advisable.

He hopes primary care doctors will play a larger role in this facet of reaching out to the hesitant. If someone with a compromised immune system is hesitant, for example, Gamble said doctors with familiar faces need to be the ones to come in on those specific questions.

Public health departments also are preparing for unknowns. The emergence of virus variants might require boosters for those who’ve already been vaccinated. Vaccines could also be approved for children under age 12. Both scenarios would require a fresh round of large group inoculations.

There could also be a new outbreak of COVID when school resumes if efforts to speedily reach the hesitant fail.

“One hundred percent is what you want,” Gamble said of the ideal rate of vaccination, comparing COVID vaccine to similar campaigns that have eradicated smallpox and nearly stopped polio on a global level. “If we don’t get on top of it, we’re going to be dealing with this for more than a two-year stint.”

TIPPING POINTS

A sampling of Ohio County residents who have chosen to vaccinate and one who remains undecided give a glimpse as to what questions and issues Gamble and his contemporaries may need to address.

For the Heilmans, a family of five from Wheeling, mom Michelle Heilman said there were actually five different tipping points in deciding to vaccinate.

Like a majority of people 40 and older — according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control — she and husband Kevin Heilman were vaccinated when their age group was eligible. They were concerned that the virus which has already killed more than 600,000 Americans could do the same to them.

“The fear of the unknown made me get the shot,” Michelle Heilman said. “For the kids, they knew that it was important to us, but they all had different reasons to get it.”

(Americans under age 40 have vaccinated at a lower rate than older Americans, according

to the CDC.)

Emilee Heilman, 23 and a 2021 master’s degree graduate of West Virginia University, was the first in the family to be vaccinated. She was student teaching and became eligible as soon as other educators did early in the year. Work provided the opportunity, but her motivation was to safely visit with grandparents.

Sarah Heilman, 20 and a current WVU student, was the only one in the family to actually get COVID and decided once was enough. Knowing she had temporary natural immunity after her mild infection in February, she waited until demand died down. For that reason, she will not be fully vaccinated until late June.

Deciding what to do with their only daughter who is a minor was more difficult, Michelle Heilman said.

Abby Heilman, 15 and a rising sophomore at Wheeling Park High School, decided on her own to be vaccinated after facing three rounds of quarantine during the last school year.

“I didn’t know whether I wanted her to have it or not,” Michelle Heilman said. “I asked her why she wanted it and she said, ‘I just got tired of not being able to go to school or do any sports events.’ ”

So, come sometime in July, the Heilman family should have household immunity.

Michelle Heilman said that feels good, but she wonders what will happen if vaccine rates are too low for community immunity and COVID continues to morph.

When she recently encountered a young person coughing violently in a store, she felt alarmed.

“I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’ ” she said. “But, you just have to hope for the best.”

ONE BY ONE

That is what Kirizhia Galbreth, 18 and a 2021 Wheeling Park graduate, is also doing. Even though she is hesitant to vaccinate.

Like a notable percentage of both young Americans, and Black Americans according to CDC figures, she’s decided to wait indefinitely on a COVID vaccine. Ironically, the incentives aimed at getting the hesitant off the fence have pushed her further to the “no way” side, she said.

“It just doesn’t add up,” Galbreth said of the policy’s rationale. “If it’s (vaccine) supposed to help, why are you bribing people with money, scholarships, gift cards? People should just be doing what’s right.”

Galbreth noted that her decision has become a sticking point with her grandmother, who is fully vaccinated. But, she plans to wait longer to see more about the vaccine’s long term effects.

Other summer workers at Grandview/Wheeling Heights pool disagreed with Galbreth in practice but not so much in theory.

Mackenzie Zimmerman, 18 and a fellow grad, is fully vaccinated, as is the rest of her household. But, she gets it.

“A lot of my friends don’t want it,” Zimmerman said. “So, I don’t push it.”

College student Sharise “Shiboo” West of Wheeling opted to vaccinate in an effort to keep her school year job at a daycare center more viable. The center closed multiple times as staffers became ill.

Sharise “Shiboo” West, a 20-year-old lifeguard who attends West Virginia Northern Community College, said she did push one person to be vaccinated.

“I actually encouraged my boyfriend to get it because our whole household was vaccinated but him,” West said.

Her own decision to vaccinate was work driven. She works at a daycare center during the school year and became weary of quarantines as various co-workers succumbed to COVID.

“We’ve been shut down so many times I’ve lost count,” West said of the quarantines. “I was willing to do anything to get everyone back to normalcy and open up.”

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