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Inside the mind of unvaccinated black America

By Matthew Delaney 

Vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans don’t only disagree on the importance of being inoculated against Covid-19. They aren’t even speaking the same language about the virus. 

“I don’t want to be a guinea pig,” Ghallaysia Richardson, a 42-year-old woman who works odd jobs in Youngstown, Ohio, said about the novel mRNA vaccine used to fight Covid.  

“[The technology has] been around for 15-20 years. And we’ve had millions and millions of doses injected in the face in individuals and across the world, really. We’ve found it to be very safe and effective,” said Dr. James Kravec, the chief clinical officer for Mercy Health-St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital. 

Kravec went on to cite how nearly every major scientific organization has reported on the safety of the Covid vaccine and recommended people take it. Along with that, it was an all-hands-on-deck effort to address this virus and produce a vaccine in record-breaking time.  

But that’s not convincing the five, unvaccinated black Americans ScoonTv spoke with who reside in Ohio’s Mahoning County, where Youngstown is located, and Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and its heavily black eastern side. 

As has been widely reported on in major media outlets, this group — which, by race, are the lowest in overall vaccination rate at 45% of the black population — are suspicious about the need for the vaccine. But less so because of the oft-cited Tuskegee experiment where black men with syphilis were a part of an inhumane, government-funded study to observe the disease’s long-term effects. 

Instead, they mentioned that they didn’t like the tone of the vaccination campaign. What started as a personal choice has become a requirement for some people to keep their jobs. 

“First it was voluntary and now it’s mandatory,” said Mike Crawford, a 38-year-old chef from Youngstown, about President Joe Biden’s announced (and yet-to-be-written) OSHA regulation requiring the vaccine for larger private employers. “Hold on now, what’s changed that fast?”   

“Out right they politicized it from the giddy up,” said one of the men from east Cleveland, who asked not to be named. “If it’s a pandemic then you can’t do nothing, including going to barbershops or be out here walking around.” 

This man was one of three in east Cleveland who requested to remain anonymous because they didn’t want to face repercussions for speaking out against the vaccine. Some of them spoke of family members who refused to see them because they refused to get the vaccine. 

Kevin Brennan, the spokesman for the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, said the stigma of being unvaccinated is an unfortunate consequence of the pandemic. To work around it, officials try to appeal to peoples’ sense of personal protection as well as the protection of their family and friends. He also added that the other-ization factor goes away once people do become vaccinated.       

But vaccinated people aren’t the ones spreading this stigma at the ground level.  

Keith Valentine, a 52-year-old federal employee, was the lone member among the east Cleveland men who has been fully vaccinated. 

He made the choice back in June because he thought it was best for him due to his age and weight. Valentine never pushed it on his peers though, nor does he find it appropriate for the government to mandate it. 

Another east Cleveland man in his 50s opposed how the unvaccinated suddenly became the face of the pandemic’s problems. The desire to police the unvaccinated’s actions didn’t sit well with him when the virus initially spread because of China’s early inaction. 

This same man has been on dialysis for the past 30 years because he was born small. He said when he consulted his physician about it, his doctor told him it was ultimately his choice. As someone who regularly visits the hospital for his treatment and was even offered $100 cash during one trip to get vaccinated, he still passed on it. That’s partly because he said he doesn’t know anyone who had Covid. 

Kravec, the chief doctor for Youngstown’s hospital, said that people on dialysis are at an extremely high risk for complications and death from the virus. From his experience, it’s been largely unvaccinated people being admitted to the hospital, with current patients typically being both younger and more obese. The 7-day average for ICU bed occupancy at Mercy Health in Youngstown on Sept. 17 was at its highest level since last October.  

Kravec did sympathize with their incredulity in some respects. The ever-changing guidelines being implemented to slow Covid’s spread could be fatiguing. Also, the fact that the typical flu season was nonexistent last winter because coronavirus infections supplanted the flu. In that case, he said the weaker virus was defeated by distancing and masking measures (he expects the flu to make a resurgence this winter).  

Not to mention the seemingly erratic way the virus is transmitted and who it affects. For example, it hasn’t been uncommon to see a family all come down with the virus together, but only one person has significant symptoms while the others are only mildly symptomatic at worst. 

“I acknowledge that it’s frustrating for people because it gives skepticism [about the seriousness of the virus],” Kravec said. “We all have different ways that we react to viruses, and we react to illnesses. That’s just science.”     

Not all of them have been so lucky to avoid the virus from hitting home. Valentine talked about a few people he knew who didn’t act on their eligibility right away and paid for it. 

“Every time you turn around, somebody who had my same feelings [who] said he was still waiting [to get his shots], he’s in a hospital, he was fighting for life then passed away,” Valentine said.  

Back in Youngstown, Richardson’s boyfriend, David, a 51-year-old logger, acknowledged that it’s hard to take the virus seriously until it becomes “real” to you. That moment came when his sister-in-law and nephew both came down with the virus. They’re currently recovering from it now. 

However, David also said his uncle started suffering from blood clots after being vaccinated. For someone who had a pulmonary embolism in the past and takes medication to address his own clotting issues, it’s something that’s caused him to hold off on getting his doses for the time being. 

The people ScoonTv spoke with aren’t acolytes of mainstream America. Some of them believe the virus is a form of population control. Some of them believe the powers-that-be “let” Donald Trump get elected in the first place. Some of them smoked crack in front of this reporter. But they all believe the messaging around the pandemic has been divisive. More so, most believe if the vaccine was so effective, it wouldn’t need to be pushed as intensely as it has. 

Kravec wasn’t sure they could be convinced about the necessity to get vaccinated. He just wanted to remind them that nurses and doctors see the reality of this pandemic every day and “now it’s our job to control it.” 

Brennan from Cuyahoga County’s public health body said that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to dissuade people convinced of conspiracy theories with logic. They’ll use the conspiracies or rumors to validate their decision to remain unvaccinated. 

But Kravec did say he tries to approach those refusing the vaccine with compassion. That sounds like a winning strategy to David from Youngstown, who said, above all, he’s looking for space to speak his mind and “peacefully come to a happy conclusion, even if it’s a disagreement.”

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Matthew Delaney


Matthew Delaney is a local journalist based in Washington, D.C. When he’s not questioning why he joined the media, he’s doing his part to restore some of its credibility with quality work

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