Five out of seven members of my family aren’t getting vaccinated — here’s why

May 18, 2021 5:45 am

A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card Nov. 13, 2020, in Washington D.C. Department of Defense photo by E.J. Hersom.

My mom turned to chiropractors for everything from my sister’s colic to my gymnastics-trick-gone-wrong hip injury.

She’s long been skeptical of mainstream medicine, and her distrust intensified over the years to the point where she now considers essential oils essential and any malady treatable with the right vitamin or mineral: my rheumatoid arthritis, my son’s alopecia, my sister Danel’s mysterious throat-closing problem.

It’s just a matter of figuring out which vitamin deficiency we’re dealing with, she says. I always say to call me when she figures it out, but in the meantime, I’ll take the drugs my rheumatologist prescribes. 

I’m not sure when she began to be skeptical of vaccines, but I remember her saying my late brother with muscular dystrophy got very sick after getting the flu vaccine. I don’t think she’s gotten the vaccine since.

Last year, my Trump-loving family — and extended family of Trumpers across the Midwest — eschewed masks and chose “liberty.” Yes, years ago my two brothers died of pneumonia — which the virus can cause — and my older sister also has MD and a weak heart, but my family rarely wore masks or socially distanced or stopped traveling. So far, somehow, despite living in the Wild West that is now North Dakota until recently moving to Arizona, my sister has been spared COVID-19.

My parents ran around the country and caught the virus. Dad was hospitalized for 10 days; Mom mostly got tired for a few days.

So now, more than a year into this pandemic, the vaccines are here. You’d think people who most hated these government shackles would be first in line to get the vaccine and put this pandemic behind us.

You would be wrong.

My niece is the biggest anti-vaxxer in the family, choosing not to vaccinate her three beautiful little boys against brutal infectious diseases like mumps, measles and polio. So I knew she wouldn’t get the shot. 

And Mom — well, I figured her long history of skepticism about the flu vaccine and chumminess with my niece was going to push her in the “no” column pretty easily.

It did. Dad followed — he follows Mom’s lead and Fox News religiously. So did my diplomatic, peacemaking, Trump-supporting sister in Wyoming. My sister with MD won’t be getting it.

My oldest sister, a nurse who works with cardiac patients in Kansas? Nope. 

This aversion to the vaccines was no surprise, given some in my family think Bill Gates and 5G had something to do with this virus that wasn’t really that big of a deal. Also: face masks are bad for you because they cause CO2 intoxication. 

My sister who is an accountant in Colorado — with the weird throat problem — got vaccinated. She and I are the sole members of my family to be vaccinated, and we were shamed for it. Lucky for us, family members say they’re praying that we don’t get sick or worse. 

Their disinterest in the vaccine tracks pretty closely with their devotion to Trump. It seems the year he spent downplaying the virus got ingrained in their psyche, even though he got vaccinated.

I asked them why they weren’t getting vaccinated and if anything would change their minds. Here’s what they said: 

  • Dad went off about how Dr. Anthony Fauci began SARS research in 2014. This seems to be a reference to a debunked conspiracy theory that ties the virus to research funded by Fauci’s office. It appears to have originated with a Fox News commentator. Dad also said Fauci said hydroxychloroquine is effective against SARS viruses. This appears to be a reference to another junk story that Fauci has known for years that the drug can treat coronaviruses. What does this have to do with him not getting the vaccine? Your guess is as good as mine.
  • Mom wouldn’t answer, but has in the past repeated numerous conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, and said no “bribe” would convince her to take the vaccine.
  • My sister, who is a nurse, said she’s not getting stabbed because the vaccines haven’t been approved by the FDA (although the FDA has approved them for emergency use), and she doesn’t trust Big Pharma, which rushed out the vaccines. She also noted half of U.S. health care workers weren’t getting vaccinated. I asked for her source of that information, since I’m trying (and failing) to teach my family about legitimate news sources. She cited this March 20 CBS story. She must’ve read it too fast, because although the headline does say almost half of U.S. health care workers hadn’t been vaccinated, the point was not that they didn’t want to. Some of them didn’t want to, but others couldn’t get it. The story said 18% of those surveyed said they didn’t plan on getting the vaccine due to worry over side effects and the vaccines’ “newness.”
  • Another sister said she has “no reason to get one” and nobody knows the long-term effects of the vaccines. 

None of them expressed interest in any incentive (free doughnuts!) or bribe (free hunting license?) to change their minds. A common thread here seems to be a different malady than a physical one: Struggling with the vast amount of information we are inundated with in a complex society. And turning to information sources that are friendliest to our worldview, no matter the cost. In other words: They don’t trust the dreaded mainstream media. 

I can’t quite square the essential oils-embracing, vitamin-guzzling, Tupperware-selling religious right world I grew up in with this anti-mask-wearing, pandemic-minimizing, vaccine-eschewing incarnation. How did all that become this?

While writing about U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis’s side hustle hawking nutritional supplements last year, I talked to Hamline University economist Stacy Bosley, who studies pyramid schemes and the social and economic factors that influence participation in them.

She said there’s some research that indicates religiosity increases the tendency to be victims of fraud. You get into Youngevity — which was the Lewis program — or Amway on the word of someone in your Bible study group, for example.

“It definitely goes through high-trust communities,” she said. “They call it an affinity fraud.”

Call it religiosity, affinity fraud, or a Trump hangover, but five out of my seven immediate family members are refusing to get vaccinated — a bigger percentage than the nearly half of Republicans nationwide doing the same. 

They believed in herd immunity before the vaccines arrived, but they don’t seem to anymore.

I have no earthly idea how to reach them, so I’m not going to try. I just pray they’ll be okay.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.