Carlson: COVID vaccine hesitancy is real in Black community, but the Millwood AD didn't balk. Here's why.
Shannon Hayes has a birthday wish.
His mom’s pepper steak.
Since the pandemic began, he has kept his distance from his 81-year-old mother. She caught COVID at one point in the fall, and he won’t risk being around her since he interacts with lots of folks as the athletic director at Millwood.
But by his birthday in April, he hopes for a big family gathering and some of that pepper steak.
Hayes took a big step toward that kind of normalcy this weekend — he got his first shot of the COVID vaccine.
He allowed yours truly to tag along for one simple reason.
“Putting more awareness to how simple and easy this is,” he said Saturday while standing outside the student union at Oklahoma City Community College, site of a mass vaccination pod. “I can sign up, and they’re gonna text me and check on me, see how I’m doing.”
Hayes knows some people worry about side effects — will the vaccine hurt me or make me sick or worse? — and that fear is particularly acute in the Black community. A week ago, the Health Department reported that only about 3% of Oklahomans who had been fully vaccinated are Black. Part of the issue is availability of and access to the vaccine, but so is something called vaccine hesitancy.
And Black Americans are hesitant for good reason. Medical experimentation on Blacks goes back as far as slavery but continued into the 20th century. Discriminatory treatment continues still.
“It’s really well-founded,” Dr. Lisa Cooper, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, told NPR of vaccine hesitancy in the Black community.
But Shannon Hayes wanted other Black folks to know that he got the vaccine. So have lots of other staff and teachers at Millwood. Many received their first dose when the Oklahoma City school hosted a vaccination pod a few weeks ago.
Hayes decided to wait only because wanted to give others who might be over 65 or have a comorbidity a better chance of getting vaccinated sooner. Even though he’s the athletic director and regularly attends Millwood games, he isn’t a classroom teacher. He oversees technology at the school, so he can largely limit who he’s around on a day-to-day basis.
“I don’t have to see kids,” he said.
But he wants to see family.
That’s been the hardest part of the pandemic for Hayes. He used to go to his mom’s house all the time. But now, most of their visits are on the phone or Facetime.
“I can’t hug my mom,” Hayes said. “I want to be able to have that.”
Sure, he wants football games with packed crowds and basketball games with jammed stands, too. He knows the kids at Millwood deserve that kind of atmosphere.
But just as the death toll from COVID is both public and personal — more than half a million Americans are dead, but each is a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, a mother or a father — this vaccination push is both communal and individual. We need millions of people vaccinated so that we can reach herd immunity, reducing the infection rate and increasing the activities that are safe.
But each of us has things we want to do once we are vaccinated.
Hayes wants game nights with his extended family. Wants to see his children and his grandchild without fear. And yes, he wants to eat that pepper steak from his mom.
He figures by his birthday in April, a bunch of family will have been vaccinated and they’ll have a chance to do some of those things.
He is glad to do his part in that equation, starting with his first vaccine dose Saturday. Less than 10 minutes after walking in, he had gotten the shot in his left arm, and he was out the door in less than half an hour. He had some pain at the injection site and up toward his shoulder, but he admitted he wasn’t sure if the pain was because of the vaccine or the way he’d slept the night before.
Either way, it wasn’t going to keep him from getting his second dose in three weeks.
A couple weeks after that, he’ll have the full effectiveness of the vaccine and the chance to do things he’s avoided but missed just the same.
“It’s the small things,” he said.
Shannon Hayes and millions of other Americans are doing a big thing by getting vaccinated.
Here’s hoping millions more will follow their lead.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.