‘Beyond angry’: Growing divide over COVID-19 vaccinations in Sonoma County

Vaccinated residents are growing increasingly frustrated with those who haven’t gotten the COVID-19 shot, while holdouts feel vilified and punished.|

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

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As the coronavirus pandemic has ebbed and spiked over the past seven months since vaccines became publicly available, public sentiment toward the unvaccinated has shifted along with it.

In the early stages of the vaccine rollout, demand exceeded supply by such a vast margin that hardly anyone took notice of the people who chose not to sign up for shots; if they didn’t want to get vaccinated, it just meant everyone else would get theirs sooner. When vaccine supply finally caught up in April, the decision to remain unimmunized began to stand out. But with transmission rates in steep decline, the stakes felt low. The unvaccinated were a curiosity to many, but not necessarily a danger.

All of that has changed. Daily case rates and hospitalizations are climbing steadily, and Sonoma County joined six others in the Bay Area on Monday mandating face coverings in all indoor public spaces. The region is regressing into another dark phase of the pandemic, and many blame the vaccine-hesitant.

That theme was sharply evident in responses people offered when The Press Democrat solicited opinions on the subject this week.

‘Sick and tired’

“I am sick and tired of unvaxxed people thinking they are MD’s and can run around infecting others,” Peg from Santa Rosa wrote. “Sick and tired of unvaxxed people not caring about those that cannot be vaxxed.”

“I’ve had it with the unvaccinated. The vaccinated are being held hostage by the unvaccinated,” wrote Mark from Petaluma. “All restrictions should only apply to the unvaccinated going forward.”

“If a COVID patient is brought into the ER of a hospital, the admitting staff should triage those who have refused vaccination,” Philip from Santa Rosa suggested. “Those anti-vax’ers should be put out into the parking lot and told to wait until all other patients are brought in.”

“I’m so angry. I’m beyond angry,” the otherwise soft-spoken Laurice Levine admitted in a phone interview.

She does have some basis for that. Levine, who lives in Petaluma and works as a medical consultant to biotech, has a blood disorder that requires her to visit the hospital every other week for a blood transfusion. During the height of the winter surge, she had to walk through the COVID-19 ward to get there, an experience she calls “pretty devastating.”

Though everyone in her family knows of her condition, many relatives have elected not to be immunized, including her brother. She, her husband and 5-year-old son have been excluded from multiple family events. Now, her boy is about to start kindergarten.

“I’m terrified, because I won’t have as much control,” Levine said.

So far, the vaccination discord in Sonoma County has stopped short of serious, face-to-face hostility. But there are ramifications.

Shelby Dodson believes his vaccine hesitancy is unfairly being used against him. Dodson, who lives in Santa Rosa, was in line for a job with Eden Housing, an organization that develops or acquires homes for low-income qualifiers. His start date was Aug. 2. His compensation, he said, would include a complimentary two-bedroom apartment for him and his girlfriend. Then Eden Housing asked for proof of vaccination, a requirement Dodson could not meet.

“I’m a person who believes I should live for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said, “which is literally what this country was built on. Or what it says it was built on.”

Dodson’s reluctance to get vaccinated comes from many angles. He’s 38, 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, and, as he put it, “super athletic and very healthy.” A 14-year military veteran who contracted COVID-19 at least once over the past 18 months, Dodson feels protected. Reports of negative responses to vaccine shots trouble him, and he believes vaccine mandates are created for political cover, not safety.

Also underlying Dodson’s unease is an abiding suspicion of the U.S. government and how it has treated Black Americans in the past. He is biracial.

“I’ll be very blunt,” Dodson said. “Our country has built most of its medical field on the backs of people who are African American. They spent a lot of time developing and processing things, and testing them on people of color.”

No intention of getting vaccinated

None of Dodson’s close friends or family members have any intention of getting vaccinated, he said.

While such mistrust can be hard to overcome, it’s not impossible. Despite early skepticism, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that, by April, more African American respondents (75%) were already vaccinated or inclined in that direction than white respondents (72%).

In Sonoma County, people continue to enter the fold. County data shows the number of partially vaccinated residents rose by more than 1,000 in the week from July 27 to Aug. 2, indicating a trickle of first-dose appointments. As of Tuesday, about 78% of the county’s eligible population had received at least one dose.

“I always have hope that people will change their minds and come around to the idea that vaccinations work, that they are safe and that they are needed now more than ever as we confront this new, more-aggressive opponent known as the delta variant,” Sonoma County vaccine chief Dr. Urmila Shende said. “I also respect that everybody has their own timing for making medical decisions.”

Doctors on the front lines of immunization tend to be forgiving observers of vaccine hesitancy. But Shende couldn’t mask her sense of urgency.

“Unfortunately, there comes a time during a health crisis such as this when if you don’t make a decision, a decision is made for you,” she said. “And we’ve seen too many cases both locally and nationally of individuals who have suffered severe health issues or have died because they were waiting on getting the vaccine. And that is truly heartbreaking for me as a physician and a human being.”

Shende ended with a plea: “Please. Get vaccinated. These vaccines remain the best tool that we have for keeping ourselves and our families safe.”

Her patience is not shared by all community members, many of whom are tired of wearing masks, are fearful that delta and other variants will infect them even if they’re fully vaccinated and are fed up with what they perceive as the blatant selfishness of anti-vaxxers.

“Any analysis of the unvaccinated demonstrates they’re overwhelmingly conservative, anti-intellectual, anti-science and anti-authoritarian when the perception of authority is from the opposite side of the spectrum,” said David Huebel, a Sonoma County vineyard manager. “Now the unvaccinated have caused a fourth wave, more people are dying and the vaccinated must return to masks and social distancing to protect the unvaccinated.”

Huebel comes armed with data. He points out that widespread adverse reactions to a vaccine tend to show up within 90 days of its introduction, that more than 4.2 billion doses of the various vaccines have been doled out worldwide by now with a vanishingly small number of morbid outcomes, and that the COVID-19 hospitalization rate for vaccinated Californians is close to 0.00%.

“As it’s become clear that 99% of the deaths since June are among the unvaccinated,” Huebel said, “anyone who can learn that and not vaccinate themselves and family members are dragging us back to where we all were, unnecessarily.”

The vaccine holdouts don’t see themselves as selfish or ignorant. All of them have a reason for refusing. A lot of the reluctance, though, might be summed up by one phrase: Don’t tell me what to do.

“I’m getting a lot of flak from medical people at Rohnert Park Health Center,” said Darrin Connell, who lives in that city. “I’m the type of person that you only need to tell me something once. Don’t do it repeatedly because then it gets on my nerves.”

Most doctors would place Connell in the high-risk category for COVID-19. He has grappled with HIV for 24 years. That actually plays into his decision to reject the vaccine. “I’ve dealt with worse,” Connell said.

“I’m living with my decision,” he said. “If I pay the consequences for it, I’ve lived a good life. If people shun me for it — hey, I’m being honest.”

Connell’s reasoning includes the seemingly swift pace of vaccine development, complications associated with their administration and the relative isolation he has imposed upon himself during the pandemic.

But the positions of anti-vaxxers reflect the deep lack of common ground between the two sides of the divide. For example, while health officials see the unvaccinated population as a collective incubator that allows the coronavirus to survive and mutate into potentially more deadly genetic strains, Dodson flips the roles.

“I’m not judging people for being vaccinated. That’s your choice,” he said. “But I also think that plays a role in all these variants. People get sick, then they’re re-exposed and this thing adapts.”

Those sorts of arguments fall flat for Lisa Nelson. The Sebastopol resident volunteers with Food for Thought, a food bank based in Forestville. Around Christmas, more and more of the nonprofit’s deliveries wound up in the hands of COVID-19 patients. Now they’re on the rise again, Nelson said, with about half the food she distributes going to those recovering from the coronavirus.

‘Bigger danger for me in getting COVID’

“I have several friends who haven’t been vaccinated,” Nelson said on the phone. “They never really have a reason. The biggest thing I hear is this is so new, it can’t possibly be safe. My response to that is that the brave people who went through the trials, those were the ones who had something to be afraid of. Of course, there’s always a danger. But there’s a bigger danger for me in getting COVID.”

It can all begin to seem like an impenetrable barrier, one that makes it less likely Sonoma County will ever make enough inroads into that remaining 22% of the eligible population to achieve herd immunity — a target with a moving goal post, because of the variants’ higher transmissibility.

Dodson, for one, does not sound like someone on the verge of relenting.

“I will shut down the city of San Francisco” if the state hands down rigid vaccine mandates for its citizens, he said. “It will not be hard. I have tons of friends, tons of followers on social media. I’ll shut down every freeway into San Francisco if I have to. There are only three ways in. I don’t want to negotiate with politicians about my health.”

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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