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These vaccine-hesitant moms have questions — and public health experts have answers

Vaccine hesitancy may be one the biggest public health threats. Health experts assuage some of the top concerns.
TODAY Illustration/Getty

As of Sept. 22, 2021, 76.6 percent of eligible Americans have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But many across the country, including moms, still haven’t gotten the jab.

As an enthusiastically vaccinated mom, I wanted to understand why other parents were choosing differently. I recently chatted with several unvaccinated moms about their fears, and I brought their concerns to two public health experts. The moms that I spoke with did not want to share their names publicly out of concern that they would be ostracized by their communities or workplaces.

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I asked Dr. Simran Chaudhri, a physician and care expert in trauma and resilience, to weigh in. She’s also the Chief Medical Officer for KINSHIFT, an organization that creates solutions in health care and public health to address and heal impacts of the trauma of racism and inequality. I also chatted with Kelly Davis, a public health expert and founding member of NYC Health Department’s Center for Health Equity. She’s also the Chief Equity Officer for KINSHIFT.

Davis stressed that the root cause for many people not getting vaccinated is poverty, and not hesitancy. She added that the private healthcare model is not set up for people who need to have multiple conversations with a trusted medical provider.

“This is a system failure, not necessarily an individual failure. None of those moms should be blamed … We have to humanize folks that are hesitant. It’s not helpful to call them all crazy Trumpers. Each person has a calculus that’s dependent upon a myriad of factors including risk tolerance, money loss, religious and cultural beliefs.”

Below is our conversation, which has been edited for brevity and clarity:

Q: “I don’t trust the experts are being honest. I don’t trust the testing and the safety of the vaccine,” one mom of two told me. She was so worried about the negative backlash that she didn’t even feel comfortable publicly sharing what state she lives in. What’s your response to her concerns?

Davis: It's understandable that mothers and birth parents would approach vaccine mandates with caution. The U.S. government, unlike those in other high-income nations, has routinely failed to ensure supportive environments for women, mothers and parents via sick paid leave, paid maternity leave, freedom from bias and discrimination and equal pay for equal work. Some parents' hesitancy about the Covid-19 vaccines is a result of that fractured trust.

Dr. Chaudhri: I agree with Kelly, and I would add: Well who do you trust? Can you talk to your family physician or a (religious) leader in your community about what drove them to get vaccinated? What about a friend or neighbor? When you can’t get access to food, affordable childcare, and a church is helping fill that gap, of course that’s who you end up trusting.

Q: This same mom also told me, “I don’t see the need for [for the vaccine]. The survival rate is so good that I don’t see the need to put a rushed vaccine surrounded by a ton of controversy into my body.”

Dr. Chaudhri: That may be true, but it's not just about you. Vaccines are not only about preventing individual illness but also about preventing the spread to those around you.

I would encourage this mom to put herself in others' shoes. Try to understand the fear of the mom who is terrified to take her child with severe asthma outside as she might end up in the intensive care unit if she got Covid-19, or the grandfather who hasn't seen his family in almost two years because he has cancer and is worried Covid-19 would mean a death sentence. Vaccination is also about family and community.

Q: A mother of four in Oklahoma told me that the main reason she hasn’t gotten the vaccine is that there haven’t been long-term studies on it, and she’s not willing to be part of the experiment.

She also said she suffers from anemia, asthma and depression, and she worries the vaccine may worsen her symptoms … She told me she needs to do research to find out what her options are to get vaccinated, because she lives in a rural area and doesn’t go out too often.

Dr. Chaudhri: It's natural to be fearful of things we do not understand and want to stick with the old, expected way of doing things because it seems comfortable and safe. New advancements in biotechnology have enabled the creation of vaccines in a faster way. This new vaccine did not spring up overnight. It was the product of years of research that was in the right place at the right time and able to be swiftly redirected to focus on Covid-19.

I would encourage this mom to read a bit about the history of vaccine development and the rigorous testing process that goes into getting a new medicine to the public.

This mother’s chronic disease issues should all be reasons FOR vaccination, not against. People with chronic illnesses, especially respiratory illnesses like asthma, have been shown to have much more severe symptoms if they are exposed to Covid-19. A small amount of suffering now drastically reduces your chances of ending up in the intensive care unit if you were exposed.

Davis: Parents across the U.S. are forced to make strategic decisions about their survival every day. I’m from Mississippi where people in rural communities may have to travel hours for basic health care services. If this mother decided to get vaccinated, does she have a job that will allow her to take off to travel to a medical provider? If she does take off, will she lose the pay that she needs to take care of her family? Does she even have access to a reliable automobile and the tens of dollars it takes to fill up the gas tank? Who will provide her with reliable childcare? The Covid-19 vaccine is not equally accessible, especially for moms.

Q: A mother of three in Florida told me she has always had horrible reactions to vaccines, including high fevers and vomiting. She said her son, who is now 13, had a bad reaction to a vaccine when he was a baby and that she had trouble getting doctors to take her seriously when she told them about it. She said she’s often been frustrated with doctors talking down to her, and she doesn’t trust they’d keep her safe if she had trouble again. Most of her family have been vaccinated without issue, and she’s glad they’ve all had good experiences.

Dr. Chaudhri: How can we expect people to trust us in an emergency if we don't give them a reason to in their everyday lives? The medical community as a whole needs to do more to correct bias engrained in our patriarchal, racist systems of care. (John Oliver did a great segment on this!)

Davis: Women and pregnant people are routinely marginalized within our healthcare systems; it's a fact. Sexual and reproductive health for women and queer folks is constantly in flux. Across causes of death and disability (like heart disease and maternal mortality) women of color — particularly Black women — are routinely dismissed by healthcare providers. Actually, disrespectful maternity care is a contributing cause of America's maternal health crisis. Based on those experiences, some may find interacting with clinicians frustrating or disappointing. Public health efforts will continue to have mixed results until healthcare and medicine (and society at large) addresses its relationship with sexism, racism and transphobia.

Cat Rakowski is an Emmy-winning journalist and a booking producer for MSNBC's “Morning Joe” and “Way Too Early." She lives in Queens with her son, Lincoln. Follow her @catrakowski.