Sunday, April 25, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Sheila Witte remembers the three little vials a nurse brought to her rural school in the Midwest.
The vials contained the polio vaccine, a groundbreaking development in immunology that would eventually eradicate the potentially fatal and disabling childhood disease that was still prevalent when Witte was a young girl in the late 1950s.
Her mother wouldn’t let her get the shot. Her family was firmly committed to self-reliance. Medical intervention was not an option, and if illness came, whatever the outcome was, it was meant to be.
“Dad used to say, you’re not sick, (but) go to the doctor and you will be,” said Witte, now a high school teacher in the Las Vegas area. “That is in me.”
The coronavirus pandemic made her reconsider. Nobody wants COVID-19, and Witte accepted she could protect herself if she turned to medicine and got a vaccine.
It’s not easy for everyone to decide to get vaccinated, even after witnessing the worldwide devastation the coronavirus has brought the past year. In Nevada alone, a state of only 3 million people, COVID-19 has sickened more than 300,000 and killed roughly 5,400, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.
Mistrust, suspicion, fear and complacency, if not lack of access, create a sizable population of people who resist all vaccines. For COVID-19, a March survey by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that 17% to 21% of Nevada residents were “probably not” or “definitely not” going to get vaccinated.
About half of those who said they were hesitant were strongly hesitant, or in the “definitely not” group.
State health department data show that roughly 44% of all people age 16 and older have had at least one shot so far as of Thursday. And Clark County is incentivizing vaccination by agreeing to reopen at 100% capacity with no physical distancing mandates — only mask mandates — once 60% of residents 16 and older have had at least one shot.
Some residents have overcome their fears. Here are three stories:
The power of science and love
Kiera Bright does everything for her little girl, Dream.
Dream was born in August 2019, the result of the beautiful art and science of in-vitro fertilization after Bright suffered a miscarriage and two ectopic pregnancies.
When the coronavirus pandemic kicked off in earnest in March 2020, Bright, an independent makeup artist, went into hard lockdown in her North Las Vegas home to protect her high-risk parents and newborn, Dream. Bright still hasn’t been inside a grocery store.
Ultimately, her decision to get vaccinated came down to Dream, and the pregnancies that came before.
Bright, 35, mistook her second ectopic pregnancy — where a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, and is aways unviable — for a typical miscarriage that she would tough out, but the resulting internal bleeding and seizures nearly killed her. After misdiagnosing herself, she didn’t want to chance it again.
She thinks she’d probably beat COVID-19, but she’s humbly aware that she’s been wrong in the past.
Plus, science won.
“We wouldn’t have Dream if it wasn’t for science, so I don’t feel like it was fair for me to trust science in one aspect of my life, but not trust science in the next aspect,” Bright said.
She was nervous and initially in the “wait and see” camp. She also has family members who are anti-vaccination, and she was pressured by misinformation online.
“You see things on social media — people were saying that people getting the vaccine were like lab rats, all types of crazy stuff,” Bright said. “So of course if you see that stuff enough times it starts to slip into your head a little bit.”
Accepting the advice of their fertility doctor and after lots of family discussion, she and her husband, Brandon, both decided to get vaccinated. For Dream.
Bright got her first shot at a CVS pharmacy in late March, otherwise not yet eligible but allowed to take advantage of a canceled appointment to avoid vaccine waste. Dream’s eyes opened wide at all the new faces she saw after spending much of her life in quarantine. Brandon got his earlier because he works in front-line food distribution.
Bright is proud of their decision. She wears her mask in public with peace of mind, and with an N95 mask and goggles gets inches from people’s faces to do their makeup as the wedding industry returns to near-normal.
She thinks more people will get on board as the vaccine is now available to all ages and occupations and they see people they know get it without negative effects. She’s happy to share her own experience with her 25,000 Instagram followers and have them spread the word. Everyone’s an influencer.
‘We did not doctor’
Witte’s COVID-19 shot was her first vaccination. Ever, in her 67 years.
Witte grew up on a farm in Missouri hill country, under generations of people who worked hard, lived long off the land, never got sick and never saw a doctor or took medicine for anything. Not for a burst appendix, like her dad suffered while fighting in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Not for the fractured hand she sustained in a car wreck.
“We did not doctor,” Witte said. “We just didn’t.”
Her father, Harry, had a cut-and-dried philosophy.
“He thought that you should get (diseases). That way, you got stronger,” she said. “If you lived.”
She did live, through childhood whooping cough, mumps, chicken pox and three bouts of measles within a year and a half, and a vicious case of flu as a college student in 1972. The flu persuaded her to go to the hospital, where she believes her mother was prepared for her to die. Witte had double pneumonia and took an experimental drug that her doctor didn’t explain much.
She isn’t sure if all this made her stronger.
Though she avoided polio, she knew the intensity of constant other illnesses and how delicate they left her as a girl. She remembered her healthy teenage neighbor dying of the same flu in the same hospital when she was there. She didn’t want to go through that again, and she especially didn’t want it for her students at Southeast Career Technical Academy.
So on Feb. 8, after months of deliberation, Witte rolled up her sleeve at the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at UNLV. She told her vaccinator that this would be the first inoculation she’d received in her life. They told her she was brave.
Witte researched the vaccine from the time she heard it was being developed. She waffled. The drug she took for the flu battered her, and on the rare occasion she does take medication now, she is extremely sensitive to its effects.
But this is a global emergency, she reasoned, and she wanted to be part of the solution.
“The problem isn’t the vaccine,” she said. “The problem is the virus. It’s a strong little virus that mutates, and we have to stop that. I guess if you die from the vaccine, chances are you might have died from COVID.”
Witte’s aversion to medicine is still strong. She has a high pain tolerance — she refuses anesthesia at the dentist and had her two children drug-free, although she acquiesced to hospital births and got them the full complement of childhood vaccinations.
Then she thought about the neighbor boy dying suddenly, and the uncle Walter she never met, because he died after fixing a fence in a snowstorm with her father before fully recovering from measles and pneumonia. Walter, her dad said, just wasn’t as strong as him.
“I did weigh the factors, and I think what made me decide was, if I have to pick between hopefully living through COVID, or the shot and the drug and the effects of it, I’m going to try this new thing called the vaccine,” she said.
Endorsements from family, friends and Fauci
Kevin Youngblood also wanted to wait and see. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine to market in less than a year gave him pause.
“To put it out that fast kind of made me wonder,” said Youngblood, a Las Vegas photographer. “I understand why they did it and how they did it that fast, but the fact that they put it out that fast was kind of concerning.”
He said he wasn’t afraid, but hesitant. He needed to hear from people close to him what their side effects were. He thought it over for a few weeks.
Friends and his brother who had already been vaccinated gave him the evidence he needed, saying they had no issues other than a sore arm.
“That made me feel better,” Youngblood said.
On Wednesday, he went for it. From opening his computer to find an appointment at Cashman Center, not far from where he lives, to returning home with a bandage on his arm, was about an hour and a half.
He had wanted the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because he wanted a one-and-done regimen. He just doesn’t like shots. But the Pfizer dose he did get wasn’t nearly as bad as he thought it would be. He expected side effects to be mild too, and for the greater good.
Youngblood, who photographs outdoor sports, follows an ultrarunner to races around the country, and he also wanted to resume easier travel.
People in his circle and national leaders alike have been good ambassadors.
“We can be pretty confident and listen to those in authority, the Faucis out there that have been doing this for years, that they know what they’re talking about and they have the confidence in it,” Youngblood said. “We should be pretty confident about it and get away from all these conspiracy theories and things that have no evidence.”