When Nicole Martinez was initially offered the COVID-19 vaccine, she turned it down. “Normally I’m a very pro-science, pro-vax, politically left-leaning person,” she says from her home in Florida. “I took the pandemic seriously from the start and followed all of the protocols.”
But there was something about the COVID-19 vaccine that made Nicole feel unsure. “I have terrible health anxiety, and I’ve been nervous about taking new medicines since I was young, so I was hesitant about the vaccine when it first came out because it felt so new,” she explains. “I had friends who got it right away who had pretty severe reactions to it.”
Despite her anxiety, Nicole pushed herself to think logically. The COVID vaccine was developed quickly relative to others, but the science behind it comes from many years of research; the scale of funding, government support and the number of clinical trial volunteers was unprecedented, and the vaccines all went through the necessary rigorous testing procedures.
Still, when headlines started appearing about vaccines causing blood clots and heart inflammation, that was it. “It increased my hesitation tenfold,” she explains. “I had the mindset of, ‘I’ve made it this far without the vaccine, I can wait a little longer until all of the side effects and risks are known’.”
A few months later, the virus hit closer to home. “Watching my boyfriend get pretty sick from COVID and then experiencing it myself…. that same health anxiety kicked in and I realised that I am now face-to-face with the possibility of being seriously ill or hospitalised,” Nicole remembers. It was then that she changed her mind. “I could’ve prevented this fear if I’d just gotten the shot,” she says.
COVID-19 is fast becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated. According to a recent report from the US-based Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), unvaccinated people are around 29 times more likely to be hospitalised with the virus than those who are fully vaccinated, and around five times more likely to contract the disease in the first place. These risks have increased since the arrival of the more contagious Delta variant.
While there are plenty of reasons that some haven’t received their vaccines – medical issues, religious beliefs, lack of availability – there are others who are simply hesitant. In February of this year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put this number at 9 percent of the UK adult population (it was particularly high among the 16 to 29-year-old age group, at 17 percent). In the US, where vaccine refusal has been a much bigger problem, during the same month the US Census Bureau (CB) estimated that 18.2 percent of the adult population was vaccine hesitant.
But the tide appears to be changing. In the UK, hesitancy among adults has reduced, reaching just 4 percent in August, based on ONS figures. A similar pattern can be observed in the US, where hesitancy has dropped to 10.5 percent in roughly the same period, according to data from the CB. There are many reasons that may explain this trend, including focused government campaigns aimed at giving confidence to those who are concerned – but the impact of the deadlier Delta variant seems to also be forcing people to reconsider.
Like Nicole, some seem to have changed their minds about the vaccine since catching COVID. Aaron Spinks is 44 and lives in Oklahoma. He says that while he doesn’t describe himself as wholesale anti-vax, he was wary about the speed at which the COVID vaccine was pushed out – until he tested positive. Now, he says he “would and do[es] encourage anyone he knows to get it”, and that his wife and his colleagues have decided to get vaccinated after hearing about his experiences.
“We were all anti-vax when it came to this one, until we actually went through it,” he tells me. He’s currently waiting to become eligible for the vaccine (his doctor in the US has recommended he wait 90 days after testing positive, while UK guidelines state 28 days).
Chevi Daniels, a 30-year-old from London, feels similarly. He says he was never a staunch anti-vaxxer, but was led to believe he’d be immune to the virus due to his age and fitness level. “I did let my anti-vax friends influence me on this last point,” he says.
His mind swiftly changed after catching COVID at a festival. “I felt so angry at myself,” he says. “Like I’d risked my life for a concert – and a vaccine which could have helped me was there and I had ample chances to take it.” Now, he says, he’ll be getting vaccinated as soon as he can. “I have to say I regret my choices. Having COVID is not easy. It ravages the body, and as soon as I’m better I will be getting my first shot.”
Morgan, a 22-year-old from South Africa – who asked that her name be withheld for fear of receiving online abuse – also refused her vaccine. She later caught COVID, not once but twice, and wound up in hospital with pneumonia. “It was scary,” she remembers. “During the time I was sick, my best friend’s dad died, who was also not vaccinated, and my pulmonologist [doctor who treats respiratory diseases] died too... it was a big wake up call.”
She’s since been vaccinated. “I don’t want to be that sick again,” she says. “I’d also like things to go back to as close to normal as possible… this is the only way!”
Of course, not everyone who catches COVID suddenly wants to be vaccinated. Mike, who also asked to remain anonymous because of previous abuse he’s received about his decisions, says he and his wife didn’t suffer much with the virus, and therefore don’t see the need to be vaccinated now. “For me, there is not enough safety data yet,” he says. “If we were higher risk we may have considered it. For us, though, the low risk doesn’t outweigh the unknown risk of the vaccine.”
For others, the decision comes too late. “I have looked after a number of patients who have been unwell with COVID on the ICU who wished they had got the vaccine,” says Dr Chris Kirwan, Consultant and Clinical Director for Adult Critical Care at The Royal London Hospital. “The vaccine is absolutely key to preventing severe illness if you contract COVID. I have treated previously fit and well young people in intensive care who thought they had a ‘strong immune system’ and refused the vaccine, and regretted it.”
Even if you’ve had COVID before, Dr Kirwan says, the vaccine can boost the body’s immune response should you be exposed to it again. “It’s important to have the vaccine to reduce the chance of contracting COVID and spreading it to more vulnerable people,” he adds. For anyone who is still unsure, Dr Kirwan advises speaking to a GP or medical professional, who can arm you with the information you need about the vaccine’s safety.
Nicole is full of regret about her decision not to get vaccinated sooner. “Now I realise that no matter how careful you are, COVID is going to find you eventually – it’s just too damn contagious,” she says. “I wish I’d taken the smaller risk when I had the chance.”
When asked what she would say to those feeling hesitant about getting vaccinated for whatever reason, she doesn’t sugarcoat. “I’d tell them to pick the safer side of the fence, before COVID picks it for you... I thought I had more time to wait it out and make a decision, and now I feel humbled and regret being so hesitant.
“Fear of the vaccine disappears the moment you have to face the virus. I never thought I’d be thinking, ‘I wish I’d gotten the vaccine. My life would be so much easier right now if I’d just gotten the vaccine’ a hundred times a day... but here we are.”