Some are distrustful of the government and drug companies. A diabetic was told by a friend that COVID-19 vaccines cause cancer. Several are worried about potential long-term effects, and one man believes the government is inserting tracking devices in vaccines.
All of these Long Islanders are skeptical about getting vaccinated.
Residents of communities with some of the lowest vaccination rates in the region repeated falsehoods and misleading information, some of which they have seen and heard on social media and from friends and family, but that was debunked by medical experts, and said they didn’t believe what officials were saying about COVID-19.
“I’m afraid it’s going to mutate big-time on me,” said Kathleen Giordano, 61, a home health aide from Shirley.
Johnny Intrieri, 65, of Shirley
Why he hasn’t gotten vaccinated: “I don’t trust the government. Are you kidding me? What they did to [Donald] Trump.” Intrieri also said he believes the government puts microchips in vaccines to track Americans.
Fact-check: Doctors say it’s physically impossible to fit microchips through needles.
“I don’t trust the government,” said Johnny Intrieri, of Shirley, a retired sanitation worker. “Are you kidding me? What they did to [Donald] Trump.”
As public officials urge Long Islanders to get vaccinated to help control the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, residents of Hempstead, Mastic Beach, Roosevelt and Shirley spoke with Newsday recently about their hesitancy to get the shot.
Beyond the specific misinformation that residents said they got from social media, friends and family is, for some, a profound distrust of government and pharmaceutical companies.
Even when people cite specific false information — such as Intrieri’s belief that the government puts microchips in vaccines to track Americans, even though doctors say it’s physically impossible to fit microchips through needles — “the real core reasons” for their vaccine skepticism often are rooted in ingrained beliefs, said Martine Hackett, an associate professor of health professions at Hofstra University and an expert on health inequities.
“It’s really about the deeper issues that are more often than not legitimate,” said Hackett, noting how tech companies monitor people every day, so concern about surveillance is understandable.
What to know
About 6 in 10 Long Islanders are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, but the inoculation rate is much lower in some communities.
Residents of four of those low-vaccination communities gave Newsday many reasons for not getting the shot, including distrust of the government and drug companies, concern about potential long-term effects of the vaccines, and a belief that the vaccines are dangerous.
Experts say it is difficult to convince many unvaccinated people to get the shot because their vaccine skepticism often is rooted in beliefs, such as distrust of government, that have been deeply ingrained for years.
Likewise, it’s reasonable to distrust the government or pharmaceutical companies based on their past harmful actions, she said.
“You are trying to undo something that is really quite deep in terms of a belief,” said Hackett, who said it’s “frustrating” but not surprising to see so much resistance to a lifesaving medication.
Some people may be persuaded to get vaccinated by a conversation with a personal physician or a trusted friend or family member, but others will never be convinced, she said.
The proportion of Americans who have said they will “definitely not” get vaccinated has been “remarkably stable over time” in monthly Kaiser Family Foundation surveys, which indicates the difficulty in changing some people’s minds, said Ashley Kirzinger, associate director of public opinion and survey research at the San Francisco-based health nonprofit. That number has stayed in the 13% to 15% range in all eight surveys released between December and Wednesday.
“In the ‘definitely not’ group, it seems nothing can convince them to get vaccinated,” said Kirzinger, noting how the overwhelming majority believe COVID-19 vaccines are a greater threat to their health than the virus itself, even as medical experts insist otherwise.
Langston Griffin, 43, of Roosevelt, a solar-panel installer, says he doesn’t trust the vaccines because “the government has a bad track record of taking care of their people, or so-called taking care of their people.”
That’s especially true in the government’s treatment of Black Americans, but it’s true for “all communities pretty much,” said Griffin, who is Black.
“We’ve been lied to before,” he said. “Why fall for it again?”
He believes that, for drug companies, the vaccines are “all about the money” and not people’s well-being. He pointed to Johnson & Johnson, the maker of one of the three vaccines authorized in the United States, which has been accused of helping fuel the opioid epidemic and of selling baby powder that the company knew causes cancer. The company denies the allegations, but it faces thousands of lawsuits from women who say the powder caused their cancer — a Missouri appeals court recently ruled against the company and assessed $2.1 billion in damages — and agreed to be part of a $26 billion settlement in opioid-related lawsuits.
“I’m supposed to trust this company that made this vaccine, warp speed, overnight?” Griffin asked.
Dr. Jacqueline Moline, senior vice president for occupational medicine, epidemiology and prevention at Northwell Health, said the vaccines went through “many layers of review” that included federal agencies, as well as independent, nongovernment experts. Although the specific vaccines were only developed after the pandemic struck, they’re based on years of research, she said.
Similarities, differences in 4 communities
The four communities where Newsday interviewed residents are demographically different in some ways but similar in others.
The large majority of residents of Roosevelt and Hempstead are Black and Latino. Most people in Mastic Beach and Shirley are white.
Roosevelt and Hempstead voted solidly for Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Mastic Beach and Shirley supported then-President Trump, a Republican. Nationwide, Republicans are much less likely to be vaccinated than Democrats, Kaiser and other surveys have found.
In Mastic Beach’s 11951 ZIP code in Suffolk, only 40.8% of residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 57.6% throughout Suffolk, state data shows. In Shirley’s 11967, also in Suffolk, the vaccination rate is 41.9%.
In ZIP code 11575, in Roosevelt, 41.9% of residents have been fully vaccinated, while in Hempstead’s 11550, 46.1% have, compared with 63.9% throughout Nassau.
Black New Yorkers have the lowest vaccination rate of any racial or ethnic group, while Hispanics have a slightly higher rate than the state as a whole, state data shows.
All four ZIP codes have median household incomes and college-degree rates lower than Long Island as a whole. The Kaiser survey found that adults without a college degree are among those least likely to be vaccinated.
“What a lot of folks are reacting to is, ‘Don’t tell us what to do from your high and mighty throne,’ ” said Perry Halkitis, a public health psychologist and dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey, referring to government and health officials who he said sometimes “talk down to these folks.”
Dr. Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut, and an infectious disease epidemiologist, says some people who are “vaccine-hesitant” rather than “vaccine-resistant” are unaware of the overwhelming scientific data on the safety and efficacy of the vaccines, based on nearly 350 million vaccine doses administered in the United States, and “when they learn about the magnitude of the information that we now have, they said, ‘OK, that’s great. That’s what I’ve been waiting for.’ “
In addition, Vermund said, some people may be persuaded by being reminded that if they contract the coronavirus, they will then put family members, friends, fellow churchgoers or workmates and others at risk for infection, including some who may be especially vulnerable to severe COVID-19 or death.
Trappings of social media
One reason misinformation spreads so easily is because when people are on social media, they’re much more likely to click a link with a sensationalistic falsehood than an article with a detailed analysis of vaccines’ safety and effectiveness, Hackett said.
Maria Intrieri, 63, of Mastic
Why she hasn’t gotten vaccinated: “A relative of ours has told us they put aborted baby fetuses in the vaccine.”
Fact-check: None of the vaccines contain fetus parts, although the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed using clones of cell lines created decades ago using fetal tissue. Pope Francis has urged Catholics to get vaccinated.
Intrieri, 65, and his wife, Maria Intrieri, 63, a retired home health care aide, say they don’t trust the mainstream media and rely on the conservative One America News Network and Newsmax for COVID-19 news. They also rely on friends and family.
“A relative of ours has told us they put aborted baby fetuses in the vaccine,” Maria Intrieri said.
“Me being a practicing Roman Catholic, no way, man,” Johnny Intrieri said.
None of the vaccines contain fetus parts, although the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed using clones of cell lines created decades ago using fetal tissue. Pope Francis has urged Catholics to get vaccinated.
Some Catholic dioceses, including the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which encompasses Long Island, advise parishioners to take the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines rather than the Johnson & Johnson one, if they have a choice.
Vermund said he reminded conservatives that the Trump administration oversaw the development, testing and early distribution of the vaccines and that Trump himself got vaccinated — an argument that he said swayed some Republican vaccine skeptics.
Greg Stefanidis, 71, of Shirley
Why he hasn’t gotten vaccinated: He has a heart condition and is worried the vaccine would endanger him. He’s been reading about vaccinated people still getting infected. “Why tempt fate by getting this shot?”
Fact-check: Dr. Jacqueline Moline, of Northwell Health, said a small number of cases of myocarditis, which causes heart inflammation, are linked to vaccines, but it almost always “either resolves on its own” or after a few days of medication. Heart conditions do increase risk for severe COVID-19, so “they’re at far greater risk of getting severely ill or dying from COVID than they are of getting myocarditis.”
Greg Stefanidis, 71, of Shirley, has a heart condition and is worried the vaccine would endanger him. He also is “reading and listening to the news about people who got the shot and they still get the COVID. To me, it’s really not doing much.”
Stefanidis, a retired sheet metal worker, said he didn’t “know what to believe.”
“I think it’s worse if I get the vaccine than not,” he said. “I never got it. I didn’t catch it. Why tempt fate by getting this shot?”
Moline, at Northwell Health, said a very small number of cases of myocarditis, which causes heart inflammation, were linked to vaccines, but it almost always “either resolves on its own, or they need medication for a few days and then it resolves.”
But heart conditions increase risk for severe COVID-19.
“They’re at far greater risk of getting severely ill or dying from COVID than they are of getting myocarditis,” she said.
Moline said some vaccinated people contracted the coronavirus, but that was expected. “The vaccines were designed to prevent severe illnesses, hospitalizations and death,” which it does in almost all cases, she said.
Elva Ordoñez, 46, of Hempstead, who has diabetes, which puts her at higher risk for severe COVID-19, said one reason she hadn’t gotten vaccinated was because she’d heard from friends it could cause cancer.
“The vaccine is harming a lot of people,” she said in Spanish, also citing fever, headache and nausea people sometimes experience after inoculation.
Moline said the vaccines did not cause cancer, and fever, fatigue and other symptoms shortly after vaccination were signs the body’s immune system was being activated.
Sam Petie, 23, of Mastic Beach
Why he hasn’t gotten vaccinated: He’s concerned about potential long-term effects of the vaccine.
Fact-check: Dr. Jacqueline Moline said negative side effects of vaccines are almost always “seen in the first days or weeks,” and, with any vaccine, “you’re not going to all of a sudden develop something six months later related to a vaccine.” Perry Halkitis, a public health psychologist, said many people who survived COVID-19 have debilitating symptoms more than a year afterward. Doctors don’t know how long those symptoms will last or whether others will emerge.
Sam Petie, 23, of Mastic Beach, a construction worker, is concerned about potential long-term effects of the vaccine.
Vermund says he’s unaware of any vaccine that has produced long-term side effects; any negative effects, however rare, occur within days, or at most, months.
“There isn’t much the [COVID-19] vaccine is doing other than generating an immune response to the spike protein of coronavirus,” he said.
Negative side effects from the coronavirus vaccines, such as myocarditis or blood clots in a tiny fraction of those who have been vaccinated, are because of the immune system’s overreaction to the vaccine, he said.
On the other hand, Halkitis, the public health psychologist, said, many people who survived COVID-19 have debilitating symptoms more than a year afterward, and doctors don’t know how long those symptoms will last or whether others will emerge.
In a review of 45 COVID-19 studies published in May, Stanford University researchers found that 73% of study participants still had one or more of 84 symptoms, such as fatigue and shortness of breath, at least 60 days after infection; most participants in those studies had been hospitalized. A separate study published in February, focusing mainly on adults who tested positive for the virus but initially had only mild symptoms, found that 30% still had symptoms three to nine months later.
Petie said he might get vaccinated if he were convinced the vaccines were safe.
“I feel as if I’m not informed enough,” he said.
Ten percent of Americans said in the latest Kaiser survey that, like Petie, they would “wait and see” whether to get the vaccine.
Michael Washington, 53, of Roosevelt, wasn’t planning on getting vaccinated. But concern about the rapid spread of the delta variant — and the rise in cases and hospitalizations — persuaded him to get the shot, which he is hoping to do soon.
“It’s spreading like a little wildfire right now,” he said. “It’s best you get it done and see some more years in your life.”
Hackett said that, ultimately, public-health arguments in favor of the vaccine would not be as effective as the increasing number of vaccine mandates, or choosing between inoculation and regular COVID-19 testing.
“As it becomes more uncomfortable for people or restrictive for people who aren’t vaccinated to go into public spaces, and into workplaces, that is where you’ll start to see an increase in vaccinations,” she said.
With Matt Clark and AP