COVID anti-vaxxers refuse vaccines despite evidence : Shots - Health News Politics, religion, distrust and disinformation all play a role. "I've realized that there's no convincing somebody once they have their mind made up," says a social worker in Beaumont, Texas.

The number of Americans who say they won't get a COVID shot hasn't budged in a year

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EMILY FENG, HOST:

As the United States is marking 1 million COVID-19 deaths, the mortality rate is slowing, in part because 64% of the population is fully vaccinated. But the CDC says the virus' mortality rate is still being driven mainly by the unvaccinated. One in six Americans say they will definitely not get the vaccine. NPR's John Burnett reports from Texas, where local health workers are frustrated by the stubborn unvaccinated population.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: West Hansen is piloting his muddy Subaru through the industrial landscape in southeast Texas where he grew up, past silver refinery towers, Bible churches and doughnut shops. The longtime social worker says he's given up trying to tell his clients how safe the COVID vaccines are.

WEST HANSEN: Now I've grown weary of it. I've realized that, you know, there's no convincing somebody once they have their mind made up.

BURNETT: He parks in front of a ramshackle house and enters a living room overrun with cats and strewn with trash.

FAYE: Hi.

HANSEN: I'm West. I checked with your husband to see...

BURNETT: A husband and wife in bathrobes lie in recliners in front of a TV.

HANSEN: As I mentioned, I'm the social worker. And did you and the nurse talk about what services or benefits I might be able to help you with?

FAYE: Yes, but honestly, I don't remember what it was.

BURNETT: The woman, a 57-year-old retired graphic designer named Faye, asks that her last name not be used because she was disabled by a stroke last year and wants her medical privacy. She went back to the hospital earlier this year with COVID, yet she still distrusts the vaccine.

FAYE: I just - I don't believe in the vaccination. It scares me too much. Yes, we have a polio vaccination from years and years ago, and it's worked fine. Measles - they worked fine. But I felt that the vaccination came out too quickly after COVID hit.

BURNETT: The next residents Hansen visits is a townhouse with a neatly trimmed yard. Donna and Danny Downes are waiting for him in the living room. She's a work-at-home office manager. He's a retired insurance salesman who's legally blind. They're devout Baptists. Donna says her sister died from COVID, but that hasn't changed their minds.

DONNA DOWNES: We don't like vaccines because we feel like if we live healthy, eat healthy and try to take care of ourselves, that we have more of a immune (ph) where we don't get it. And if we get it, we feel like that's God's will, and so we just leave it in his hands.

BURNETT: Her husband, Danny, adds...

DANNY DOWNES: We just think it's a big government thing where they're trying to control the public.

BURNETT: Later, Hansen visits Betty and Mike Spencer, a retired teacher and a truck driver, and their assortment of excitable dogs.

BETTY SPENCER: And this is Coco.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

BURNETT: The Spencers forthrightly declare they believe in conspiracy theories. Mike says he watches Alex Jones' Infowars, and Mike is of the opinion that the vaccine was designed as a depopulation tool.

MIKE SPENCER: I think there's malevolent stuff in them that has to do with nanotech and transhumanism and the internet of things making people - eventually with 6G, which is coming after the 5G - where you are biologically tuned into the internet at all times.

BURNETT: For the record, COVID-19 vaccines are FDA-approved and recommended by the CDC because they're safe and effective at preventing serious or fatal cases of the virus. But the skeptics abound, says Liz Hamel. She's vice president and director of public policy and survey research at KFF, the Kaiser Family Foundation.

LIZ HAMEL: I mean, one thing that has been really consistent in all of our surveys is the size of that group that says they're definitely not going to get vaccinated. It's been around 13- to 15% of the public, and that hasn't shifted in over a year.

BURNETT: According to a recent KFF COVID-19 vaccine monitor, partisanship and political ideology play a much larger role than scientific evidence in vaccination decisions. In the survey, 56% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats said they'd been vaccinated.

HAMEL: The people who have been most likely to say they're definitely not going to get a vaccine have been Republicans and people living in rural areas, as well as white evangelical Christians.

BURNETT: Their research overlays with the unvaccinated individuals quoted in this story who all said they voted GOP in the last election.

Not all of Hansen's clients distrust the needle. Elizabeth Yahr is a 78-year-old retired hairdresser who is vaccinated. When we arrive, she's sprawled on her La-Z-Boy watching TV.

ELIZABETH YAHR: I saw too many people dying of COVID, so it just seems stupid to me to not want to get the vaccine.

BURNETT: When the vaccines became available a year ago, West Hansen thought they were a godsend. So many of his clients were older with preexisting medical conditions. But as the vaccine became more and more politicized, he watched as many of his clients rejected them.

HANSEN: It's just shocking, you know? I mean, you're offering a drowning person a hand, and they slap it away, and they're kind of doubting that you can pull them ashore. It's very perplexing.

BURNETT: Hansen's frustration is shared by Kenneth Coleman, director of the Beaumont Public Health Department. In Jefferson County, where Beaumont is the largest city, a little over half the residents are fully vaccinated - a rate that trails the state in the nation. His office has been begging folks to get the vaccine.

KENNETH COLEMAN: Beaumont is not a really big town, so nowhere is too far in Beaumont. But for the ones who want it, have gotten it. And for the ones who haven't gotten it, just don't want it.

BURNETT: In his 30 years with the department, Coleman says he's never seen people so opposed to common-sense health practices. Today, he's worried not just about another deadly COVID variant, but about the fundamental loss of trust in public health services.

COLEMAN: I'm just afraid of what's going to happen when the next public health crisis appears because it's going to happen. It's just a matter of when and what.

BURNETT: What happens if there's an outbreak of measles or meningitis or tuberculosis?

COLEMAN: I have people calling me. It's like, well, I don't trust anything the CDC says. I say, well, when it comes to public health, there's no one left to trust because CDC is the Bible of public health.

BURNETT: Compound the vaccine reluctance with the fact that omicron numbers are far below last winter's peak, and Kenneth Coleman says his vaccination stations are lonely places.

John Burnett, NPR News, Beaumont, Texas.

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