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Health, Science and Environment

Those Against The COVID Vaccine Lost A Key Argument With The Pfizer Shot's Approval

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Federal health officials say COVID vaccinations are on the rise, especially in southern states that are hotspots for transmission of the delta variant of the coronavirus. And now the FDA has approved the Pfizer vaccine, previously only available under emergency use authorization. As more data comes in, are vaccine-hesitant people changing their minds? NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Bill Lazenby didn't need FDA approval to convince him to make an appointment to get vaccinated.

BILL LAZENBY: After spending two weeks in the hospital, that was a no-brainer.

ELLIOTT: That was a month ago. And the 53-year-old real estate agent from Birmingham, Ala., is struggling to recover from a severe case of COVID - the delta variant, according to his doctors.

LAZENBY: (Coughing). Excuse me.

ELLIOTT: He's still fighting a cough, has been diagnosed with blood clots and heart disease and says getting his strength back is a challenge. It's a tough spot for a 6-foot, 200-pound man used to being active. Lazenby says, before he got sick, he convinced himself that he would never get the virus.

LAZENBY: I just thought I was immune to it. And I wasn't. And I found out the hard way.

ELLIOTT: He admits to believing misinformation circulating on social media and among his conservative circle of friends.

LAZENBY: I was smarter than these doctors. And I guess I was maybe somewhat of a conspiracy theorist. Not anymore, though - that's a real disease. I believe it.

ELLIOTT: Lazenby says his experience has led some friends to get vaccinated, and he's hoping FDA approval will convince even more. But it's not swaying one of them.

MIKE THOMAS: I don't think the science and the real truth will be known for years.

ELLIOTT: That's Mike Thomas sitting on his porch in Orange Beach, Ala., on the Gulf Coast, a hotbed for COVID transmission. The local hospital has called in federal medical teams and set up a makeshift morgue to cope with an unprecedented surge. Thomas is 48 and runs a marine construction firm. His wife and 17-year-old daughter have been vaccinated, but he won't get the shot.

THOMAS: Being more of the libertarian-leaning kind of guy who's no government, stay out of my life, don't tell me where to go, what to do and what to think and et cetera, I think that nobody knows what's better for me than just my track record and my history.

ELLIOTT: To combat that kind of mistrust, some vaccine advocates are looking at new ways to push people to get inoculated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CURTIS CHANG: Hello. I'm Curtis Chang. I'm a theologian and former pastor. We here at Redeeming Babel have produced a series of videos to help Christians think about the vaccine.

ELLIOTT: Duke Divinity's Curtis Chang has launched a website called Christians and the Vaccine, using evangelical leaders to convince the faithful that the vaccine is a safe, effective pathway out of the pandemic and the Christian thing to do.

CHANG: Because at this point, they distrust the FDA, the CDC, the Biden administration. And because of that, we have to inject trust into their environment, into their ecosystem. And this is why we believe it's so important to mobilize faith-based voices.

ELLIOTT: He says FDA approval alone doesn't help, but it does take away a key argument used by people who are against the vaccine.

CHANG: I don't think it's going to absolutely, you know, change things overnight, but it will certainly help.

ELLIOTT: Still, some conservative groups continue to reject the large-scale vaccination push. John Stemberger is president of the Florida Family Policy Council.

JOHN STEMBERGER: With the FDA approval, it's going to give the appearance of, you know, that something's better now. But we just don't feel like the government is recognizing legitimate exceptions for rights of conscience or even for medical situations that are legitimate.

ELLIOTT: Stemberger is concerned that FDA approval will lead to more vaccine mandates and discrimination against those who haven't had a shot. That's also something that bothers Lucenia Williams Dunn, a former mayor of Tuskegee, Ala.

LUCENIA WILLIAMS DUNN: I don't like the discrimination that's implied in this whole thing. You can't come to my house because you ain't got the shot.

ELLIOTT: Dunn was a longtime skeptic of the vaccine, but relented three weeks ago as the delta variant swept through the region. As for FDA approval, Dunn says that doesn't matter now.

WILLIAMS DUNN: It didn't make me feel better or worse. You know, you've given out billions of vaccines, and now it's going to be approved. What difference does it make at this point?

ELLIOTT: Alabama state health officer Scott Harris hopes it can make a difference. He says the state is at a breaking point, with more ICU patients than it has staffed beds and a coronavirus transmission rate that's among the highest in the nation. While the state has seen a significant uptick in the pace of vaccinations in recent weeks, it's still last in the country with just 37% of the eligible population fully vaccinated.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Orange Beach, Ala.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.