Pastor William Tauanu’u of Anchorage knows how dangerous COVID-19 can be.
Last year, he spent weeks on a ventilator with the disease. He’s back to preaching Sunday sermons at University Baptist Church but he still suffers the effects of long-haul COVID, which leave him exhausted after bouts of effort.
“Right after church, I would come home and go right to bed and put on the oxygen machine again the CPAP machine,” he said in a recent Zoom interview.
He says his doctors have expertly guided him through his recovery. But he hasn’t taken one piece of their advice: that he should get vaccinated against COVID-19
Six months after the vaccines became widely available, tens of thousands of Alaskans still haven’t gotten a single dose. While some people are dead set against the shot, about 60% of unvaccinated Alaskans say they’re still open to the idea, according to a yet unpublished statewide survey recently cited by Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink.
Tauanu’u is one of them.
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Back in July, Tauanu’u scheduled an appointment for a vaccine. He was planning to visit family in California and wanted to be protected even though he likely has some natural immunity from surviving COVID. But fearing a reaction, he said, he canceled his appointment at the last minute.
In September when he returned, he made another appointment. But he canceled that one too after hearing from a relative about someone who had died after getting the vaccine.
“These are like first cousins, these folks who are telling me this, and they went to the funeral,” he said.
Spooked, he waited another month. He made another appointment for early October. Again, he heard a horror story about someone getting vaccinated on Facebook.
“These information come at the weirdest time, like right after I make an appointment,” he said.
Serious injury or death from the vaccine is exceedingly rare, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there have been a small number of reports of serious allergic reactions, and many report flu-like symptoms and intense fatigue for a day or two after getting the shot.
Scientists have also documented cases of people recovering from long-haul COVID after getting vaccinated.
Tauanu’u said he’s skeptical because of the discrepancy between what he hears from the CDC in the media and what he sees friends and family posting on Facebook.
“Is it something that the media is trying to avoid? Or, you know, they only try to promote something?” he said.
Skepticism of media and scientific organizations like the CDC is a big predictor of whether people get vaccinated, according to national polling. There isn’t any recent data specific to Alaska about what causes vaccine hesitancy, though a survey is currently being prepared to publish.
Public health officials in Alaska have tried to tackle the hesitancy through PSAs featuring trusted community leaders, online ad campaigns and engaging with, most recently, a vaccine sweepstakes that pays out nearly $100,000 a week. But state data shows vaccine rates haven’t really changed since the sweepstakes was announced.
Health officials say vaccines are still the most effective public health tool to slow the spread of the coronavirus — more effective than masking or social distancing. But for people like Taunau’u, those messages aren’t very effective: He said he trusts people he knows, and he tells his congregation to do the same.
“I said it again last Sunday: It’s not a faith thing … it has nothing to do with your faith in God, no. God has given you a brain and senses that you know what to do, and the time to do it to protect yourself and your family,” he said.
For him — and tens of thousands of other Alaskans — that time hasn’t come yet.