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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

Local Organizations Still Fighting Misinformation, Vaccine Hesitancy

coronavirus vaccine
Hans Pennink

Jeffonia Wynn thought she would never get the COVID-19 vaccine. When it started rolling out, she thought, "Oh, hell no. I'm not doing it because I already heard about the Tuskegee experiment and I don't want to be one of those."

But a little over a week ago, with tear-filled eyes, she got her first dose.

"I cried. I put the nurse through it because I was terrified and I kept telling her, 'If I die tomorrow ... make sure you tell them this at the funeral.' I was really scared," she said.

The nurse was patient. She gave Wynn time to cry and talk about her fears before she felt ready.

"Then boom, she stuck me and it didn't even hurt. I felt so dumb for sitting there crying for 15 minutes and panicking because it didn't hurt at all. I'm afraid of needles, I was afraid for no reason," she said.

Wynn, a local media personality and influencer, is better known by her performance name, Ms. Ebony J.

When she finally decided to get vaccinated this month, it wasn't a decision she made lightly. She agonized over it, attending many virtual town halls to learn more about the vaccine.

'They Had Things To Back It Up'

The Center for Closing the Health Gap has been hosting virtual town halls since last April, focusing on COVID-19 health protocols and then the vaccine.

Renee Mahaffey Harris, president and CEO, said, "I think we embarked upon, really, a big effort to educate and to provide the facts versus myths in writing on social media, in influencer environments. So it's taken a while and it is an ongoing process, but what we, I believe, have been helpful in doing is making sure that people have the information across the spectrum."

The effort to educate included launching campaigns to let people know the vaccine is safe. It's also meant having doctors and local health officials available to answer people's questions during virtual town halls. Mahaffey Harris invited vaccine hesitant people, like Ms. Ebony J, to challenge those professionals during the town halls.

Ms. Ebony J said, "To be honest, sometimes they were able to answer the questions, but sometimes I felt like I would catch them contradicting what they were saying. But... I want to say as we (had) more and more conversations, I was able to get the answers. ... They had a lot of facts, they had things to back it up."

A combination of those sessions and two key events convinced Ms. Ebony J to get the vaccine.

The first was when people stopped wearing masks, despite not everyone being vaccinated and the vaccine not being 100% effective. She says it made her feel unsafe.

The next was her mom and sister getting the vaccine. Her sister has developmental disabilities and needed the vaccine to return to a day program because she can't wear a mask.

"Then it was like, shoot, they got it and what if something is wrong? Like, they gonna die and leave me here? Oh, hell no. If they're gonna die, we're gonna die together," she said. "So it started giving me a chance to really think about it in another manner."

The day before she was scheduled to get the vaccine a few acquaintances told her their parents died after getting vaccinated. They incorrectly correlated the deaths to the vaccine, which spooked Ms. Ebony J.

She says she tried, without luck, to call Mahaffey Harris to talk about the issue. Then she called a friend who convinced her to prioritize her health and stick to the facts she'd collected over the past few months.

From Vaccine Hesitant To Vaccine Hopeful

Louito Edje, MD, a professor and associate dean at the University of Cincinnati, says for a person to be able to separate anecdotes from facts is the whole point of the town halls. She's on the board of directors for The Center for Closing the Health and has taken part in the virtual sessions.

"We have actually had over 32 Facebook live events every couple of weeks so that people can kind of dip into the pond of knowledge and then pop back out and come back and revisit and get closer in an iterative fashion to making a decision," she said. "We've watched the needle move in that direction for people."

To help people understand the vaccine, she relies on simplifying the science of the vaccine during the live streams.

"There are three major ingredients: mRNA, sugar, and a little bit of oil lipid nanoparticle. Just simple ingredients -no preservatives - and trying to simplify some of the language around some of the science," she said.

Ms. Ebony J's story is one of several Edje's heard of people being swayed, in part, because of the town halls.

"I think we've gotten folks to where they've gone from vaccine hesitant to vaccine hopeful," she said.

That's essential because the pandemic isn't over, she said.

"In the process of us waiting for people to get vaccinated, things are happening. People are losing family members, and not only that, we have long COVID, which would be some of the lingering symptoms that happen with folks that have recovered but not recovered fully to their baseline - lingering problems with taste and smell and sometimes clear thinking can be part of that as well," she said.

The unpredictability of COVID-19 variants is another reason people should get vaccinated as soon as possible. Edje describes the virus as a lock and the vaccine as a key. Each new variant, she says, slightly changes the lock.

"It's really a race against the variants. We need to get vaccinated so that we don't end up having to have multiple additional vaccines to fit the lock," she said.

To watch one of the vaccine town halls, you can visit The Center Closing the Health Gap Facebook page.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.