Vaccine Hesitancy at Sonoma Academy and Beyond


Photo by Mx. Granger, Wikimedia Commons

Charlotte Maley, Contributor

According to a Sonoma Academy COVID update in early October, 95% of the student body is reported to be vaccinated. This is approximately 310 students that claim to have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccination. Though this number is by no means insignificant, it is still roughly 16 students that remain unvaccinated.

On a liberal campus like Sonoma Academy, coming out as unvaccinated may be frowned upon and controversial. According to an anonymous unvaccinated student, they tell their peers that they are vaccinated for fear of social consequences. Another student said that they got vaccinated because their friends refused to hang out with them until they did.

Of course, there are numerous reasons why someone may choose not to get vaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy can be attributed to anything from concerns about side effects to far-fetched conspiracy theories. It’s important for the SA community to understand the historical, social, and cultural reasons why students may be unvaccinated.

This isn’t the first time that people have refused vaccination. Dating back to the late 1800’s, where there were vaccines, there were people unwilling to take them. When the smallpox vaccine was created by Edward Jenner in England, he was met with opposition from religious groups, those skeptical of the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, and those who believed personal autonomy was being threatened.

Contention only rose when the vaccine became mandatory, and people resisted because they felt their right to choose what was best for them and their children was being violated. At that time, it wasn’t fear of side effects that made people hesitant to get vaccinated; it was a perceived infringement on personal rights.

The prevalence of personal freedoms as the main debate against vaccine mandates continued until the 1970s when a children’s hospital in London claimed that almost 40 children suffered with neurological issues following their DTP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis) vaccination. This created a new fight against vaccination that drew upon the “harmful side effects”; a contention that eventually found its way to the US. However, because of the influence of the Center for Disease Control, the US wasn’t largely receptive to the anti-vax narrative. This changed beginning in 1998, when claims that the MMR vaccine caused autism became mainstream.

Over the last two decades, medical professionals and researchers have been fighting the narrative that vaccines can cause autism, and have proved in a variety of studies that there is no link between the two. Despite this, anti-vax groups fueled by this claim are endorsed by celebrities and defended by Donald Trump during his presidency.

One of the most prevalent reasons for vaccine hesitancy is distrust that the government is telling Americans the truth regarding COVID-19. The vaccine rollout began last winter, following the 2020 election where narratives by radical right wing groups claimed that the election was rigged. Amidst these fears grew other conspiracies surrounding the trustworthiness of the COVID vaccine. Immedidiety, they turned their eye to uncovering the “truth” about the government’s intentions.

Not all people who distrust the government and the vaccine are members of radical right-wing groups. Beth, a nurse who has worked with patients throughout the entire pandemic, said, “My kids and I are vaccinated for every little thing under the sun. No way my kids are getting that shot.” Another nurse that I spoke to in Boise, Idaho, said that they had to move out of California because it scared her how few questions people were asking about the vaccine. Both nurses feared that fringe groups were making legitimate concerns regarding the vaccine, and other pandemic-related mandates, seem like nonsense.

At the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, there was already hesitancy by some Americans as it pertained to mask mandates. Many feared that they were a violation of their fundamental rights. The narrative on many right-wing sources, including Fox News, is that we are turning into “communist Russia” and that we are at the beginning of the end of American democracy.

In light of radical claims regarding the 2020 election, many platforms were receiving pressure to take down “fake news” that could influence voters. This included unpopular opinions regarding the pandemic. Platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram created policies that prohibited the spreading of information that “contradicts local health authorities.” This includes any claims made about treatment, prevention, and transmission that are not clarified by the CDC or World Health Organization. These policies created room for factual and “non-threatening” information — such as digestive supplement suggestions —  to be taken down. This only added fuel to the claims that the government had something to hide regarding COVID-19, and the greater anxieties that free speech was being threatened in the US.

Distrust of the American government and medicine is not only attributed to political party feuds, but also to systemic racism. Different from the “conservative” fight against the vaccine is the distrust brought on by the long history of abuse directed at Black Americans dating back centuries. As quoted in the Press Democrat, Shelby Dodson, a Santa Rosa resident, said that “Our country has built most of its medical field on the backs of people who are African American. They spent a lot of time developing and processing things, and testing them on people of color.” He is unvaccinated, biracial, and suspicious of the government’s intentions.

During the first few months of the vaccine roll-out, Black Americans were far less likely to get vaccinated than white Americans. This was not only because there was limited access in predominantly Black areas, but because of America’s dark history of abusing racial minorities. A man named Omar Neal from Tuskegee, Alabama — the infamous town where the Tuskegee Syphilis Study took place — said in a NY Times article, “Everyone here knows someone who was in the study,” where 600 men were nonconsensually studied for 40 years by White researchers to understand the effects of untreated syphilis over time. This case did not only affect this small town but has traumatized an entire generation of Black Americans.

Outside of systemic mistrust of government institutions, vaccine hesitancy is also fueled by reported side effects and lack of research in the mRNA vaccine. Even those who aren’t skeptical of the government’s intentions are still hesitant to get vaccinated due to both known and unknown side effects.

On October 11, 2021, Ontario Public Health published charts claiming that incidences of myocarditis in young men in response to the Pfizer vaccine jumped from one in every 16,181 in July to one in every 5,600 in early October. This is significant when trying to understand the reasons why high school students, particularly boys, may not be permitted or even want to get vaccinated. According to a study done in Israel, the risk of myocarditis for young men, following the COVID 19 vaccination, is between 1:3,000 and 1:6,000 for men 16-24. The New England Medical Journal claims that the rate of myocarditis in young men is 1:6637, and according to Jeremy Brown of University College of London, it’s too early to know whether or not the mRNA vaccine will permanently weaken the hearts of young people.

The alleged risk of myocarditis in young men is not limited to the Pfizer vaccine. For men ages 18-29, the risk of myocarditis is 1:4,800 after receiving the second dose of Moderna. According to Reuters, the Swedish government does not permit those born after 1991 to receive the Moderna vaccine as the risks of myocarditis and pericarditis are unclear. Finland and Denmark adopted similar principles, and Iceland discouraged young men from getting vaccinated altogether. As of today, the CDC reported doing enhanced surveillance for myocarditis after mRNA vaccines, as well as assessing “long term functional states” and clinical outcomes.

Though risks of myocarditis in response to the vaccine are negligible for young women, there are other alleged risks for this group that have caused concern. Since the implementation of the vaccines in February of 2021, many women have reported cases of longer, heavier, and far more painful periods. One local woman from Santa Rosa claims that, following the vaccine, she experienced horrible cramping that lasted two weeks, along with a heavy period. She said that she has never been one to have cramps at all, and has always had a manageable period. Dr. Hugh Taylor, Gynecology, Obstetrics, and Reproductive Sciences Department Chair at Yale Medical school claims in a NY Times article that this is “an important, and overlooked issue.” Harvard Medical School, Boston University, Johns Hopkins, and many other institutions were granted funding to research the correlation between mRNA vaccines and menstrual cycle changes. There is also no information yet that would forewarn the effects of this down the road.

Even though the risks of myocarditis are very low among the general population, and the consequences of one ‘bad’ period are not necessarily fatal, there is considerable anxiety among people that there are even more devastating side effects unknown to the medical community. Even for people that feel unthreatened by the known side effects, there is a pervasive idea that there are worse outcomes lying beneath the surface that have yet to be revealed.

When looking at the SA community, it’s important to understand that most students need parental permission to get vaccinated and that we are looking at an adolescent population. Unlike most diseases, young people are at negligible risk for serious complications related to COVID-19. According to Nature, 25 people under the age of 18 died as a result of contacting COVID-19 in England, where only 9 were otherwise healthy individuals. Many sources, including the CDC, claim that the risk for COVID-19 complications in healthy young people is negligible. That is not to say that COVID-19 deaths are negligible, but that some parents and students may think that the risks from vaccination are greater than those from COVID-19.

The opposition to this vaccine may draw from many historical, political, and systemic roots that are far more complex than “crazy QAnon conspiracies.” However, the opposition, though we may disagree with it, is human and not entirely illogical. At SA, ​​the small minority of unvaccinated students may have logical reasons for their decision.