The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They rejected coronavirus shots in vaccine-rich countries. In the hospital, they changed their minds.

A patient in the ICU covid-19 ward at NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, Ark., on Aug. 4. (Houston Cofield/Bloomberg News)
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LONDON — The fit and healthy bodybuilder in England. The religious woman from Canada. A conservative talk radio host in Tennessee.

All chose not to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, despite living in countries where doses are plentiful. But after contracting the disease and falling severely ill, they have since expressed an overwhelming sense of regret and urged others not to make the same mistakes they did — some just days before they died.

John Eyers, from the seaside town of Southport in England, loved hiking, camping and running. The 42-year-old competed in ironman challenges, triathlons and bodybuilding competitions. Four weeks before Eyers died of the coronavirus in the hospital, he had posed for photographs posted on Facebook standing atop the Welsh mountains.

His twin sister, Jenny McCann, wrote on Twitter this week that he was the “fittest, healthiest” person she knew but explained that he had a “belief in his own immortality.”

She said the hospital did everything to save him, but he died as a result of infection and organ failure.

Eyers, who was placed on a ventilator, told a nurse shortly before he died that he “wished he had been vaccinated,” McCann said.

These stories offer a window into the dynamics behind the global inequality of vaccine distribution. Eyers’s story gained widespread attention in the United Kingdom, where some 88 percent of those age 18 and over have received at least one shot, but officials are weighing how to convince swaths of the younger population to get inoculated, especially given that vaccinating children is proving highly contentious.

The United States, where some 58 percent of the total population have received at least one dose, and Canada, where 70 percent have, face similar issues even as regions such as Africa and much of Asia struggle to get vaccine supply at all.

In Canada, 33-year-old Katharina Giesbrecht, a follower of the Mennonite faith, believed she didn’t need to get vaccinated because God would protect her from the virus. “He knows what the next step is, whether we die or we don’t,” she told Canada’s CBC News.

Giesbrecht, who lives alone in the province of Manitoba, said she contracted the disease in May, despite wearing protective gear when leaving the house. She said she feared she would die as her breathing became worse, eventually landing her in the hospital with pneumonia. Now, Giesbrecht says she has since booked her vaccine and wants to encourage others who are religious and hesitant to receive their doses, too.

“God gave us doctors for a reason, and medicine that we can use to help us feel better,” Giesbrecht told CBC. Hospital officials from the Boundary Trails Health Center, southwest of Winnipeg, where Giesbrecht received treatment, told CBC in June that nearly all patients admitted with covid-19 had been unvaccinated.

“I should have gotten the damn vaccine,” 39-year-old Micheal Freedy of Las Vegas texted his fiancee, Jessica DuPreez, shortly before he died of the coronavirus, which put him in an intensive care unit last month.

Freedy was not opposed to vaccination, DuPreez told The Washington Post this week. But like many Americans who have yet to get their shots, the father of five wanted to wait and learn more about how people reacted to the vaccines before he got inoculated.

“I would take a bad reaction to the vaccine over having to bury my husband. I would take that any day,” Freedy’s fiancee, who is now an avid campaigner for people to get vaccinated, told CNN.

Virginia resident Travis Campbell, 43, put off getting the vaccine. He's now urging friends and family to get vaccinated from his hospital bed. (Video: Travis Campbell)

In Tennessee, conservative talk radio host Phil Valentine, who publicly espoused his skepticism toward vaccines, was hospitalized because of the virus last month and his family says he has been in critical condition, requiring treatment on an ECMO machine — a last resort for covid-19 patients whose oxygen levels remain low even on ventilators.

“Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an ‘anti-vaxer’ he regrets not being more vehemently ‘Pro-Vaccine’ and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon,” Phil’s brother Mark Valentine wrote on Facebook, urging the public to get vaccinated.

Vaccine hesitancy morphs into hostility, as opposition to shots hardens

Only about 39 percent of the population in Tennessee is fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the country, according to a Washington Post tracker.

A Tennessee legislator, state Rep. David Byrd (R), has had a similarly converting experience. He went from participating in unmasked gatherings to being placed on ventilator for 55 days. After a harrowing eight-month battle with covid, he is now urging his constituents and other Americans to take the virus more seriously.

“It is a disease that wants to kill us,” Byrd said in a statement. “This is not an issue that should divide us.”

A surge in coronavirus cases in the United States due to the more transmissible delta variant has also caused a groundswell of impatience and even rage from Americans who got their shots months ago, toward those whose resistance won’t budge. States are reimplementing mask requirements, corporations are delaying their returns to the office and support is building for more coercive ways to tamp down the virus’s spread, including vaccine mandates.

A poll this week found that just over half of unvaccinated adults (53 percent) said they believed getting vaccinated posed a bigger risk to their health than getting infected with the coronavirus, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation on Wednesday.

Officials in the United States have said that cases are primarily occurring in unvaccinated populations.

In Italy, almost 99 percent of those who died of covid-19 since February were not fully vaccinated, the country’s National Health Institute said last week. The data found that the few fully vaccinated people who died of covid were significantly older than those who died without getting a full course of immunization, and had more underlying health problems before contracting the virus.

Meanwhile, Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said last month that 60 percent of people being admitted to British hospitals with the coronavirus were unvaccinated.

In Israel, where more than 60 percent of people have received at least one dose, there is a vocal minority of so-called “refuseniks,” especially among the ultra-Orthodox community, according to Health Ministry data published on Thursday.

Although more than 4.36 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data, a research organization, just 1.1 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose — highlighting the deep socioeconomic divides that persist in this pandemic.

But the stories from — and about — the ex-vaccine-resistant may have the potential to convince others.

Chris Downham, a friend of Eyers from England, wrote on Facebook: “I was on the fence about getting the vaccine, I thought I’d wait a year or so after all I am never ill and surely would have no problems even if I caught COVID. I even posted on Facebook with this kind of sentiment.”

“How wrong I was,” he continued. “I played hockey with John Eyers and still can’t believe that the fittest guy I knew has died from COVID. I expect he’d do things differently if he had the chance.”

Read more:

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