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Here's why many Detroit parents are still hesitant about the COVID vaccine

Young man visits skillful doctor at hospital for vaccination
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“Just because a parent is hesitant about vaccinating themselves or getting their kids vaccinated, it doesn't mean that they doubt the reality and the severity of the pandemic,” said Lydia Wileden, a researcher with the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study at the University of Michigan.

As Michigan sees an increase in the omicron BA.2 subvariant and COVID case rates are starting to level off after a long decline, communities like Detroit could be particularly vulnerable against future outbreaks.

The city’s vaccination coverage rates are among the lowest in the state, with just 41% of residents fully vaccinated. And coverage for Detroit kids is significantly lower than statewide coverage, raising fears that school could continue to be interrupted in the city if cases rise again.

One factor: parents who take the pandemic seriously, but just don’t trust the vaccine is safe for them or their kids. A recent survey of some 2,000 adults in Detroit found that while parents are less likely to be vaccinated than adults without kids, those same parents are also less likely to say they think social activities like visiting friends, going grocery shopping, or visiting the doctor are safe at this point.

“Just because a parent is hesitant about vaccinating themselves or getting their kids vaccinated, it doesn't mean that they doubt the reality and the severity of the pandemic,” said Lydia Wileden, a researcher with the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study at the University of Michigan. “And they seem to be looking more for other ways in which they can keep themselves safe. And I think that that's really important. Early on, a lot of the conversation had to do with people not taking the pandemic seriously, and we don't see that. We actually see that some of these parents are more likely to take the pandemic seriously, but they are doing it in their own way.”

Overall, Detroit parents are more likely to be unvaccinated than adults who don’t have kids: 75% of adults without kids said they were vaccinated, compared to just 49% of parents, according to a recent DMACS finding. That’s likely for two reasons: 1) younger people are less likely to be vaccinated than older adults, and parents with kids under 18 tend to be younger than the general population. And 2) parents may have been getting some mixed messages about the vaccine’s safety, Wileden said. Vaccines for those under 16 took longer to get approved, and still aren’t available for kids five and under.

“There’s a lot of trepidation surrounding the vaccine, and…processing that information and trying to understand if it’s safe for me, but it's not safe for my child, is it really safe for me?”

In fact, unvaccinated parents say their biggest concern about the COVID vaccine is side effects and safety issues, followed by worries it’s not effective.

“There's also some questions about…breakthrough cases, and that they seem with these other [more recent] variants to be increasingly common,” Wileden said. “And so if a parent feels like the vaccine can't keep COVID out of my house and my kid [age five and under] can't be vaccinated yet, then what if the vaccine is actually giving me? You pair that with a lot of misinformation that's been shared over social media, and it all sort of combines together.”

Parents in Detroit, a majority-Black city, are also twice as likely as Detroit residents who don’t have kids to say they don’t trust the federal government to ensure the COVID vaccine is safe. That’s especially true for parents who aren’t vaccinated.

But while vaccination rates among Detroit parents don’t differ much by race (53% of white parents are vaccinated, compared to 48% of Black and 51% of Latino parents) white parents are the most vehemently opposed to vaccination. Unvaccinated white parents were more likely to say they’re “unlikely to vaccinate,” and less likely to say they’re “uncertain” about potentially getting vaccinated in the future, than non-white parents.

“White parents…are actually the strongest opponents and most sort of stuck in the mud about, ‘I am not going to get vaccinated,’” Wileden says. “We see a lot more likelihood of people changing their mind among residents of color, than we do among those white holdouts.” Researchers saw similar opposition in a recent survey on contact tracing in Detroit.

“White residents who have lower trust in government are much less likely to say that they're willing to contact trace,” Wileden said. “And I think what we're picking up there, which is frankly difficult to do in Detroit, because it is not a particularly politically diverse place, [is] a little bit of young, white conservatives in the city who are less likely to vaccinate. In part because of their political perspective.”

But across the board, and regardless of vaccination status, Detroit parents “continue to feel significantly less safe engaging in many social activities” than adults without kids, the survey found. Parents were less likely to say they feel safe grocery shopping or going to the doctor, and unvaccinated parents report the highest levels of concern about everything from exercising or walking outdoors, to working outside the home.

Health officials are trying to reach more of these families, including allowing school nurses at the Detroit Public Community Schools District to administer the vaccine. That also opens up 107 new vaccine sites, including mobile clinics at schools.

"Detroit has a 4% childhood vaccine rate, 10 times less than other surrounding cities,” said Dr. Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD superintendent, in an announcement last month. “This creates an increased chance of positive cases and outbreaks. The significance of providing the vaccine directly to our families and students in their schools, will speed up the process of students resuming in person learning permanently while continuing to implement the highest level of safety precautions.”

Emphasizing to parents that both they and their children can get vaccinated as a family could help some people feel more comfortable, Wileden says.

“As the world tries to open up, we know that there have been serious implications for parents of children, in terms of their ability to work and return to work, and kids’ own ability to stay on top of their schoolwork and to learn at the pace of other other classes that maybe weren't affected by the pandemic,” she said. “If these groups remain unvaccinated, even as the world tries to open up, that there might be longer term impacts” for parents and their kids in Detroit.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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