If you live in a part of Michigan that has COVID vaccine doses, and you’re in a priority group, you might be trying to make a decision right now: Is it time to get the shots?
But if you’re someone who’s had a complicated relationship with establishment health care, it may not be so simple. Donna Allen-Brown checks all those boxes.
She is a barber, a baby boomer, a black Detroiter. Allen-Brown is also my mom. And she’s caring for her 84-year-old mother Serena Allen, my grandmother. This puts both of them in a subgroup of older adults who are eligible for the first round of vaccines in Detroit.
My mother graduated from barber college when she was 25 years old, and she’s been lowering ears ever since. In that time, her customers have become more than just weekly appointments. They’re her friends, advisers, insurance guys, prayer partners, and family. She and her customers confide in each other about all types of life decisions, and getting the COVID-19 vaccine is no different.
“At first I was on the fence about it,” says Joe Bryant, my mom’s customer and my grandmother’s occupational therapist. “Then I started thinking about the history of vaccines in general and how they can be a positive help to society. But I know a lot of people of color are a little bit reserved about taking vaccines.”
Some might say they’re reserved. Others, like my mom’s customer Teferi Brent, would say Black people should be outright skeptical. He cites the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study as one of many historical examples of the U.S. government tampering with black people’s health. Sitting in the barber chair for his cut, shave and facial, he says those who encouraged vaccination early on were not to be trusted.
“No one intelligent human being, especially no intelligent Black person, would trust anything coming out of Trump's team. He was a staunch racist, a white supremacist,” says Brent.
He goes on to say that some Black people might change their tune if they knew there are other Black people involved in developing the vaccines.
“There was a sister who really helped create the vaccine. But Black folks haven't been made aware of that information,” says Brent.
This, along with conspiracy theories about COVID-19 that have circulated on social media, create what Brent calls “a cornucopia of variables that contribute to that distrust and that uncertainty” Black people experience when it comes to getting the vaccine.
So how does one decide what to do, and then make peace with that decision? Another of my mom’s customers, Reverend Kim Evans, has already had his vaccine shot. He says he trusts God.
“I heard, while I was mentally contemplating, like a message to stop the spread,” he says. “The scripture clearly says you must be governed by your conviction.”
So how is my mom making her decision?
“I waited about a week,” before deciding, she says. “Talking to my clients — they didn't have to convince me, but just, you know, getting different perspectives — encouraged me to go ahead.”
My mom has safety measures in place at the shop to prevent the spread of the virus. But she still sees clients in the same house where she cares for my grandmother. And grandma has pre-existing conditions that make her especially vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. So when my mom heard a message on the radio saying anyone over 75 is eligible to make an appointment, she decided to get the vaccine. For my grandma, and for herself.
“I called about two or three days later,” she says. “And I was speaking to an operator in, uh, say, three to five minutes.”
Setting the appointment may have been easy, but actually getting my grandma to take the vaccine was a different story. She suffers from both Parkinson’s disease and dementia, so my mom had to approach the topic with special intention.
“I knew that I had to make it like something that we were just going to do. Not to ask her did she want to do it, because I know my mom,” she says. “She is the mama and I'm the daughter, and I still obey my mother. But because I'm her caregiver, there are some things that she understands are necessary for me to take care of her and to keep her as healthy as possible.”
So, on the last Tuesday of January, I hop in the car with my mom and grandma and we head down to the TCF Center in downtown Detroit for their first dose of the COVID vaccine. In the car, I ask my mom how she’s feeling. “Anxious,” she says.
“You know, it's a new experience. I don't even get flu vaccinations, but the thought of being on a respirator or machine to breathe is… I think I'd rather get the vaccination.”
We pull into the parking garage at the TCF Center, and my mom fills out some paperwork. A nurse named Jeffrey collects it.
Then it’s time for the shots.
He starts with my grandma, reaching in through the window to access her arm. Then he goes around to my mom’s side to repeat the process. Each shot takes about five seconds.
After her shot, Nurse Jeff asks if my mom felt anything.
“A little bit,” she says.
“If you didn’t feel anything, I can always do your other arm, too,” he jokes.
My mom drives us to a designated waiting area and where we sit for 15 minutes to make sure neither her or my grandma ave an allergic reaction to the vaccine.
Once Nurse Jeff confirms that everyone is feeling OK, he sends us on our way.
The whole process takes about an hour.
Back at home, I sit down with my mom to ask how it feels to have begun the vaccine process.
“Good,” she says. “I feel like hopefully we can all take off our masks very soon. And the sooner everyone gets vaccinated, the sooner we can get to the new normal. I'm looking forward to that.”
Stateside interviewed Erin Allen about telling her mother and grandmother's vaccine story.