Wren Stark has chosen not to get the COVID-19 vaccine since she became eligible in April. And approval of the Pfizer vaccine by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration won’t do a thing to change that.
The 42-year-old from Charleston thinks the FDA rushed the approval process. And even as health officials raise the alarm about the rapid spread of the delta variant across Maine, Stark reflects the feelings of many unvaccinated Mainers when she says restrictions such as vaccine mandates are unnecessary for a virus they view as little different from the flu.
“I hate when people say the ‘new normal,’” said Stark, who was interviewed while sitting outside of Sam’s Qwik Stop in Kenduskeag, where she works. “If they would just let things go back to normal, treat the people that are high-risk and leave the rest out of it, I think the world would be better for it.”
The FDA fully approved the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Monday for those 16 and older, a highly anticipated move that health officials hope will increase confidence in the vaccine nationwide. The approval came four months after Pfizer applied for it, even though reviews for priority vaccines often take up to eight. But it also came with a huge body of evidence of its safety and efficacy after tens of millions of Americans have already received the Pfizer vaccine.
The emergency use authorization of all three available vaccines has long been a reason vaccine-hesitant Mainers have given for not getting inoculated. But in Penobscot County, where more than 3 out of every 10 people age 12 and over haven’t received a single dose, many unvaccinated Mainers say the FDA approved the drug too quickly to know the side effects. And several are more emboldened than ever to speak out after Maine became one of the first states in the nation to require that health care workers get vaccinated.
The adamance of those who refuse the vaccine, whose perspectives are often littered with misinformation and pseudoscience, could spell trouble for Maine as it seeks to control rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations from the more transmissible delta variant. The 90 confirmed and probable cases reported in Penobscot County on Wednesday, the day interviews were conducted, was the most the county had seen since the virus peaked in January, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Like Stark, Amie Weymouth, 45, lives in Charleston, a 1,500-strong community about 40 minutes northwest of Bangor. Seventy-six percent of the town’s vote went to former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, the highest percentage for any community in Maine with over 1,000 people. Charleston also has among the lowest vaccination rates of any zip code in Maine: about 48 percent of residents were unvaccinated as of Monday.
Weymouth, a massage therapist in nearby Corinth, said not getting the shot was a matter of personal freedom. She felt that vaccine incentives and mandates had sullied the inherent right of people to choose what goes in their body.
“I think it’s better to wait for me,” Weymouth said. “And if other people choose to do the same, I think they should have that right, because we have freedom first in America.”
Some are so adamant about that choice, they are willing to lose their job.
Clockwise from left: A welcome sign is displayed at the LaGrange General Store in the center of town; A hiring sign hangs on the door of the Bradford General Store; Rt. 221 in Bradford. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Linda Vail, a nurse in her 50s who lives in Southeast Piscataquis township, said she would be leaving her job as a nurse at a Bangor nursing home around Oct. 1, when all health care workers in Maine are required to be fully vaccinated. Vail, who was interviewed at a laundromat in Corinth, has another job lined up.
Vail said she contracted COVID-19 herself in an outbreak at her nursing home when cases were peaking around Christmas. She said she continues to lack a sense of smell and most of her sense of taste because of the infection.
But those long-term effects had not changed her mind on the vaccine. For Vail, breakthrough cases — infections in fully vaccinated people — were proof that the shots were not as safe or effective as its advocates say. She wants to see evidence that the vaccine had been made stronger before getting it herself.
“People are still getting COVID,” Vail said. “People are still sick.”
Unvaccinated people are far more likely than those who are vaccinated to contract COVID-19. And while the available vaccines are not 100 percent likely to stop infection, very few of the hundreds of millions vaccinated against COVID-19 in the U.S. have been hospitalized or died from the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Leroy Wood, 67, of Levant, who was also at the laundromat, is in an age group that is nearly 90 percent vaccinated across Maine. However, he thought the vaccine was too new and said it made little difference whether he was inoculated when vaccinated people were getting the virus, too.
“I don’t trust it right now,” Wood said. “If it were three years down the road, I’d probably take it.”
About 203 million Americans have now received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine with minimal side effects. And even in Penobscot County’s least vaccinated communities, including Charleston, Bradford and LaGrange, a majority are at least partially vaccinated.
That they stand out may be more of a sign of Maine’s high vaccination rate nationwide. More people are vaccinated per capita in Charleston than in several states, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming, according to data compiled by the New York Times and Maine CDC.
Amanda Grant, 34, of LaGrange got vaccinated to protect her child, who is too young to get inoculated. She was surprised that her town, which is 40 percent unvaccinated, had among the lowest inoculation rates in Penobscot County.
But many said the vaccine was seldom a point of conversation. Some residents have gone through the pandemic thinking little about COVID-19.
Neil Higgins, 47, of Charleston, who was shopping at the Bradford General Store around lunchtime, called the vaccine and concern about COVID-19 “a bunch of hogwash.”
While he hadn’t cared that his girlfriend got vaccinated, he had no plans to do so himself. And even as cases rose, he wasn’t concerned about catching the virus.
“If it’s my turn to go, it’s my turn to go,” Higgins said.