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It took months, but these Idahoans got COVID-19 shots. What changed their minds?

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Rey Ramos spent 127 days making a decision. But last Wednesday evening, he parked at a Saint Alphonsus mobile clinic in Caldwell. He got out of his car, put on a cloth mask, hesitated for a few minutes, then walked up to get his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Ramos was one of just a handful of people to show up at the vaccination site — and one of the 1,169 people statewide to receive their first dose Wednesday.

The pace of COVID-19 vaccination has slowed to a crawl in Idaho. Every day, an average of about 1,500 people in Idaho get their first or second dose. They have all been eligible for vaccination since at least April or May. So, what changed? Why are some of Idaho’s vaccine-hesitant residents now making the choice to get immunized against the coronavirus?

There’s no single answer. Interviews and a state-funded survey suggest several major tipping points for Idahoans who’ve been waiting to get vaccinated:

They read misinformation on the internet, but then a trusted source gives them accurate information. A health care provider answers their lingering questions about the vaccine. They hear about the delta variant. They see the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases. They realize school is starting soon. Or they just happen to wander by a vaccine clinic at the right time.

Waiting inside the clinic last week was one nurse whose unvaccinated family member died from COVID-19 a few months ago, and another nurse who recalls two people crying together after their vaccines — a COVID long-hauler, and an ICU nurse who lost patients to the virus.

Nancy Coats ran the Saint Al’s vaccine clinic on Wednesday. A nurse who spent her career taking care of the sickest hospital patients, she now helps keep people out of the hospital by getting them immunized.

Coats answers an “incredible variety” of questions and corrects misinformation as patients walk up who aren’t sure about the vaccine, she said.

“They’re actually looking for facts,” she said.

Protecting his ‘second chance on life’

Rey Ramos took COVID-19 seriously since it arrived in Idaho last year. The 55-year-old Caldwell man wore a mask, stayed home, and even went so far as to wipe down items delivered to his door.

Ramos survived an aneurysm years ago, and he wanted to safeguard his health.

Nancy Coats ran the Saint Al’s vaccine clinic on Wednesday. A nurse who spent her career taking care of the sickest hospital patients, she now helps keep people out of the hospital by getting them immunized.

Coats answers an “incredible variety” of questions and corrects misinformation as patients walk up who aren’t sure about the vaccine, she said.

“They’re actually looking for facts,” she said.

Protecting his ‘second chance on life’

Rey Ramos took COVID-19 seriously since it arrived in Idaho last year. The 55-year-old Caldwell man wore a mask, stayed home, and even went so far as to wipe down items delivered to his door.

Ramos survived an aneurysm years ago, and he wanted to safeguard his health.

But when COVID-19 vaccines became available, he wasn’t sure what to believe. He saw news coverage of rare allergic reactions to the shot. He read stuff on the internet that made the vaccines sound dangerous, as though he’d be a “guinea pig” for pharmaceutical companies to “push this drug out” without adequate testing, he said.

That kind of misinformation has frustrated health care providers and public health experts.

A recent statewide survey found that even some of the people most resistant to the vaccine had a change of heart after hearing factual information about the vaccines, their development and safety testing.

“I thought, once it warms up,” that the virus would go away, Ramos said.

Spring arrived this year, and as more people got vaccinated and spent time outdoors, COVID-19 cases fell. But along with July’s heat wave came the delta variant, and a resurgence of cases. The new version of the virus has a trait that makes unvaccinated people much more susceptible to catching it.

“It’s still around,” Ramos said. “And the news is showing it seems to be getting worse.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reversing course on an indoor mask policy, saying fully vaccinated people and children should wear masks indoors — at least in the areas of the country where COVID-19 is surging. The agency is also recommending universal indoor masking at schools this school year regardless of vaccination status. Dr. Jason Wilson, associate medical director at Tampa General Hospital's emergency department, joined Cheddar's Opening Bell to discuss the mask guidance as well as the potential Pfizer booster shot.

Indeed, the coronavirus is back on the rise in Idaho, by every metric.

Ramos said he developed an aneurysm in 2011. He needed surgery and was permanently disabled, he said. The experience gave him a “second chance on life,” and he didn’t want to endanger that, he said.

He also felt it was “kind of unfair to walk around” unvaccinated, he said.

Ramos made up his mind. He says he made an appointment at a local pharmacy. When he arrived, he says, they told him they didn’t have enough shots.

But a friend told Ramos he’d just driven by a Saint Alphonsus vaccination site at Whittenberger Park in Caldwell. So Ramos headed over.

After getting his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, Ramos sat in the observation area. He had been so worried and spent so much time wondering, “Should I? Shouldn’t I? Should I? Shouldn’t I?” he said. Tears welled up in his eyes. He felt a weight lifted from his shoulders, he said.

“I think I’ve done the right thing. I know I’ve done the right thing,” he said.

It was just a matter of time

Dennis Zattiero brought his 13-year-old son, Lance Zattiero, to the clinic last week.

The elder Zattiero is a teacher who got vaccinated at the earliest opportunity. But the younger Zattiero hates needles, so he was nervous about the COVID-19 vaccine. And the risk of hospitalization or death among children is very low.

But a few things prompted their decision to get Lance vaccinated.

The delta variant is spreading, and cases are on the rise, Dennis noted. And school will be starting soon. Meanwhile, children are developing “long COVID,” or prolonged illness from COVID-19.

This was a tipping point for the Zattieros.

“If I knew about the risk, and didn’t do anything about it, I don’t know if I could (handle that),” Dennis Zattiero said about his son’s health.

“If it means I won’t get COVID, I appreciate that,” Lance Zattiero said.

Many of his friends have gotten the vaccine, but the idea of a needle made him hesitate, he said.

They weren’t sure if the Pfizer vaccine was safe for teens

Natalie and Arena Palominos nearly lost their father to COVID-19.

He was one of the unlucky people to catch the coronavirus in spring 2020, when health experts still didn’t know much about the virus or how to treat it. He got sick enough to be hospitalized for weeks and spent 11 days on a ventilator, they said.

Arena Palominos, 15, wanted the vaccine as soon as possible.

“I had my mind set on it, that I wanted to get it,” she said.

But they didn’t know what the recommendations were.

“First, we didn’t know if they were giving it to minors,” she said. Then they heard about the rare cases of heart inflammation among some younger people getting the mRNA shots. That worried them.

People often have questions about side effects and vaccine safety, said a local doctor.

It’s important to weigh the risks of a vaccine against the risks of the disease it prevents, he said.

“People with young children, worried about the (cases of) myocarditis, I get it,” said Dr. Jim Souza, chief physician executive for St. Luke’s Health System. “Well, let’s contrast that risk with actually catching COVID. It’s about a thousandfold difference.”

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The risk of myocarditis among teen boys is about 67 per million, according to federal data. It’s even lower among other groups. The risk of myocarditis from COVID-19, though, is about one per 100, Souza said.

Finally, in June, the Palominos family saw a doctor talking on the news. The doctor said teenagers should get the vaccine. That settled it.

But where could they be sure to get the Pfizer vaccine — the only one authorized for use in teens?

Soon, they had an answer.

Arena and her mother walk the Greenbelt in the mornings. Their route passed the Saint Alphonsus clinic. They saw the sign, saying COVID-19 vaccines would be given out at 4 p.m. that day. So the Palominos sisters and their mother returned at 4 p.m., and the girls got their first doses.

They came back to the clinic last week to complete the series.

Natalie Palominos, 14, doesn’t like needles. She braved it anyway.

“It’s a good thing,” she said. “Everyone wants it to be over with. The sooner they accept the vaccine and accept what’s happening, the sooner it can be over.”

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