When Carla Mason called her parents in Kansas City last year, their labored breaths rattled through her phone speakers.
Though both of them have since recovered from COVID-19, remembering the way they sounded was enough to convince Mason, who lives on Elgywood Lane in north Charlotte, to get vaccinated in May.
But just next door to Mason, Mary and George Aikens refuse to get their shots. They say they think the vaccine is more dangerous than the virus.
Some neighborhoods in Mecklenburg County are nearly fully vaccinated, while others, like Mason’s, lag far behind, with most residents still unvaccinated, an Observer analysis of state data shows.
The gap in vaccination rates across Mecklenburg County persists despite widespread efforts from doctors, county officials and hospital systems to encourage vaccinations. And the disparity is especially apparent between predominantly white neighborhoods and predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.
The Observer interviewed a dozen people recently in neighborhoods where the low vaccination rate is especially stark, in two predominantly Black neighborhoods in west Charlotte and two predominantly Hispanic north Charlotte neighborhoods.
Charlotte residents gave many different reasons for not getting the vaccine: Some didn’t have transportation to where the shots were being offered, while others said they didn’t trust the science behind the vaccine.
”They’re not putting that in my body,” west Charlotte resident Jayne Cook — who has gotten COVID-19 twice — told the Observer. “Hell no.”
The west Charlotte neighborhoods, both on the northeast side of Freedom Drive, report roughly 35% of people age 12 and older have gotten vaccinated as of June 11. Meanwhile, in the north Charlotte neighborhoods, bordered by Reagan Drive, Tom Hunter Road, North Tryon Street and Elgywood Lane, state numbers show 24% have gotten the vaccine.
On the other side of town, many neighborhoods with predominantly white residents in south Mecklenburg County are more than 70% vaccinated. In fact, in one Dilworth neighborhood, about 97% of residents 12 and older are vaccinated. Just 1% of that neighborhood’s residents are African American and 4% are Latino, according to state estimates.
Transportation and access
Marquis Miller lives in west Charlotte near the Bette Rae Thomas Recreation Center on Tuckaseegee Road. He plans to get the vaccine, but hasn’t yet because he doesn’t have a car.
“If I had a car, I would drive to Bojangles arena or Freedom Drive,” he said. But Miller recently heard about a vaccine clinic within walking distance that he’ll go to soon.
Still, there was a lot he didn’t know a lot about the vaccine. “Is it a shot or a swab? What is it?” Miller asked. (The vaccine is administered as a shot in one or two doses.)
“I don’t know too much about it,” he said. “But I’m sure it’d be definitely a step in the right direction if everybody gets it.”
Finding the time
Hidden Valley resident Blanca Rosa’s issue with getting the vaccine isn’t transportation — it’s finding the time to go get it.
After weeks of repeatedly calling clinics and vaccine sites, Rosa finally got an appointment. But now she’s not certain if she can make it.
“I need to make sure I have the time off,” said Rosa, who works as a receptionist at a dental office. “Also, I have to coordinate with my husband, in case he has a reaction.”
They hope to get their vaccines separately, so one of them can be available at all times to take care of the other and their children. They’re planning from experience — Rosa and her husband caught mild cases of COVID-19 simultaneously last year.
“As soon as everybody gets the vaccine, the better it’s going to be for everybody,” she said.
‘I don’t believe in it’
Cook, who lives in Miller’s neighborhood, has no plans to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I don’t believe in it,” Cook said. “I’ve never had a flu shot either … To me, it’s a bunch of conspiracy.”
She hasn’t been wearing a mask either.
Cook has had COVID-19 twice, she said. Upper respiratory illnesses run in her family and she gets bronchitis often. The first time she had the coronavirus, in early 2020, she was so sick that she told her doctor: “I feel like I’m going to die.”
Still, she refuses to get the shot. “If you’re going to get sick, you’re going to get sick,” Cook said.
The COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to be more than 90% effective in preventing deaths and hospitalization from the coronavirus.
Lately, North Carolina has followed the lead of other states by offering vaccine incentives, like $25 gift cards for people getting their first shot or driving others to get the shot. And Gov. Cooper said last week the state will hold a series of million-dollar drawings for vaccine recipients.
But Cook said such incentives haven’t convinced her to get a shot. There’s nothing that would convince her to get the vaccine, she said.
George and Mary Aikens, who live in Hidden Valley, will be hard to convince, too. They said they have not gotten the vaccine because they don’t trust the science behind it.
“I was afraid of the ingredients,” Mary said. “I watched a doctor on YouTube talk about some of the stuff in it… things that are not safe for humans.”
All of the COVID-19 vaccines, which have been authorized for emergency use by the FDA, have gone through testing and been shown to be safe for humans.
To protect herself, Mary Aikens has been taking melatonin at night, which she heard can stave off the virus. Preliminary research shows that melatonin might offer some protection against the virus, but that hasn’t been proven.
George Aikens remembers the surge of polio cases in the United States in the 1950s.
As a child, his mother chose not to get him vaccinated, and one of his friends who did get the polio vaccine still caught the illness. That was proof enough for him.
“When there’s more data, we might change our mind,” he said.
Jayne Cook said it makes sense that south Charlotte neighborhoods are more vaccinated.
“A lot of people over here (in west Charlotte) are going to take a stand,” referring to her decision not to get the vaccine. “We’re not sheep. Those people in south Charlotte don’t even own guns.”
‘Wait and see’
LaQuandra Rouse, a longtime employee of Atrium Health, was part of one of the first groups who became eligible to get vaccinated in Mecklenburg County back in February. She lives right off Reagan Drive in north Charlotte.
But the career healthcare worker still waited. She wanted to consider all of the options and do her research.
She’s a manager at Atrium. But at the height of the pandemic, the former nurse was asked to temporarily return to working in that capacity. So she decided the benefits outweighed the risks — Rouse didn’t want to be the reason anyone got sick.
“I just try to encourage everyone to... do whatever we can do to help ourselves and help everyone around us, especially our loved ones,” she said. “I think it is worth a try.”
Jackie Davis has lived in west Charlotte for 20 years. She got both doses of the Pfizer vaccine in April.
Her sister had COVID-19 in November. She was in the hospital for nine days before recovering. Even now, she still reports side effects from the virus, Davis said. “It still takes a toll on her,” she said.
That’s one reason Davis got the COVID-19 vaccine. Her sister is also vaccinated, but most of Davis’ friends and family — including her 15-year-old son — are unvaccinated, taking a “wait-and-see” approach.
But Davis is staying away from people who aren’t vaccinated. “I told them: If I have a cookout, y’all can’t come unless you show me you have a vaccination card,” she said.
Davis’ friends and family aren’t the only ones with a wait-and-see attitude.
Carla Mason’s adult children are also waiting to get vaccinated, despite their mother’s opinion. Mason is leaving the decision up to them.
“I’m giving them the options. They want to see how it works on everyone else,” she said. “I’m trying.”
Local doctors have heard that a “big chunk of people” are waiting to see how others react to the shot until they decide on vaccination, Atrium Health infectious disease expert Dr. Katie Passaretti told the Observer. But she said now is the time to get the vaccine.
“What I would say is: You’ve waited and you’ve seen,” Passaretti said.
Novant Health infectious disease expert Dr. David Priest echoed those concerns.
“There’s been a lot of time, and millions upon millions of people have gotten the vaccine,” Priest said. “It’s proven to be incredibly effective and incredibly safe.”
Local vaccination rates
In Mecklenburg County, 47% of residents have gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccine as of June 11, according to state Department of Health and Human Services data.
Statewide, 44% of residents have gotten at least one vaccine as of then, according to state numbers.
And 54% of North Carolina residents age 18 and older have gotten at least one vaccine — a rate that still trails the country’s goal of vaccinated 70% of U.S. adults by July 4.
“We’re making progress, but there are still a lot of people who are unvaccinated,” Gov. Cooper said in Charlotte this month.
But North Carolina — along with many other states — is seeing a “plateau” in vaccinations, he said. Most people who wanted to get the COVID-19 vaccine have already gotten the shot. Cooper is encouraging people who still haven’t gotten the shot to talk to their doctors, to talk to people they trust about the vaccine.
And local doctors are trying to make it easier than ever to get a COVID-19 shot.
Both of Charlotte’s major hospital systems, Atrium Health and Novant Health, are partnering with local churches and stores to offer vaccines in under-served communities.
“We’re going to where people are,” Atrium Health Senior Vice President Kinneil Coltman told the Observer. “Because we know that our community is nowhere near herd immunity.”
For Mason in north Charlotte, hearing her neighbors are some of the least vaccinated Mecklenburg County residents isn’t surprising — because she’s been listening, she said.
“I think they have to educate themselves and have to understand.
“We have a lot of vaccines. When polio (vaccines) came out, a lot were skeptical. … Now, our kids get vaccinated,” Mason said. “For me, I knew what I needed.”
Database editor Gavin Off contributed to this report.