KNOXVILLE, Tennessee—On Tuesday morning, I stood outside the Knox County Health Department and asked people walking in why they were finally getting their COVID shot. Only 45.7 percent of Knox County residents are fully vaccinated, and COVID cases are rising here, with the seven-day average of cases at its highest level since early May. Last week, Tennessee’s top vaccination official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, was fired from her position at the state’s Department of Health after Republican lawmakers objected to the department’s COVID outreach to teenagers (listen to Slate’s interview with Fiscus here). The department has halted all vaccination outreach to minors, not only for COVID.
Around 11:00, three men in their 30s walked out of the clinic, pulled down their disposable masks, and lit cigarettes. “Yeah, we got the vaccine,” one of them, Austin, said. “We’re mandated by the place we’re staying.” The other two men looked away and drifted toward the parking lot. “I shouldn’t say mandated,” Austin continued. “Recommended. It’s more convenient, because otherwise we have to wear masks.”
Asked why he hadn’t gotten the vaccine before now, Austin said, “I wanted to see how the reactions were, whether it was safe. I’m still split. I’m not sure how I feel. But I’m not anti-vax. Vaccines are great.” He looked off toward the parking lot, where his friends were getting in an ancient Mazda. “That’s my ride,” he said apologetically. “Have a good one.”
Most of the people entering the Health Department’s building weren’t here to get their vaccines. A woman in a “HOUSE STARK: WINTER IS COMING” t-shirt said, “I got it already.” A man with impeccable peach-colored Reebok high-tops said, “I got it in the apartments where I live.” A young woman carrying an absolutely beautiful baby said, “I ain’t doin’ that bullshit.” She continued yelling as she crossed the street about how it’s been proven that COVID is weaker than the flu.
Bryan, 16, arrived with his mom, who is 60 percent Bryan’s height. “I was worried about side effects,” Bryan said shyly. “But I just figured, it feels safer if I get it.” His mother said she’d been vaccinated months before and had been hoping Bryan would get the shot soon. “I stayed on top of it,” she said. “I knew at some point he’d do it. I’m having problems with his brother, though.”
Bryan laughed. “He’s older. He ain’t getting it.”
“He’s a grown man.”
Chris, in his 40s with sunglasses clipped over his thick eyeglasses, said, “I’m gonna see if I can get the shot. Do you have to have an appointment?” He paused before going in. “I saw it on the news,” he said, “people aren’t getting vaccinated is gonna make the virus worse. It’s blowing up.” He said he’d been doubtful about getting the vaccine for months—“the news had me iffy”—but he’d finally decided things looked bad enough that he needed to set his worries aside. “I just had to let it go.”
“It’s my second shot,” said Joshua, 48. “I had a wedding to go to a few weeks ago, out of state, and I was stopping by to get some forms anyway, and I thought, well, shoot, I’m as close as I’m going to be, I might as well get vaccinated. Then I got to the wedding and they had no vaccination criteria at all. I was like, ‘So we’re doing this, huh?’”
When I asked him why he hadn’t gotten the shot months ago, he said, “I was being cautious, like a lot of people probably were. Watching to see if there were side effects, or other problems.” But finally he decided he needed to roll the dice. “I really won’t be able to see under the surface,” he said. “None of us have the information to make these informed decisions. But another wave of COVID is on the way. Summer is kind of a wide open time, but that’s coming to an end.”
Nathan, 14, got his first shot today. “We waited on purpose,” his mom said, “because of all the reports of weird things with young people.” He didn’t need to get the shot for a camp or for school, she said. When I asked why he decided to finally get the shot today, Nathan gave me an exquisite look of withering, 14-year-old scorn. “So I don’t get COVID,” he said.
For more on how conservative pressure on Covid has affected vaccination rates and hurt public health officials, listen to this episode of What Next.