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Some Want 1 Shot, 2 Shots Or None At All: A Neighborhood Deliberates Vaccines

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The third coronavirus vaccine in the U.S. from Johnson & Johnson has just started going into people's arms. Now, there are concerns the public may be biased against it because of bad publicity. Will Stone reports on how the new vaccine is being received by the public.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Seattle Fire Captain Brian Wallace oversees this city-run outdoor vaccine site on the shore of Lake Washington. It's made up of tents and what look like large shipping containers in a city park. This majority non-white neighborhood has been hard hit by COVID-19. The new vaccine hasn't arrived here yet, but Wallace is already familiar with people's questions over which shot to get.

BRIAN WALLACE: We have seen people decline Pfizer when they thought they were getting Moderna. We've seen the opposite of that. We see people waiting for Johnson & Johnson.

STONE: Wallace knows offering this new vaccine will invite even more conversations. Some people may want it. Others may ask, are you giving me the worst vaccine?

WALLACE: I think the public is latching on to some of the headline details about these vaccines and that very simple efficacy number, which, as we know, isn't the full story.

STONE: That number, based on the clinical trials of more than 40,000 people, found the J&J vaccine was not as effective at preventing moderate to severe disease as the Pfizer and Moderna shots. But the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is about 85% effective against preventing severe forms of the disease. That rivals Pfizer and Moderna. And the J&J was tested globally as new dangerous variants of the virus were circulating. At the observation tent, Robert Hampton waits for 15 minutes after getting his shot.

ROBERT HAMPTON: They said Johnson & Johnson would come out with that one-shot thing, but I kind of feel like the two-shot would be better.

STONE: At first, Loretta Pierce was not at all sold on getting any vaccine, it didn't matter which one.

LORETTA PIERCE: They made it so fast. So I'm like, well, OK, why they haven't made stuff for other stuff so fast, you know what I'm saying?

STONE: But then she talked to her doctor and did some more research.

PIERCE: When I heard a African American doctor break it down how it was really going to affect us - and I think the way she explained it, that's what made me want to get it even though I was scared.

STONE: The one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine sounds good to Loretta Orpillya, who does not like needles.

LORETTA ORPILLYA: (Laughter) Yeah, 'cause I'm chicken.

STONE: Liberty Rothbaum, a schoolteacher in Seattle, says she'd be a bit nervous if the only option was the very newest vaccine.

LIBERTY ROTHBAUM: I guess Moderna's been around a little bit longer than the Johnson & Johnson.

STONE: But Rothbaum says ultimately, that would not have stopped her.

ROTHBAUM: I have plenty of trust in all of them.

STONE: Beth Wrobel, the CEO of a community health center in Indiana, says she wants the J&J vaccine for the mostly low-income people she serves. She's thought a lot about messaging.

BETH WROBEL: We're going to keep coming back to, just like the other ones, no one got hospitalized and no one died. That's what you want.

STONE: Wrobel's clinic was part of the J&J trial. She says her patients don't necessarily have cars or places to live. Most are not people who have the means to seek out two shots.

WROBEL: They can make it. They can take the day off of work - ours can't.

STONE: The government has set aside some of the first J&J doses for federally funded community clinics like Wrobel's, but most will be distributed as each state sees fit. Some are spreading it around. Others see it as a new tool for closing the equity gap.

JASON SCHWARTZ: There's a place for all three vaccines, from hospitals to mass vaccination sites to these more local and community-based sites.

STONE: That's Dr. Jason Schwartz at Yale University.

SCHWARTZ: These vaccines are all, you know, remarkably effective. There isn't sort of a vaccine that's better or worse than any others.

STONE: In Ohio and other states, the J&J shots are going to local and chain pharmacies. Amy O'Reilly owns a pharmacy in Worthington, Ohio, which is already giving the shots. She says they're getting questions, especially about side effects.

AMY O'REILLY: They are certainly curious as to the differences. Overall, people were excited to get their doses.

STONE: The best antidote to possible concerns about a new vaccine is trust, says Sunny Wang.

SUNNY WANG: We're giving the Moderna today.

STONE: She runs a vaccine clinic for International Community Health Services, which serves a large Asian immigrant population in Seattle.

WANG: Patients do not have a preference, so to say, but they are aware there are more than one type of vaccines available.

STONE: Speaking through a translator, one patient named Lee says she listened to the government advice - get whichever vaccine you can as soon as you can.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Her family - I mean, her family and friends is everyone who want to get the vaccine shot.

STONE: Another patient, Hung Too Lem, says she wanted the shot, but some people she knows were concerned it would kill them. That changed as the weeks went by.

HUNG TOO LEM: They saw a lot of people get the vaccine. Everything is OK, everything is fine. And everybody want to get it.

STONE: And that's a good sign as the U.S. ramps up production of now its third COVID vaccine shot.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.