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'Who do you trust?' | Unvaccinated people still feel hesitancy amidst COVID vaccine requirements

Just under half of the country's population remains unvaccinated. But after more than a year in the pandemic, tensions are running high and tolerance is running thin

WASHINGTON — When DMV resident Julie first found out about vaccines, she felt excited after a harsh pandemic winter.

“I was obviously wanting a solution to this COVID disease that was attacking our country and the world,” she recalled.

But, after vaccines officially hit pharmacies and became widely available across the DMV, Julie paused. 

She has an underlying condition and didn’t know how it would react with one of the new COVID vaccines. She felt there hadn’t been much research on her situation and how the vaccine could complicate it.

Plus, she wasn’t confident her own doctor knew for sure, either. It had just all happened so fast, she felt. 

“Who is right? And who do you believe? Who do you trust?” Julie said she had many questions, none of which she felt confident enough to answer.

So, for a while, Julie never scheduled an appointment. Months later, Julie still hadn't made a decision on whether or not to get herself vaccinated; she described herself as "in the wait and see crowd." 

But others slapped her with a simple label: unvaccinated.

At first, Julie casually told anyone who wanted to know that she was undecided and still feeling it out - trying to determine if getting vaccinated was the right choice for her situation. Julie said people were understanding in the beginning, but around June, people grew more hostile. 

“Nobody was asking me at first, people were just assuming, or didn't care," Julie said. "But [at that time], I didn't feel this segregation. I didn't feel this divide. I didn't feel this judgment.” 

Julie attributes news of the Delta variant to what really changed things, for her, for the worst.

In July, President Joe Biden said the public health crisis had turned largely into a plight of the unvaccinated, as the spread of the delta variant had led to a surge in infections around the country.   

The last straw came when Julie had planned a vacation out of state to go with a friend to visit her mom. It was in the final stages of trip-planning when the pivotal question was popped. 

“They happened to ask if I was vaccinated, and I said, ‘No," Julie recalls. "Of course, If I was going to someone's house, I did want to disclose that. And [her mother] said, ‘Oh, no, we can't have her.’"

Julie had been uninvited. She offered to produce a negative COVID test, but the mother said the most they’d do is go out to dinner with her, but she wasn’t welcome in their home, according to Julie, who added that the woman said her own daughter wouldn't be allowed in the home unvaccinated either. 

Current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asks the public to delay all travel until they are fully vaccinated. 

Since that experience, Julie decided to keep her vaccination status on the down-low. She said she’s faced eye-rolls, rants and outright beratement for her indecision; everyone from online commenters to friends and neighbors seemed to have an opinion on her choice. 

“I can't live my life like I used to," Julie said in August. "I'm so sad about it and I feel judged. I feel like I'm this like diseased person."

More than 50% of residents in D.C., Maryland and Virginia have been vaccinated, with Maryland leading the pack with more than 80% of eligible residents vaccinated. But Julie was nowhere near alone in her hesitancy. 

According to the CDC, just under half of the entire U.S. population remains unvaccinated. But after more than a year in the pandemic, tensions are running high and tolerance is running thin. Blame has bounced around from government efforts to the anti-maskers, and now, those who have hesitated - or outright refused - to get the shot are facing the wrath. 

Longtime Tastee Diner Cook Allen Snowden, who says he is vaccinated, feels like the reinstated D.C. mask mandate hassles him for the choices of others who have willfully remained unvaccinated.

"If you don't want to get the shot, you get sick, that's on you," he said. "It shouldn't be my problem and the [problem of the] millions of other people that went ahead and got the shot and said 'hey, we're safe.'"

Even government officials, like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, have let frustration bubble out when addressing the public.

“Just get the damn vaccine," the governor said in an Aug. 5 press conference. "Those of you unwilling to get vaccinated are willfully and unnecessarily putting yourself and others at risk of hospitalization or death.”

Social media continues to be rife with people blasting those who still haven’t gotten a shot, as well. 

Concern over neighbors who aren’t getting vaccinated isn’t merely a superficial, passing judgment. CDC data shows COVID-19 vaccinations help protect people from the most serious side effects of the virus and even death; a standard that prompted the FDA’s initial Emergency Use Authorization and their eventual full approval of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine thus far. 

RELATED: VERIFY: We're answering your questions about FDA's approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

It’s also prompted businesses and employers to take action. From performance venues to local restaurants and universities, vaccinations have become mandatory in order to work, study and socialize. More than 45 eateries in the DMV have already announced their plans to require vaccine proof or a negative COVID test. 

Fairfax-based restaurant Pho Banh Mi & Grill on Chain Bridge Road was an early pioneer in the effort to require vaccines. The establishment started requiring proof to order or eat inside in July. 

Owner Francis Do said the restaurant wants to do its part to end the pandemic. "I want people to feel safe," he said.

Even Yelp plans to soon allow customers to search and filter between restaurants or businesses that require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination, or if their staff is fully vaccinated. 

Events small and large in the D.C. area have also joined the trend.

And it was after those new policies that Julie cracked. She got her first dose of the vaccine at the end of August.

"I just felt that I came to a crossroads, where I had to pick between getting my old life back or being restricted," she said, adding that as a very social person, the impediments were getting difficult to bear. 

And although Julie has gotten her shot, she maintains that the choice was, ultimately, one she made begrudgingly. 

"I've accepted my decision," she said. "But it wasn't what I ultimately wanted this soon. I don't feel any safer than I did before." 

RELATED: Bars, restaurants and venues in DC to require guests to show proof of vaccination

RELATED: Yelp will soon let people search for businesses by COVID vaccine policies

Although the debate on whether to restrict the unvaccinated has been fierce, experts do remind us that the concept is not a foreign feature in our society. 

“Mandatory aspects, when it comes to vaccination in general, are already present,” said Christopher Sulmonte, project administrator for the Biocontainment Unit at Johns Hopkins University. “We have it in the healthcare field, we have it in schools. So this is nothing new from a vaccination standpoint.”

Although some feel certain tighter restrictions around proving vaccination and testing are the most meaningful way to move forward, it’s left some questions swirling about how ethical a future of handing bouncers your ID and immunization records at the door truly is. 

“The resentment that some people might feel is understandable," Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, said. "The persons who have not gotten vaccinated as of yet have let themselves down, and they let their community down; there's no question about that."

However, he maintains that although the emotions are legitimate, that doesn’t mean they should translate into action.

“The best ethical response is not resentment," Sulmasy said. "If we can have just a little bit of empathy and think about, why it is that people are not vaccinated? And for the most part, it's either because they're scared, or because they're distrustful of the government or they're distrustful of science or of medicine.”

Sulmasy added that those concerns can have a legitimately historical basis. 

“We might be able to realize that resentment, shunning people, being angry at them, shaming them, is not going to do a lot of good in terms of helping people to diminish their fear or build up their trust and help to get them vaccinated," he said. 

Sulmasy shared that an ethical principle he holds in high regard is that the public should employ the least invasive and restrictive measures possible to achieve our ultimate public health goals.

“My hope is that we don't push towards mandates with the kind of strength that people have tried to and that we still continue to try to persuade people as best we can.” 

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