A stark divide on COVID-19 vaccinations leaves many Polish Americans in New Jersey at risk
By Aleksandra Słabisz, senior reporter, Nowy Dziennik (Polish Daily News)
This story was produced as part of a six-month COVID-19 reporting fellowship with NJ ethnic and community media organized by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. It has been updated and edited from its original version.
Henryka C. and her husband, Ryszard, of Linden, NJ, know exactly the long-lasting health effects of COVID-19 that many experts are still struggling to understand. After they contracted the coronavirus in March, they have been suffering from lingering fatigue that has negatively affected their quality of life.
Henrycka, who has asthma, now needs to use her inhaler more frequently than before she got the coronavirus. And she and Ryszard, both in their 60s, have been experiencing extreme exhaustion.
“This fatigue will go away, but it is taking so slow,” said Henryka. “Recently, I went for an X-ray, and it still showed some post-COVID marks on my lungs.”.
But because of their ordeal, they were persuaded to take the coronavirus seriously. Three months after they recovered from the virus, the couple decided to get fully vaccinated.
“I think vaccines are necessary. We also took the [seasonal] flu vaccine last fall. Maybe that’s why our COVID infection was mild,” she added.
Henryka and Ryszard are among the more than 5.2 million fully vaccinated people in New Jersey, including Polish Americans in the state.
“We are all vaccinated [now],”said Anna J., a member of a private Facebook group that consists of Polish women from different parts of New Jersey.
After all members of Anna’s family contracted COVID-19 last year, she said: “I must say that we couldn’t wait to get the shots!”
Her husband was seriously sick and hospitalized, Anna recounted, and her good friend, who was only 50 years old, died of COVID-19.
Vaccination, according to public health experts, is the only way to control the pandemic. The novel coronavirus mutates into more contagious variants and, currently, Delta is the most dominant.
“This is the most transmissible and dangerous of all the variants we have had,” said Dr. David Adinaro, deputy commissioner of Public Health Services at the New Jersey Department of Health, during a press conference with ethnic media, organized by the Center for Cooperative Media.“The Delta spreads as fast as chickenpox, which is 60 times faster than the Alpha variant, a dangerous variety of the virus first recognized in the United Kingdom.”
The Delta variant, he said, also appears to be more transmissible, particularly in younger populations, adding that those between five and 49 years old are much more likely to be infected, as compared to those over 50.
The Delta variant now accounts for 75 percent of the new coronavirus cases in New Jersey, and 85 percent of COVID-19 infections across the country. Before it became dominant, the number of daily infections had fallen to the lowest levels—150 and 250 cases in New Jersey and New York, respectively—since the beginning of the pandemic.
But as of August 10, 2021, the numbers have quadrupled, and the hospitalization rates in both states have also doubled.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), New Jersey has transmission levels that are considered “high” or “substantial.”
In order to slow the rate of transmission, top public officials are recommending to wear masks indoors in high-risk public places. In New Jersey, where children are expected to return to school this fall, they will have to wear masks. And, in New York, starting August 16, proof of vaccination will be required when entering restaurants, bars, gyms and museums.
“If you are vaccinated, all of that is going to open up to you,” NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said, introducing the “Key to NYC Pass” campaign. “Unfortunately, if you are not vaccinated, you will not be able to participate in many things.”
“This is the pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, as over 95 percent of COVID-19 patients in hospitals are unvaccinated.
Meanwhile, according to latest findings, both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines offer 88 percent protection against the Delta variant and 96 percent of protection from hospitalization or death.
In the last week of July, in New Jersey, 18.5 percent of new COVID-19 cases were among the vaccinated population, but only 3 percent of those hospitalized were vaccinated.
But these breakthrough cases, Walensky assured, are “not prevalent and life-threatening.”
“You can see here that the vaccines are proving themselves highly effective and well more than 99 percent of those who have received them are finding protection from hospitalization and from a COVID-related death,” said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy at one of his recent press conferences.
Out of the 7.7 million New Jerseyans who are over 12 years of age and eligible for the vaccine, 68 percent of them have received two doses of the vaccine.
“This is the floor, not the ceiling. Our goal is to immunize all residents of the state. Anybody who is unvaccinated or has not completed the vaccine series is in danger even if they are in communities that have a high rate of vaccination, they individually should be under no illusion that they are under significant risk,” said Adinaro.
Currently, Adinaro adds, there are 1,500 vaccine locations throughout the state.
Every week, he noted that 75-80 percent of vaccines are being given in a pharmacy, whether it is a large chain or an independent pharmacy. Over 2.5 million doses have been administered through mega site programs.
“But now we have the vaccine in so many different places, [such as] hospitals, local health departments, physicians offices, primary care and pharmacies, [and] we are very excited that the vast majority of New Jerseyans can access vaccines in the neighborhoods where they live or work,” Adinaro said, adding that the lines to get the vaccine are gone.
“We went to get our shots at a local CVS. We didn’t have to wait. It went very fast and smoothly,” said Henryka.
Despite the warnings about the Delta variant and assurances that the vaccines against COVID-19 have been sufficiently tested and are safe, some Polish Americans in New Jersey remain skeptical.
“It is one big paranoia. A mere flu that has become a media frenzy,” said Edyta, another member of a Facebook private group.
“There is no Delta. This is all a scam,” posted by another Polish American, Marlena K., saying that neither she nor her family will get the COVID-19 vaccine. “So far, none of the vaccines guarantees no protection. The vaccinated person can [still] spread the virus. So, logically, why take the vaccine?”
Other Polish Americans in the state also refuse to follow mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates, because they feel as though they are being stripped of their freedom.
And there are those who help perpetuate disinformation about the coronavirus.
“About a hundred years ago, when the world’s population was attacked by the Spanish flu, there was no internet and no conspiracy theories. Now, with all the information that we are bombarded with, we are not able to rule out anything, or confirm what is true. As a result, it [disinformation] is easy to manipulate us,” said Magdalena C., of Howell, NJ.
“Finding the truth is complicated. All the information [can be]politically manipulated,” added Jacek, of Garfield, NJ.
Some say they will get the shots only when they are required at work.
“I will [only] do it (vaccination), when I am told to [at my job],” said 50 year old Lucjan, who drives a school bus in one of the districts in central New Jersey.
Other Polish Americans refuse to be immunized, Lucjan added, and are filing for “religious exemption.”
But for those who have been fully vaccinated, there’s nothing more precious than having peace of mind.
Ela B., who works in various hospitals around New Jersey for the past 30 years, says all her family and friends have gotten fully vaccinated.
“No serious side effects. Of course, [at first], we had some concerns about the vaccines. However, the entire world is battling with the virus, so it is hard to ignore that,” she said.
While she understands that some people may be discouraged to get vaccinated because of conflicting information and mandates, Ela said that the risk of not getting vaccinated is highly dangerous.
“I am from a generation that believes in vaccines. They have saved us from tuberculosis, Heine-Medina disease, smallpox and other crippling diseases,” said Basia K., of Bergen County. “I respect other people’s opinions and decisions on vaccinations, but I hope that, whether claiming religious beliefs or ethical matters, those who do not get vaccinated will wear masks in public places. Let’s protect the elderly and the immunocompromised.”