For months, Lisa Wilson went door to door In Belle Glade, Florida, trying to persuade people to get a coronavirus vaccine.
Wilson, a longtime aide to Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinley, persuaded pastors to campaign about the need to take the shot. Her husband, Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson, was one of the first people in the Western farming community to roll up their sleeves, hoping that others would follow her example.
But despite Wilson’s insistence that the shots would save lives, some members of his own family ignored him.
In the last three weeks, six of them died of complications from COVID-19.
“I was in his ears almost every day. “You just have to do it,” Wilson said Tuesday, recovering from the tragedy that has devoured her family. “I’m killing myself. Should I have pushed harder?”
First uncle, then grandmother, then cousin
The nightmare began in late August when her 48-year-old uncle, Tyrone Moreland, died.
A day after the family gathered for the funeral, his 89-year-old grandmother, Lily May Deux Moreland, was hospitalized. The longtime fixture at Belle Glade, who had nine children and also raised Wilson, died 24 hours later.
In quick succession, three more cousins followed, including 48-year-old Shatara Dukes and 53-year-old Lisa Wiggins.
On Sunday, 44-year-old Trentarian Moreland, who spent years as an assistant football coach at various Palm Beach County high schools, died of the deadly virus.
Wilson suspects his uncle and Shatara Dukes, who shared the same birthday, caught the virus in a food pantry where both worked.
But, she said, there is no connection between the others.
Family members who had recently visited her grandmother were tested positive. All the results came negative. But, she said, her grandmother was known to invite neighbors over to her porch and into her house to chat.
“We just don’t know,” Wilson said.
Wilson further wonders why his family members so vehemently refused to be vaccinated.
“In my grandmother’s case, I think some of her kids advised her not to do that,” Wilson said. “They said she was too old, that it wasn’t safe, that she never left the house.”
As if to emphasize his children’s words, his grandmother’s 93-year-old brother was hospitalized with COVID-19 shortly after being vaccinated. Wilson said he suspected he was already infected with the virus when he was shot.
But, even though his brother survived, his grandmother took it as a bad omen.
“I think it’s safe,” she said. “That was a big, big chunk that weighed heavily on him.”
As for others, she said, they were undoubtedly influenced by false reports on social media or from people who convinced them that the vaccine was developed too quickly and was not safe.
“I think a lot of them were afraid to take it,” she said.
But, she said, as the highly contagious Delta variant began to spread, her concerns grew.
She said she was particularly concerned about her elderly grandmother and her uncle, who had lost a kidney several years ago and was awaiting a transplant.
“I told him everyday, ‘You have to take it. You have to take it,'” Wilson said.
The last time he spoke to his uncle during a FaceTime chat from a hospital bed, he told him he wanted him to follow his advice.
“Ask everyone in our family to get vaccinated. it’s terrible. It hurts,” he said as he cried as he gasped for air.
She said she couldn’t bring herself to talk to her grandmother on FaceTime. When she took her grandmother to the hospital, doctors said her prognosis was dire.
“I didn’t want to see him with tubes running everywhere and see him struggling to breathe,” Wilson said. “Other grandchildren did it and they regret it.”
That surge is waning, but another will follow, says county health director
McKinley referred to Wilson’s sad story on Tuesday because the county commission was getting regular updates on the current state of the pandemic.
Figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the spread of the virus has slowed in Florida over the past few weeks, with the delta version making August the deadliest month since the pandemic began.
Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the county’s state-run health department, said she expected the peace to be temporary. Like last year, she said she expects matters to pick up after the holiday gatherings.
He and others continue to preach that widespread vaccination is the only way to stop the spread.
According to the CDC, only 63.9% of county residents age 12 and older have been fully vaccinated, while 74.4% have received at least one shot.
While some people have some protection because they have recovered from the disease, it is still likely that people will resist vaccines.
“It’s not a lack of education. It’s not a lack of availability,” Alonso said. “These people are making a conscious decision not to get vaccinated.”
McKinley said he doesn’t understand why holdouts won’t be vaccinated, yet many people don’t mind receiving monoclonal antibody treatment after becoming infected.
The treatment, which is being offered free of charge at state-run centers across the state, including one at Westgate Recreation Center near West Palm Beach, involves a one-hour intravenous infusion. Or people can get four shots – two in the arm and two in the stomach.
By comparison, the vaccine requires one or two shots in the arm, she said.
Some question why anti-vaccines seek monoclonal therapy.
McKinley said many people, such as Wilson’s family members, say they won’t get the shots because they believe the vaccines were taken into production.
They point out that the vaccines only received emergency-use approval, although the one produced by Pfizer has received full federal authorization.
Monoclonal treatment still only has emergency use authorization. And unlike Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which ask the body to make antibodies against the virus, the antibodies in monoclonal treatments are man-made.
“People are opposed to getting the vaccine, but are fine with getting the monoclonal therapy,” McKinley said. “It shocks me to think that someone is opposed to getting a vaccine, but it’s okay to get a treatment that has the same approval status as the vaccine.”
Commissioner Greg Weiss said it was also an expensive treatment.
People are getting it for free because the government has bought it from pharmaceutical company Regeneron.
At about $1,500 a pop, it has cost about $6 million to treat the approximately 4,100 county residents who have received it since the Westgate Center opened on August 19. Across the state, it has cost $123 million to treat the 82,125 people who have used state-run centers, he said.
“I’m glad we have it, but it also has a price,” Weiss said. “Someone is picking up the tab.”
Wilson said the cost of the illness to his family was too high.
But, she said, as family members gathered for another funeral, their message is finally being heard. She said that around 10 family members have got vaccinated recently.
Still, she said, she laments what has been lost. She remembers her uncle, whom she described as a “gentle giant”, who was “the life of the party”.
Plans were already underway to celebrate her grandmother’s 90th birthday in March.
“She was a really strong person,” Wilson said. “She had never been sick a day in her life. She was always able to move on.”