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A Charlotte, North Carolina man who was vaccine hesitant now faces months of recovery. “COVID doesn’t give a damn,” he told us. “It will kill you either way.”

Micah McClain, a delivery driver in Charlotte, was initially against the COVID-19 vaccine. He decried his family’s requests for him to get the shot as “fear-mongering” and swore by his active, pescatarian lifestyle.

The 44-year-old trucker, whose work takes him in and out of private residences and places of business, was among the estimated 11% of Mecklenburg County residents that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers vaccine hesitant.

McClain already suffered from chronic bronchitis and asthma but did not believe in taking prescribed medications. Because he didn’t contract COVID-19 in 2020, he thought his strategy of masking and taking herbal supplements would be enough this year. Indeed, McClain said he wouldn’t take the vaccine at gunpoint because he “didn’t want to be anybody’s guinea pig.” 

Then, in early August, he developed a cough. He prayed it was a regular summer cold. It was not. As his symptoms worsened, he got tested at a local hospital. He described the scene as “a nightmare—people screaming on gurneys in hallways because there weren’t any rooms available, like a war.”

He tested positive for the ultra-contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, and things got even scarier from there. 

A July Associated Press poll shows that of unvaccinated American adults, 35% say they probably will not get vaccinated, and 45% say they definitely will not receive the shot. Most hesitant people also doubt vaccines offer protection against new variants of COVID, despite overwhelming evidence that they do, and in spite of the explosion of deaths this summer and fall among the unvaccinated in the face of the aggressive Delta variant. 

The NC Department of Health and Human Services found that unvaccinated people were 15 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who got vaccines. 

McClain actively followed and shared the advice of vaccine-hesitant posters on social media. Doctors call this confirmation bias, when people gravitate toward information that reinforces what they already think. Tales of the deadly virus didn’t move him.

“The old COVID wasn’t personal to me,” because “no one I knew died,” McClain told Cardinal & Pine. 

COVID Got Personal 

The Delta variant of coronavirus has spurred a surge of infections and deaths in North Carolina and nationwide, leaving many who once rejected the vaccines to grapple with the consequences. McClain said he knew people who had contracted the original strain of COVID and recovered, so he thought the  seriousness of the pandemic had been overstated. 

“This variant is different,” McClain said. “The Delta is personal to me because I’ve lost people and I’m getting phone calls every day because people are dying.”

McClain was almost one of them. 

The emergency room admitted him immediately in August. He was gasping for air with an oxygen level of 78%, far below the normal oxygen rates of 95% or higher. 

He had developed COVID pneumonia, which differs from the normal infection that affects concentrated areas of the lungs. COVID pneumonia spreads like a wildfire, using the lungs’ own immune cells to spread over days or even weeks, lasting longer and doing even more damage than routine pneumonia. In McClain’s case, over a matter of days life-threatening blood clots had formed in his lungs. 

“Let me inform you, COVID doesn’t give a damn about how many miles you run per day or how healthy you eat. It will kill you either way,” he posted on his Instagram page. 

Hooked up to oxygen machines, unable to sleep and with a cough so pronounced it could make him vomit, McClain began reconsidering his earlier anti-vaccine stance. His doctors talked to him about the way the vaccine was developed and worked in the body. He learned that it helps fight infection by working with the immune system and the body’s natural defenses – similar to his vitamin supplements – but doesn’t offer complete immunity. 

“You can still get it but chances are you won’t need hospitalization, oxygen, or be near death,” McClain said.   

Road to Recovery

Now, facing the next six months on blood thinners and with thousands of dollars in medical debt, he wishes he’d made a different choice about vaccination. Unfortunately, he has to wait until his antibodies subside before he’s eligible for the protection of the vaccine. Changing his mind puts McClain in the minority among vaccine-hesitant people. 

“If I had to do it all again, I would have gotten vaccinated,” he said. “It was so critical I almost lost my life. If getting vaccinated would have prevented me from going to the hospital and dealing with what I had to deal with, I would have gotten vaccinated.”