WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – For months, Lisa Wilson went door to door in Belle Glade, trying to convince people to get the coronavirus vaccine.
Wilson, a longtime aide to Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, persuaded pastors to preach about the need to get shots. Her husband, Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson, was one of the first in the western farming community to roll up his sleeve, hoping others would follow his example.
But despite Wilson’s insistence that the shots would save lives, some members of her own family ignored her.
In the last three weeks, six of them died from complications of COVID-19.
“I was in their ears almost every day. ‘You’ve just got to do this,’ ” Wilson said Tuesday, reeling from the tragedy that has consumed her large, close-knit family. “I’m beating myself up. Should I have pushed harder?”
First an uncle, then a grandmother, then cousins.
The nightmare began in late August when her 48-year-old uncle, Tyrone Moreland, died.
A day after the family gathered for his funeral, her beloved 89-year-old grandmother, Lillie Mae Dukes Moreland, was hospitalized. The longtime fixture in Belle Glade, who had nine children and also raised Wilson, died 24 hours later.
In quick succession, three more cousins, including 48-year-old Shatara Dukes and 53-year-old Lisa Wiggins, followed.
Lisa Wilson’s family lost six members to COVID-19 in three weeks during the summer of 2021.
On Sunday, 44-year-old Trentarian Moreland, who spent years as an assistant football coach at various Palm Beach County high schools, succumbed to the deadly virus.
Wilson suspects her uncle and Shatara Dukes, who shared the same birthday, caught the virus at a food pantry where both worked.
But, she said, there doesn’t appear to be a link between the others.
Family members who had recently visited her grandmother were tested. The results all came back negative. But, she said, her grandmother was known for inviting neighbors onto her porch and into her house to chat.
“We just don’t know,” said Wilson.
Wilson is further baffled about why her family members so steadfastly refused to get vaccinated.
“In my grandmother’s case, I think some of her children advised her not to do it,” Wilson said. “They said she was too old, that it wasn’t safe, that she never left the house, anyway.”
As if to emphasize her children’s words, her grandmother’s 93-year-old brother was hospitalized with COVID-19 shortly after he was vaccinated. Wilson said she suspects he was infected with the virus when he got the shot.
But, even though her brother survived, her grandmother took it as a bad omen.
“I think that secured it,” she said. “That was a big, big part that was weighing on her.”
As to the others, she said, they undoubtedly were influenced by false reports on social media or from people who convinced them that the vaccine was developed too quickly and it wasn’t 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 worries grew.
She said she was particularly anxious about her elderly grandmother and her uncle, who lost one of his kidneys several years ago and was waiting for a transplant.
“I told her everyday, ‘You’ve got to take it. You’ve got to take it,’ ” Wilson said.
The last time she talked to her uncle during a Facetime chat from his hospital bed, he told her he wished he’d followed her advice.
“Tell all of our family to get vaccinated. It’s horrible. It hurts,” she said 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 grim.
“I didn’t want to see her with tubes running everywhere and watch her struggling to breathe,” Wilson said. “Other grandkids did it and they regretted it.”
Palm Beach County Health Director Dr. Alina Alonso presents updated COVID-19 information to commissioners during the County Commission meeting in West Palm Beach Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.
This surge ebbing, but another will follow, health director says
McKinlay mentioned Wilson’s tragic tale on Tuesday as the county commission was getting a regular update on the current state of the pandemic.
Figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the spread of the virus has slowed in Florida over the last few weeks after the delta variant made August the deadliest month since the pandemic began.
Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the county’s state-run health department, said she expects the lull will be temporary. Like last year, she said she expects to see an uptick in cases after holiday gatherings.
She and others continue to preach that widespread vaccination is the only way to stop the spread.
Yet only 63.9% of county residents age 12 and over are fully vaccinated, while 74.4% have had at least one shot, according to the CDC.
While some people have some protection because they have recovered from the disease, getting additional people to get vaccinated will be difficult, Alonso said.
“It’s not lack of education. It’s not lack of availability,” she said. “It’s people making a conscious decision not to get vaccinated.”
McKinlay said she doesn’t understand why holdouts won’t get vaccinated yet many have no qualms about receiving monoclonal antibody treatment after they are infected.
The treatment that is being offered for free at state-run centers across the state, including one at the Westgate Recreation Center near West Palm Beach, involves an hourlong 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.
Palm Beach County commissioner Melissa McKinlay quizzes Palm Beach County Health Director Dr. Alina Alonso about the comparison of vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments during the commission meeting in West Palm Beach Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021.
Some question why vaccine opponents seek monoclonal therapy
Many people, like members of Wilson’s family, say they won’t get shots because they believe the vaccines were rushed into production, McKinlay said.
They point out that the vaccines only received emergency-use approval, although the one produced by Pfizer has since received full federal authorization.
The monoclonal treatment still has only emergency-use authorization. And unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which tell the body to create antibodies against the virus, the antibodies in the monoclonal treatment are man-made.
“People are opposed to getting the vaccine but are OK with getting monoclonal therapy,” McKinlay said. “It flusters me to think that somebody is opposed to getting the vaccine but is okay getting the treatment that has the same approval status as the vaccine.”
Commissioner Gregg Weiss said that it is also a costly treatment.
People are able to get it for free because the federal government bought it from pharmaceutical giant Regeneron.
At roughly $1,500 a pop, it has cost about $6 million to treat the roughly 4,100 county residents who have received it since the Westgate center opened Aug. 19. Statewide, it has cost $123 million to treat the 82,125 people who have used the state-run centers, he said.
“I’m glad we have it, but there is a cost to it as well,” Weiss said. “Someone is picking up the tab.”
Wilson said the cost of the disease to her family has been enormous.
But, she said, as family members gathered for yet another funeral, her message is finally being heard. She said about 10 family members have recently gotten vaccinated.
Still, she said, she mourns what is lost. She misses her uncle, who 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’d never been sick a day in her life. She was always able to push on.”