In this audio story, PublicSource reporter Oliver Morrison chats with his neighbor about his views on the COVID vaccine and how he felt when confronted with new information about it at one of his most beloved places.
I was talking to my neighbor Regis one day recently, and I remembered that last spring, one of his friends mentioned that Regis didn’t get the COVID vaccine. But I never really asked him why he hadn’t got the vaccine. What was his hold up? Politics? Misinformation? Fear of the side effects?
And now that tens of millions of people in the country have opted not to get the vaccine at all, I thought it was worth asking.
He told me a story I wasn’t expecting to hear, which started at the Teutonía Männerchor German club, near Troy Hill where we live.
The omicron variant is spreading quickly, making the vaccine and booster ever more important. I thought Regis’ story could provide another perspective to the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.
Here’s a bit of background you should know: Regis lives in the same house his great-great-grandfather from Germany built in the 1800s. His parents used to take him to the German club as a kid in the 1960s. And now Regis takes German lessons there from a man named Florian who, it turns out, also happens to be an immunologist at the University of Pittsburgh.
Regis Stephens: Hi, my name is Regis Stephens. OK, we’re on Herman Street, on Troy Hill in my garage for old cars. Oh, I like anything from Germany, anything German since my family’s German. I always loved the VWs, the Volkswagens, and I was always fascinated by the air-cooled motors. They didn’t need no radiator, they didn’t need water pumps. There’s no German bicycles here. I did have one, but I don’t know what I did with it. It was a little thing. But I just like German things, I have a lot of German records at home for my parents and they’re still pretty popular, and we still listen to them, especially at Christmas time.
[Choir singing in German]
Regis Stephens: I’ve been a mechanic most of my life, probably since I was 14 years old and picked up my first toy. I’ve been, you know, fooling around with mechanical things ever since. And to this day, almost every day I’m working on something mechanical. And about 2010, I took on the job of being the house meister at the Tuetonía Männerchor, which is master of the house, basically custodian. And I took care of the building and property, maintained all the woodwork, the flooring, equipment, the Sanger Hall and the Ratskellar. It’s a great time for Gemütlichkeit, which is a German word for good people, good times, friendship, camaraderie. and that’s what the place is all about. Gemütlichkeit.
Any time I was actually around people or out in the public eye [during the pandemic], I was real skeptical. I mean, I wore gloves, I carried hand sanitizer with me. I was afraid to get too close to people, and I did wear a mask when it was required. I definitely, like everyone else, I definitely worried about it. I didn’t over wear it. Whenever it was required, when a mask was required to go in a supermarket at the time or wherever you need one. I carried one with me all the time. I’m avoiding large crowds, like I don’t think you could pay me go to a Steeler game or anything like that.
TV announcer: Touchdown Steelers. Ben’s first touchdown in three years.
Regis Stephens: I am a conservative, but I’m not 100%. My mind is open to a lot of things. This mayoral election I voted for Tony Moreno. One of the biggest reasons is I’m not really all that fond of career politicians. I always like to give the guy a break or a chance who’s not a politician, who isn’t part of the system. And I’m more open-minded to people like that.
Radio voice: KDKA Pittsburgh. This is the voice of Pittsburgh. It’s 100.1 FM. AM 1020. Good morning, I’m Kevin Battle.
Regis Stephens: The radio’s on almost 24-7, and I especially listen to the news in the morning. Rob Pratte, Kevin Battle, Larry Richert. They’re pretty believable guys and they seem like honest down to Earth guys, and they are believable.
Radio voice: If we’re going to come out of this pandemic, if we’re going to reach herd immunity and if we want to have a somewhat normal summer, we really need everyone when it’s your chance to get The shot.
Radio voice: Snakes, angry exes and needles: Those are my fears, in that order. And I was.
Regis Stephens: And I especially listen to the news in the morning and throughout the day, off and on.
Radio voice: So why would you go into that kind of battle? Completely unarmed? Our vaccines will protect you.
Regis Stephens: I listened to CNN. I listened to, you know, the local news. I’m diverse. I listen to Fox News.
Fox News voice: The standard flu every single year kills tens of thousands of Americans. We are now entering…
Regis Stephens: You hear a lot of different opinions when you listen to all those different sources, and I just kind of try to figure out on my own who’s really telling the truth here, who’s putting out the right information. And it’s a little hard. It’s a little difficult.
Fox News voice: And what about the efficacy of the vaccine itself among adults? Well, anyone else think it’s weird that….
Regis Stephens: I’m always a little skeptical with vaccines. I’m not an anti-vaxxer, but I just have — And it’s not a political view. It’s just I was never good with needles and vaccines, and I’ve actually never even gotten a flu shot. I actually, I got one about 20 years ago, and I got violently ill. So that kind of turned me away from vaccines.
Florian Weisel: So my name is Florian Weisel. I’m a research assistant professor at University of Pittsburgh, and today we are at Teutonía Männerchor. It’s a German club which exists since over 100 years, and they are big in German tradition, serve German food, beer, drinks. And we became members here like something like three years ago.
So originally my wife and me are from Germany. So we decided to go to the United States in 2010 for like two years to do a postdoc. Then in 2013, our boss, the guy who runs the laboratory, got an appointment from the University of Pittsburgh. So the whole laboratory was moved from Yale University to Pittsburgh. And one night, he asked me whether I wanted to come with him. So I discussed this with my wife and we said, “Yes.” We came to Pittsburgh, looked at the city, loved everything about it. So we are members of University of Pittsburgh Department Immunology since 2013 now.
So I actually knew about this place since day one, but it said, Männerchor and I’m a really, really bad at singing, so we never joined. And then we were at a local bar and we met a person, Eric, who was wearing a shirt of Teutonía Männerchor. So I approached this guy and said, “Hey, do I really have to sing when I join this place?” So he was laughing at me and said, “You know what? They have five people singing and 2,995 drinking.” So the next day we kind of signed up.
Florian Weisel: So when we started our membership, at Teutonía, so they had a German lesson every Saturday morning here. And the person who did the German class when we started became a really, really good friend of ours. And one day she had to stop being the German teacher due to a health condition from one day to the next one. So there was no German class anymore here. and we talked about it and my wife, me and our two children decided to take over this German class to continue her work. And make this also not only for the Teutonía members, so it’s also an educational hour for our children and us. Since about two years, a little over two years, we are now doing this every Saturday morning here for the club as a family.
Florian Weisel: Since everybody knows me here at Teutonía people ask me questions because they get conflicting information from whatever source. And nobody knew exactly who to trust, what to believe. Is this wrong or this right? And after I got so and so many questions, I just said, “You know what: Let’s make a German class and explain to everybody what mRNA really is, how it works and what the vaccine does, and all these things.
So we usually start the class like this: [German speaking] … COVID 19 vaccine
Regis Stephens: [German speaking].
Oliver Morrison: What does that mean?
Regis Stephens: That mostly means that you get the shot and it contains the mRNA, to spike the proteins…
Oliver Morrison: You’re taking this German class: Was it a surprise that he started talking about the vaccine that day or what? How did that happen?
Regis Stephens: It was a little bit of a surprise. I knew that Florian was an immunologist. But it was really a great thing that he educated all us people down there on what really goes on with the vaccine, how it’s created, how it works.
Florian Weisel: The whole goal was to clean up with some misinformation out there and take people’s fears away and actually hear them and answer their questions — what they have about this vaccine and what they have about this pandemic.
Regis Stephens: Well, when he explained about the cell and the nucleus of the cell and what makes up a cell and how the vaccine actually worked with the mRNA, that it’s a protein that kind of encapsulates a cell and protected it — it made me more at ease.
Florian Weisel: We cannot expect everybody on this planet to have a deeper understanding of molecular biology, virology, epidemiology. So some people just can’t judge what is right and what is wrong. And this was the biggest concern. Everybody came to me and said, “How does this really work?”
Regis Stephens: A lot of the reasons I was skeptical. I really wasn’t educated on what the vaccine was all about. I was always under the assumption that they injected you with the virus, and that’s what prevented you from getting the virus. But you know, as time went by, and thanks to Florian Weisel, he reassured us that it’s safe. And then finally convinced me it’s time to get it.
Florian Weisel: It was actually a really fun class with a lot of questions at the end and a lot of people staying around after class. And we had a good time and made it worth our Saturday morning. But I got a few people actually to say, “OK, now that I understand this basic concept of how this vaccine works now, I’m much more confident in actually getting my shot.” And this makes me really happy because I have the feeling I did something good by using my knowledge and explaining it to people, convincing them to get the vaccine.
Oliver Morrison: One of the things I was interested in is because Regis got his vaccine so late: Do you think there are other people out there that could still be convinced to get it? Are there still people that if they got someone like you in front of them, that they would be convinced?
Florian Weisel: I would answer this question with 100% yes, right? So when you really think about this, not everybody has in his or her immediate family, a doctor, a physician, a scientist. And a lot of people, and I think it’s really a high number of people, would love to get information they can trust. It will take a combined effort of scientists, pharmacists, everybody, physicians who know how this works, to trustworthy deliver the information to all the people to convince them with data, science that it is a really good idea to get a vaccine.
Regis Stephens: Yeah, I’ll probably get the booster. I’m actually going to ask Florian’s advice. He actually told our class he said it’s probably recommended that you get the opposite. He said if you get the Pfizer, get the Moderna. And vice versa. He said it’s good to mix them up. So I probably will get the booster when the time comes.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This story was produced by Oliver Morrison and Andy Kubis.
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