covid-19

The Families Torn Apart By Vaccine Politics

Their loved ones turned anti-vaxx, then they turned on each other.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

After Sarah and Nicole, Chicago-area sisters who are both in their early 30s, got their first shots, they didn’t tell their mother until she asked them about it. She begged them not to get a second and even offered to pay them to delay their second dose. They only told their parents they had gotten their second shots in April, after their father texted them a Twitter thread about potential vaccine side effects. “He said, ‘please consider delaying because I love you,’” Sarah, who like Nicole, requested a pseudonym, recalled. “At that point, I just said, ‘Y’all might as well know, I’m fully vaccinated. I love you guys.’”

“And I said, ‘Me too. Love you guys,’” Nicole added.

“I’m despondent. I’m signing off for now,” Sarah recalled her mother texting back. And they haven’t heard from her since.

Nicole and Sarah are two of many Americans who have seen familial relationships fall apart over the COVID-19 vaccine. People I spoke with described seeing their parents and siblings become zealots seemingly overnight, radicalized by anti-vaccine propaganda found mostly on Facebook and YouTube. While opposition to getting vaccinated is not exclusive to the right wing, polling shows the position is concentrated on the right: One survey reported 43 percent of Republicans said they don’t plan to get vaxxed compared with 5 percent of Democrats. That has exacerbated the existing right-left schism that arose during the Trump years, driving a wedge between families. “Our parents are really great and smart people. The fact that they’ve gotten sucked into this is just scary,” Sarah said. “At the end of the day, we just want our family relationship back.”

Sarah and Nicole say their parents weren’t always anti-vaxxers. The sisters got all the required vaccines as children. Their dad was once a moderate Republican, and though their mom had always been a little suspicious of conspiracies (“I remember going to the dentist and she was always a little unsure about fluoride,” Nicole said), neither was on the far right. So the sisters were surprised when, beginning in 2016, their parents became full-on Trump supporters. Since then, they’ve leaned increasingly to the right, abandoning Fox News and Rush Limbaugh for OANN and Newsmax. Still, Sarah and Nicole were shocked when their mom, who has a background in STEM, became anti-vaxx.

“It’s crazy. They find these people to latch onto like Robert Kennedy and Naomi Wolf, or just people who are very clear anti-vaxx ultra-conspiracy theorists,” Sarah said. “The thing that’s so ironic about it is that she thinks there’s some global elite trying to control us through the vaccine. But she won’t log off of Facebook, which we all know collects all of our data and uses it against us all the time.”

Lex, a 28-year-old CEO who lives in Los Angeles, recounted a similar trajectory for her family: They are Trump supporters living in Ohio, she is not, and they would occasionally argue over politics. Now they’ve “become conspiracy theorists over the past year and decide vaccines are bad, even though we were all vaccinated as children.”

The issue is personal for Lex, who was hospitalized last March with COVID. Her 4-year-old son, Jack, has asthma, so she made the decision to ban family members who are not vaccinated from spending time with him. When her sister in Ohio learned that she wasn’t allowed to visit, she blew up. “I will truly never forgive you for keeping him away from me,” her sister told her in a text message. “You have got your head shoved so far up your ass to think you can manipulate someone into getting a vaccine they do not want to get.” After doubling down, Lex’s sister replied: “Don’t even bother coming to my funeral if you’re gonna keep Jack away from me over a vaccine.”

Lex was surprised by her sister’s intense reaction, even though she says her sister is “on the edge” of QAnon and “will say things like, ‘Masks are perpetuating human trafficking.’” Lex doesn’t anticipate making up with her sister anytime soon. “I can’t negotiate with someone who seems unwell and unable to have a rational conversation.”

For Lauren, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom, the discord is under her own roof — her husband refuses to get the vaccine or take the pandemic seriously. “You would think he would be somewhat smart about it or care, given that both his parents had it,” Lauren said. “He doesn’t seem to think it’s a really big deal. He watches a lot of YouTube videos that I don’t agree with, a lot of armchair doctors who really have no idea what they’re speaking about, and they basically make it a political thing.” Lauren said they were both moderate Republicans when they first started dating, though she now describes herself as a “democratic socialist” and him as a fan of the alt-right.

The biggest conflict in their marriage is over what to tell their children. “My oldest, she’s 5, she asked him flat out, ‘So daddy, why aren’t you getting the vaccine? Mommy’s getting her shots.’ This is when it gets really upsetting to me,” Lauren said. “She’s in school three days a week. She has to wear a mask. She needs to follow the rules … and he says, ‘Well it isn’t actually a big deal. It’s like the yearly flu.’”

Even though Lauren feels like her husband doesn’t respect her position on the vaccine and the pandemic, she says it’s not like this is a divorce-worthy disagreement. “It makes me question where we’re at and where we’re going to be going,” she said. “Personally, I feel it comes down to respect. If he can’t respect the fact that we have differing opinions, then that’s something we need to figure out. I do think we’ll be able to talk about this and figure out our differences, I guess.”

Casey, a butcher who lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, also has anti-vaxx parents, though she described them as hippies. Casey didn’t realize it until she was in college. “I started having conversations with people who had been vaccinated as children, and I was like, ‘What? I never had that.’” The topic of vaccines came up again this past winter on a FaceTime call with her parents, who live in California. “I was having a hard time and was really depressed,” she said and they suggested coming out to visit. “I was like, ‘No. Are we living in the same reality? We’re in a pandemic, and nobody has been vaccinated yet.’” They had another conversation about a potential visit right before Casey got vaccinated. She asked her dad to reconsider his position on vaccines so they could see each other for the first time since the fall of 2019. She said that he told her, “I don’t trust them. I don’t trust anything that happened while Trump was in office.”

“I was really pissed off. We didn’t speak for maybe a month,” she said. “They’re just stuck in this really outdated hippie anti-Western-medicine mindset that I feel is not appropriate for what we’re going through.” Casey, now fully vaccinated, still hasn’t decided whether she feels comfortable enough to fly across the country to see them. She’s also struggling with residual anger over her parents not vaccinating her as a child: “I feel like I wasn’t taken care of.”