lady with glasses and blonde hair
Diana Callahan, 71, died Oct. 3, 2021, after contracting COVID-19. Her son Larry Callahan Jr. believes misinformation kept her from potentially lifesaving vaccination. (Georgia Public Broadcasting)

Families across Georgia are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Some staunchly believe inaccurate information shared on social media. And they refuse to get vaccinated, even after surviving the disease.

Louis Borja, a heating and air technician who lives in Cherokee County with his wife and 15-year-old son, says he and his son wanted no part of any coronavirus vaccine.

“I’m just not a fan of being the guinea pig,” Borja said.

When asked why he was so against inoculation, he talked about former President Trump, China and a virus he believes is man-made.

“That’s pretty much straight out of the movie Contagion, because it was exactly like that movie, which, for me, was pretty funny,” Borja said.

The 2011 movie’s plot has some similarities to the current coronavirus outbreak, which led to the movie trending early in the pandemic, NPR reported.

Like COVID-19, the movie’s virus jumped from animals to people, but there are also a lot of differences. The imaginary Contagion disease kills more than 20% of those infected, a magnitude beyond the estimated 2% or so death rate in the current outbreak.

To Borja, COVID is overblown. He cited statistics — incorrectly — to make his point.

Obesity is considered an underlying condition that can exacerbate the effects of the disease, and Borja was correct when he said 2.8 million people die annually as a result of being overweight or obese .

But that number is a global statistic.

Borja compared the deaths of 2.8 million people around the world to the roughly 20,000 people in Georgia who died after contracting COVID.

It’s one example of how misinformation kills Georgians. Many people say they don’t know who to trust or why the science keeps changing.

Conclusions drawn from scientific studies almost always involve generalizing from a sample to a population, Princeton University psychology professor Tania Lombrozo wrote in an opinion piece for NPR.

But with generalization comes the possibility for error.

“Science changes in light of new evidence,” she wrote. “Science is willing to admit when it’s wrong.”

Over the summer, the entire Borja family got sick with COVID.

While his son only experienced a loss of taste and smell that later returned, Borja suffered for about a month.

“You know, I’m 51 years old, so there was a lot of stuff that could have went really wrong for me, but it didn’t” he said. “So, I guess prayer and luck of the draw kind of saved me on this.”

His 45-year-old wife also experienced headache, nausea, and a loss of smell and taste, but she is vaccinated.

“My wife is in health care, so she looks at it differently than everybody else in my family,” Borja said. 

In August, leaders with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory, Grady, Northeast Georgia, Piedmont and Wellstar held a joint press conference outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

Dr. Andy Jaffal, the chief medical officer with Piedmont Atlanta, said 97% of COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit were unvaccinated.

“I watched a 28-year-old previously healthy, unvaccinated patient die from COVID complications,” Jaffal said. “And while we value every life, that one was tough because it could have been prevented.”

But does that change Borja’s mind?

“Not one bit,” he said. “I’m still super against it.”

In nearby Floyd County, deaths from COVID peaked after the delta variant appeared.

Coroner Gene Proctor’s job is to investigate and determine what factors led to a person’s death.

Most of the people who died from COVID also had diabetes, renal failure or were morbidly obese, he said.

To him, the disease is simply a part of life, regardless of vaccination status.

“There’s only two types of people out there: people who had the virus and people who are going to get the virus,” he said.

Proctor had both doses of the Moderna vaccine but got what’s known as a breakthrough case of COVID.

He could get reinfected, but a study released in August by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows unvaccinated people, like Borja, are more than twice as likely as vaccinated people to get COVID a second time.

The coroner suggests folks do their research, leaving social media out of it.

“Look for verified sites that you can do an investigation on your own and get the facts,” Proctor said.  “And then make your decision off of those facts.”

Woodstock resident Larry Callahan Jr. believes the experts who say vaccination saves lives and misinformation kills.

When his parents got sick, Callahan worried he might lose both of his parents to the disease.

His 71-year-old mother died of COVID on Oct. 3, 2021, which was also his birthday. His brother’s 32-year-old fiancé also died a week or so later.

“My mother got wrapped up in the politics, listening to the news, (and) listening to conspiracy theories, like the COVID vaccine was going to control us,” he said.

Their own family members pushed those theories, Callahan said, and then they blamed him.

“They say I killed my mother by putting her on a ventilator … even though they gave her ivermectin unprescribed,” Callahan said.

The Food and Drug Administration has received multiple reports of patients who have required medical attention, including hospitalization, after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for livestock.

Ivermectin is approved for human use to treat infections caused by some parasitic worms and head lice and skin conditions like rosacea, according to the FDA, which clarified that clinical trials assessing ivermectin tablets for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 in people are ongoing.

The organization also said taking large doses of ivermectin is dangerous.

“She was so scared she was taking double doses,” Callahan said. “They were telling her not to go to the hospital; the hospital would kill her.”

But minds can change, he said.

Callahan’s 95-year-old grandmother got her first shot of the Moderna vaccine the day her daughter was put on a ventilator.

This story comes to Fresh Take Georgia through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

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