Education minister: Why I waited so long to get vaccinated

Education Minister Juliana O'Connor-Connolly spoke at Wednesday's press conference about her decision to finally get vaccinated, and shared an emotional story of losing a friend to COVID-19. - Photo: Alvaro Serey

Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly received her second COVID-19 vaccination last week, several months after her government colleagues rolled up their sleeves to get their jabs.

At a COVID press briefing on Wednesday, and at an education conference on Monday, O’Connor-Connolly explained why she had waited so long to get inoculated, and what had made her change her mind about getting the shots.

Back in April, soon after the new PACT government came to power, most of the elected politicians who had not been vaccinated earlier appeared at the launch of a new vaccination drive and received their shots. O’Connor-Connolly was not among them.

‘Late convert’

Describing herself as a “late convert” to becoming vaccinated, she said she’d had concerns about potential side effects and also worried about getting the vaccine while dealing with her own medical issues.

She said she had consulted her three medical doctors, all of whom encouraged her to get inoculated. However, she also turned to the internet and social media to gain other information, she said.

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“It is my opinion,” she said, “that it should not have taken me 18 months [to get vaccinated].”

She said she hoped that no one else in Cayman would wait more than 18 months to make a decision to get vaccinated.

Government members Isaac Rankin, Financial Services Minister Andre Ebanks, Deputy House Speaker Kathy Ebanks-Wilks, Deputy Premier Chris Saunders and Tourism Minister Kenneth Bryan after getting vaccinated shortly after the election. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

Losing friend to COVID

She tearfully shared how her best friend Ingrid had contracted COVID and died last year. She said her friend, who had worked as a civil servant on Cayman Brac, had moved to Jamaica after retiring, but had returned to Cayman for medical treatment for an unrelated illness.

“Within days, I got the phone call, ‘Ju Ju, tell your aunt and your mother, don’t play with COVID. Go and get vaccinated.’ And I could hear the difference in her breathing on the WhatsApp [voice] message. The next call I got from her, I could definitely hear that Ingrid was in trouble.

“She asked me to pray for her. I called back and I couldn’t get her, but I still prayed on a WhatsApp message and sent it to Ingrid. That’s the last communication I had with Ingrid.”

She said despite living a five-minute drive away from the Cayman Islands Hospital, “I could not be at Ingrid’s bedside, to hold her hand” as she passed away.

She added, “Unless we take this seriously, Caymanians and residents alike, and discern between opinion and fact, the fact is that will not be the last best friend or family member” to die of COVID.

The minister added that she, and her government colleagues, would be going into their respective districts to encourage others to get their vaccine shots.

Premier encouraged her to get vaccine

She admitted that her decision to get vaccinated was motivated in part by some coaxing by Premier Wayne Panton, who had a face-to-face conversation with her following a Cabinet meeting.

“He said, ‘I care about you’ … and he continued to share personal family situations, as we both, even until today, have members of our family who have not yet chosen to be vaccinated,” she said.

She added that, despite choosing initially not to be vaccinated herself, she had not discouraged anyone in her family from taking the shot.

O’Connor-Connolly said anyone who has been vaccinated should become “ambassadors” for the vaccine, and spread the importance of being inoculated to people who may be reluctant to do so.

She stated that while getting vaccinated will not prevent a person from contracting COVID, or from being a carrier, “it will prevent the severity of the disease and it will prevent deaths”.

Survivor: ‘Breath almost stolen by virus’

Dr. Colin Charles, who contracted COVID while studying in Jamaica, shares his story of survival. – Photo: Alvaro Serey

Speaking after O’Connor-Connolly delivered her message, Dr. Colin Charles, a Caymanian doctor who had become dangerously ill with COVID while studying in Jamaica in March this year, explained how he had nearly died from the disease.

He said he was grateful to be alive, and to be able to take a breath, after recovering from the coronavirus.

“My breath was almost stolen by that virus,” he said, stating that he is still undergoing physiotherapy on his lungs, in a bid to avoid long-term damage.

He added his voice to the members of the press conference panel, who urgently called on those who are reluctant to get the vaccine to come forward and be inoculated before the borders reopen.

He said that, two weeks prior to contracting COVID, he had been scheduled to come home to Cayman to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but had not done so. “Knowing what I know now, and going through the experience that I did,” he said, “I would never had hesitated to do everything possible to protect myself.

“Going through severe symptoms of this virus, seeing so many, just like me, die – they’re not here, leaving behind loved ones – it’s not worth hesitating, it’s not worth waiting.”

Watch the full press conference here.

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  1. Unfortunately, Education Minister O’Connor-Connoly is an example of the dichotomy we see in many of the Caymanian residents. On one hand you have Premier Panton and Dr. Lee telling everyone “We want to follow the science.” You also have three of her physicians telling her to get the vaccination. Yet she turns to social media to make her decision NOT to get vaccinated.
    To her credit, she has now come forth to try to encourage other “anti-vaxers” to step up, follow good medical practice, get vaccinated and protect the health and safety of themselves, their families and their fellow citizens.