Families mourn the loss of loved ones who hesitated on the Covid-19 vaccine

His father, also named Mike Lewis, was being treated for Covid-19 at a hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. The doctor called to say Lewis' heart had stopped earlier in the day, but they revived him and put him on a ventilator.
During that call, however, his heart stopped again. Lewis Jr. described hearing a chaotic scene in the background before the doctor quickly hung up.
"The panic is starting," said Lewis, Jr., recalling the horrifying moment. "The tears are forming."
Half an hour later, the doctor called back with the devastating news. Mike Lewis -- a towering man known as a protector and the life of any party -- had died at 58, just four days after being diagnosed with Covid.
Lewis Jr., 37, is now one of thousands of people dealing with the painful loss of a loved one who didn't get a Covid-19 vaccine at a time when shots are readily available. Like many, his father was juggling multiple jobs and, and as his son put it, didn't make the vaccine a top priority.
"I lost a piece of myself," said Lewis Jr.
The elder Lewis, who was known as "Big Mike" among friends, exercised and drank protein shakes every day before heading off to his job as head of security at the Floridian Social Club in St. Petersburg, where he'd worked for 30 years.
He was an icon in the city's nightlife. His son said people would go to the club just to talk to Lewis outside and listen to his stories. On "teen" nights, Lewis required proof that students had finished their homework before he allowed them inside.
His son had also put off getting the vaccine, feeling nervous about the unknowns. But he described his father's death as a wake-up call, and he and his wife now have appointments to get the shot.
"You got to do what's necessary to make sure you make it out of these times," he said. "Because my dad's gone."
Despite vaccines being widely available for teenagers and adults, demand has slowed drastically since mid-April. At the time, the country was administering an average of 3.4 million doses per day. That moving average is now close to 600,000 per day as of Tuesday, the most recent day for which the figure is available, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Local governments are offering financial incentives for people to get the shot. Medical experts and officials are also seeing effective strategies by local pastors, coaches and community leaders working on a grass-roots level to encourage people.
The word-of-mouth approach from trusted voices can be powerful, said the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., a prominent pastor who leads the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Florida​. This spring, his church invested in a mobile medical unit to make health care more accessible in his community.
Last week, they held an old-school tent revival not only for spiritual healing but to combat vaccine hesitancy. Nurses were on site with the mobile unit to administer shots.
"We've got to tell folks the truth, that you have two options: to take the vaccine or to take your chances with Covid-19," Holmes said.
On stage, standing beneath a blue and white striped tent, Holmes sought to tackle the political division that has defined much of the pandemic. "This no Democrat disease. This no Republican disease," Holmes said, wiping his head in the 90-degree heat. "This is a virus."
"If we get enough people vaccinated, we're gonna be all right," he said to nodding heads and mentions of "amen" in the crowd.
Holmes told CNN that if they could vaccinate even just five or 10 people during the revival, they would consider it a major success. "Because we can say we saved lives, and now they're gonna go in and hug grandmama, go to Florida State football games, basketball games, and come back to church."
At the four-day revival, the church vaccinated 18 people.
The reasons for vaccine hesitancy vary widely. In Pasadena, Maryland, Michele Preissler's husband, Darryl, was planning to get the shot eventually. But he was nervous about the impact it would have on his body, given the immunosuppressant medication he was taking for arthritis.
The 63-year-old construction contractor, avid outdoorsman and beloved grandfather went to a wedding in April and started feeling sick a week later. Within a few days, he was admitted and would spend close to a month in the hospital before losing his battle with Covid on May 22.
Michele Preissler described the monthlong illness as a "roller-coaster ride from hell," with several moments when Darryl's condition improved, only to deteriorate again. He ultimately had a major stroke and was taken off life support.
Michele was told he would live three to five minutes without the machines, but he ended up living -- though unconscious -- for nearly 24 hours. His heart simply kept beating.
"I would never like to relive that," she said, referring to his overall fight with the virus. "And I wouldn't wish it on anyone."
While Michele -- who works in the medical field -- got her vaccine in March, she said her husband got busy with work and she regrets not scheduling an appointment for him. "He wasn't stopping to do it for himself. I was gonna have to do it. And now I'm mad I didn't. And I can't change that."
The couple was set to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary later this year, and they were looking forward to retirement plans, especially traveling with their new camper.
Michele grew tearful while reading handwritten messages in his funeral book. "I don't have a normal now," she said, flipping through the pages. "My normal is gone."
Josh Garza, 43, could have been one of the first Americans eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine. He is diabetic and battles high blood pressure, and those underlying conditions would have put him near the top of the eligibility list.
Garza believed that following all the health protocols would keep him safe. He says he dismissed the idea of getting vaccinated immediately and never gave the vaccine a chance.
"I didn't want to be the guinea pig," said Garza. "I was just opposed to it."
But earlier this year, Garza was diagnosed with Covid-19 and the virus quickly took over his body. Garza would spend four months at Houston Methodist Hospital fighting for his life.
Doctors say Garza developed Covid-19 pneumonia and the virus triggered severe inflammation that caused irreversible lung tissue damage. But his case was so severe that not even a ventilator or high-flow oxygen machines could help him.
On X-ray scans, Garza's lungs were barely visible, hidden by the cloudy image reflecting the virus infecting his chest. Garza says he was days away from dying until he was able to receive a double lung transplant in April.
Garza said he battles feelings of anger with himself for not getting vaccinated but said he's also grateful he's alive to tell others his story. The memory of seeing the dead bodies of Covid patients being moved past his hospital room keep flashing in Garza's mind.
"If could do it all over again, I'd get it," Garza said, referring to the vaccine. "No doubt. What I went through is probably the worst I've ever seen."
Garza is now recovering from the lung transplant operation and says he's feeling much better. He's reunited at home with his family and said he hopes his experience will persuade others who are opposed to getting vaccinated to change their minds.
"Think about your family. Because what I went through, I had to put my family through, also," said Garza. "I wish people would at least reconsider, or at least listen to what we went through, and hopefully you never have to go through that -- ever."