On Sunday I received my first COVID-19 vaccination.
I’d like to describe the story here. That’s partly to demystify the experience for anyone who might be skeptical of the shot. And perhaps this is a bit of useful documentation for the historical record. There are very good and very bad parts to the story.
tl;dr version – I successfully got vaccinated. Far too many people are not.
So I really lucked into this. Our county and state set up a registration system, which slotted me into 1b. Being a university worker and having two comorbidities seemed to be key. I also bugged one local medical provider until they grudgingly added me to their list of people to jab with extra vaccines. And this worked! Apparently Prince William County wrangled a hefty vaccine stash. I was originally scheduled for a shot later in February, but the county authorities rescheduled for Sunday. So I packed up my face mask and phone and drove over to a local public high school.
The site was crowded with cars, and also clearly marked with “COVID VACCINATIONS HERE” signs. Arrows pointed inside, as did a flow of people. At the door a masked staff member greeted me, asking about my appointment, then sending me to the end of a line.
Which turned out to be a very, very long line. It ran past multiple offices and rows of lockers, wrapping around two corners. Everyone I passed was masked and tended to maintain social distance. A quick check of demographics: evenly balanced by gender; more white than black or Latinx.
The line moved quickly. A helpful fellow passed out plastic folding chairs for fatigued folks. Another staffer cheered us up with stories of the oldest people there today (99, and another who claimed WWII veteran status) and assuring us that things were speedy. Which they were. I read a Kindle book as I stepped ahead.
I also asked the cheerful staffer about the operation. She described it as a partnership between the public school district, including school nurses, and one local clinic network. She also confirmed that they were giving the AstraZeneca vaccine.
About 15 minutes in I hit the check-in stations.
Staff asked for my ID and determined that I was at the right place and time, then sent me straight down another hall.
This led to a gigantic gym, where the vaccinations were actually happening. Stations dotted the front half, each crewed by a pair of people.
A guide immediately sent me to station 16, which was ready for me. I asked the two staff members if I could photograph them. One was somewhat horrified at the thought, but the other thought it was ok if I took a selfie while getting the jab, which is exactly what happened:
The injection was unusually light. It must have been a very thin needle. I barely felt it going in and exiting.
The station pair then sent me to the other end of the gym, which was filled with socially distanced chairs. There I had to pick one, sit, and wait 15 minutes to check for any allergic reaction to the shot.
This was quite pleasant. A friendly nurse gave me more information, including a handout, and pointed me to free water and snacks. I partook, then sat and read for the rest of my time.
When that elapsed, I walked to a checkout station next to the gym’s main exit. They verified my information and gave me a proof of vaccination card, solemnly abjuring me to not lose the thing. (I’m not sharing a photo of it, in case some clever person figures out how to abuse it.) The staff person also told me to check email for 1) a digital version of the card, and 2) registration for the second shot in a week or so. They recommended I take it easy at home in case my arm hurt.
And that was it. I walked out to the car and drove home. My arm was a little sore, so I put off my daily pull-ups and watched a Netflix movie. The first email arrived, and I’m waiting for the second.
Overall, I was very impressed by the operation. There were a few glitches around social distancing – the door greeter got way too close to people, and there wasn’t much of an effort to keep people from walking near other folks. Otherwise the whole procedure was very speedy. Staff were friendly, informative, and helpful. Most importantly, I now have a vaccine in my body, training my immune system to fight COVID-19.
Let me balance that story with its opposite. I shared some of these images and the gist on Twitter and Facebook, hoping that it would inspire people to sign up for shots. Instead the responses that actually came back ranged from frustrated to hurt, as friends and other people described the seething chaos that is the American vaccination process.
From California to New York, Texas to Michigan, Utah to Pennsylvania came stories of delays and cancellations, supplies running out, and bureaucratic obstacles. As per the American public health strategy most of the decision making took place at the state and local level, which now drives what can most charitably be called a patchwork of different policies, practices, and outcomes. Some states have K-12 teachers as high priorities, while others do not. Some rank in-person workers highly, while others don’t mention them. The groups that actually conduct the shots range from giant pharma chains to local shops, county health authorities to independent clinics. Sometimes universities play a role.
Again and again I heard rage, despair, and resignation as people described not getting access to vaccinations this month, or in spring, or even in summer.
Meanwhile I try to help my father. He’s almost 90 and normally inhabits an assisted living facility in southeast Michigan, but is now in a rehab unit for an unrelated medical problem. Given his age, his gender, and a raft of co-morbidities I won’t mention here he should be a primary subject for vaccination. He is not. He has no appointment and no idea how to get one. He is deeply vulnerable to COVID infection, damage, and death and as far as we can tell has no chance for a vaccine in the near term.
I’ll have more to say about this later on, but for now it looks like America is handling the vaccines… unevenly? Consider these CDC stats: 27,417,468 cases and 482,536. The scientific consensus is that these are undercounts. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say we’re badly screwing up an amazing scientific development and failing to fight the pandemic seriously.
My thanks to the local system for giving me some hope. My heart goes out to the rest of the nation. We must do better.