It was a rainy spring afternoon on April 5, 2021, the day I got my Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccination at Montpelier High School. I was among a group of mostly teachers who were being vaccinated in advance of the general public, but others were also allowed to get the shot. Vermont Governor Phil Scott and his wife, Diana, had gotten their vaccination in the same place on the same day I did, but earlier that morning.
Only one other person stood in front of me, my neighbor who lives on Sparrow Farm Road. I don’t think he saw me, though, because he didn’t look back. I heard him say how ecstatic he was about getting the shot to the person directing him to the Smilie Auditorium door. I wasn’t ecstatic, though. I was afraid, but I thought I was doing the responsible thing.
The auditorium was sectioned off in three parts: the left side had metal folding chairs placed six feet apart, a curtain ran through the middle, and the right side had metal folding chairs placed six feet apart. Meanwhile, the rear had a row of little cubicles separated by white curtains where people received the shot. The operation was staffed by lots of people wearing bright yellow vests labeled “Vermont Dept of Health.”
The first thing I had to do was to check in with a volunteer sitting at a table in front of the auditorium. And who was this volunteer? None other than Lt. Gov. Molly Gray. She was very kind and calm and answered all my nervous questions.
I was extremely apprehensive about getting the shot. What if I have an immediate negative medical reaction? What if I pass out? What if I die? Who will feed Sophie? But before I was able to work myself into an absolute meltdown, I was invited into a little white booth in which there was a very nice woman who had control over a very large needle. I looked the other way and tried to pretend I was fine. It stung, but it wasn’t that bad. The COVID tests that probed deep into the back of the throat through my nasal passages that I had undergone earlier in the pandemic were worse, I thought. Then I was ushered over to the other area to wait 15 minutes to make sure none of my overblown fears were realized. Guess I wasn’t the only one anticipating the worst. Medics weren’t there for nothing. But nobody passed out and nobody died, so we were dismissed, one by one, out into the gray, rainy parking lot.
I headed out, but then turned and went back to get a selfie with Molly Gray, having been a bit shy at first. Another person took our picture in all our masked glory. I had very few physical reactions except that my shoulder bruised and hurt for a while.
But a few days later, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was put on “pause” because it was linked to a medical problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration gave information to the press that unusual fatal blood clots were linked to the vaccine. Oh great! This past year has been one source of anxiety after another. The rare blood clotting thing was reported to occur between six to 13 days after the shot — and all cases were in women. This announcement came eight days after I had my shot. My stomach was in knots, so I tried not to think about it.
I had been nervous about getting the vaccine to begin with, for many of the reasons anti-vaxxers say they are avoiding it. What is in it? What might the side effects be? But I decided to do it as soon as possible, figuring the side effects were rare and I would need to get vaccinated in order to function in society. This was the cynic in me. The idealist in me did it to protect myself and others from the spread of COVID. I had contracted COVID-19 over the Christmas holiday and had no intention of doing that again. It was absolutely NO FUN. It was not just the sniffles nor the flu (both of which I have had). Although my case of COVID-19 was mild, the fatigue trapped me in bed most of the holiday, I was nauseous, I could barely taste or smell, and the brain fog kept me in the moment. Oh, and I didn’t get to see anyone. Yes, I was glad I got the vaccine, but I was very concerned about the “pause.”
But the pause was lifted about 10 days later, and I didn’t die of a blood clot.
So, phew. It was over. I got vaxxed. “One and done,” as they said of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, because you didn’t need to get two doses, as did those who received the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations. All right. Cool. We still stayed masked and six feet apart, but as more and more people got access to vaccinations when summer approached, all those strict rules started to relax. Some stores had put up ropes to keep traffic going one way and hired people to monitor the customers. They stuck arrows on the floor and piped messages over the public address system: “Thank you for shopping in these uncertain times. Please follow the arrows on the floor and make sure to stay six feet apart.”
Now, in August, I don’t remember exactly when the supermarkets stopped piping cautionary messages through the public address system, or when the arrows on the floor were removed, as were the marks at the check-out lines making sure we stayed six feet apart. On the surface, here in Vermont, it feels like it’s over. This summer has been one party, concert, festival after another as people burst back into socialization.
But, it is not over yet. Vermont is lucky to have over 80 percent of its eligible population vaccinated, but we are getting lots of visitors from other places. I have been seeing license plates from places I almost never see in Montpelier, such as Alabama, Missouri, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Colorado. With the Delta variant of COVID-19 taking hold all over the country, especially in unvaccinated enclaves, combined with unrestricted travel and gatherings, I am taking a new inventory of my masks to sanitize and get ready for the school year — just in case. While a new mask mandate has not yet been issued, it is beginning to look more and more likely.
I don’t feel it is my place to tell other people what to do, or even suggest what other people ought to do, but whatever people do, I hope they take personal responsibility into account. I know what it is like to have doubts and fears. I didn’t jump on the vaccination wagon with enthusiasm, but I did it. I trust our governor; and Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health; and Dr. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. I also trust the leadership of our Montpelier school system, who are obviously looking out for the best result for everyone.
The way it felt like back in April was that people were just waiting for the vaccine to be available, and then they would run out and get it as soon as their turn came up and then COVID would be over. But now, in August, things have sugared off a little differently. Cases are rising because many people did not get the vaccine when their turn came up, so a variant is infecting non-vaccinated and some vaccinated people as well. And while I can’t control what happens during this surreal pandemic, as it waxes and wanes — raises and lowers our hopes — I can reflect on the good and bad sides of a major life challenge.
In looking on the bright side, my favorite parts of the COVID pandemic were people pulling together to keep each other safe (when that happened); the bravery of medical workers, bus drivers, grocery/food workers, educators, municipal workers, police, fire and rescue; carry-out cocktails (although I haven’t yet availed myself of one — SUSIE); getting out in nature; inventiveness and using more advanced technology; going back to basic skills at home (for me it was cooking, sewing, making books, macrame, and home improvement); seeing how young Vermont children stepped up, wore their masks and LEARNED even though it was challenging; seeing adults adapt on a dime to face their responsibilities head-on even if it meant suddenly learning a bunch of stuff all at once; learning when the trucks were delivering paper goods to the grocery store; Jo-Ann Fabrics giving away free mask kits for people like me to make their own masks; and all the people and businesses who kept on going during this time. It isn’t over, but we now know we can handle a lot more difficulty than we thought we could.