I’m writing this on Tuesday, February 9th. Yesterday, Rosellen and I received our second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at the University of Chicago Hospital, which is the location of almost all our health care services. The hospital has been extremely efficient about looking after its own roster of patients. We didn’t have to scramble for an appointment slot. They contacted us with available dates, and we were there the next day. At the end of round one we were given a return date, which was yesterday, and we were done.
Meanwhile, we’ve watched friends and family scramble frantically for someplace willing to offer a slot. We’re talking about pretty savvy people, people with the necessary internet connectivity and the sharp elbows to get them past formidable gatekeepers, but this time the mojo wasn’t working or worked at a much slower speed than they were accustomed to. The difficulties are born of a chaotic decentralized system that are enough to make one yearn to live in a dictatorship, governed from the top. Instead people were faced with different rules from state to state, county to county, health department to health department, profession to profession, age group to age group. It’s what would technically be known as a hot mess.
So far, we’ve been talking about frustrated people who generally operate inside the system and are affiliated with institutions that should have been serving them better. But what about the vast number of people who aren’t connected to health care systems like the U Chicago Medicine or Northwestern Hospitals, who don’t even have a primary care doctor? They are the same people who don’t have the connectivity needed to go appointment hunting and likely don’t have the transportation to get them to an appointment outside their neighborhoods. It’s wearisome to be enumerating the same inequities that rear their heads in every social sphere from getting kids educated remotely to gaining access to healthy foods. A friend of mine asked what would be so difficult about renting a fleet of refrigerated trucks and bringing the vaccinations to the places where they’re most needed. When I was 8 or 9 years old, New York City was on the verge of a smallpox outbreak. In a matter of days, every branch of government and the health care system was mobilized to vaccinate the entire population in a matter of days. I can remember standing on an endless line outside Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn waiting to be vaccinated. It was all about organization of the kind that should have been mapped out eight months ago. It’s so much more difficult to play catch- up now.
Back to the micro level. We’ve spent the day anticipating the side effects of the second shot which many have reported. So far, there hasn’t been much – a moderately sore arm and a bit more tiredness than our already sleep-deprived selves are accustomed to. My wife, whom we’ve designated the catastrophist in residence, worries that the absence of strong side effects may signal a lack of potency of the vaccine. I don’t think so. More than half the vaccines – shouldn’t there be such a word – young and old show no side effects. It’s more the irrational disappointment at the forecast of a monster snowstorm which doesn’t materialize. All the dramatic rehearsals were for naught. I’ll take it.
This leaves us to focus on the big question of what now? In another week or so, the vaccine will be as effective as it’s going to be. No one knows for how long and against what new mutations, but it’s highly likely that we will be spared the worst of this dreaded illness. So, how will this change our behavior and that of our friends, family and the larger community around us? I should start by describing the baseline of our behavior during the pandemic, an accounting that will be pretty familiar to most readers. We’ve been locked up pretty tight. We’ve been to no public events; we had two distanced visits in friends’ backyards last summer; the only people who have been in our apartment have been an electrician and a nurse collecting a blood sample for the hospital; we have shopped at Trader Joe’s and Costco during the early geezer hours; we have eaten nowhere but in our apartment. Our outdoor adventures have taken place only in places where extreme social distancing is possible. We’ve made only absolutely necessary visits to doctors and dentists.
So, where do we loosen the reins? Do we eat at the homes of friends who have also been vaccinated? Do we travel to see vaccinated family members who have been reasonably cautious about their interactions with the world? Do we attend live performances? Do we resume visits to restaurants that adhere to distancing regulations? Do we begin to plan for long-delayed vacation travel? Do we have to plan for another remote Passover Seder? I think these are the same questions many people in situations similar to ours are contemplating.
For now, the answer is that not much is likely to change. There are still too many unknowns. Not enough of the population is vaccinated yet and that situation is likely to persist for many months. There’s still not enough data about how effective the vaccines will prove to be. There are too many questions about the dangers posed by the new strains of the virus. On top of all that there is the sheer inertia of a style of living that’s well-established after a year, one that’s kept us safe and secure. We’re not twenty-somethings itching to return to bar hopping or online dating (were we ever those people?) And we’re not undergraduates agonizing over watching their precious college years devolve into a protracted interaction with their laptop. The honest truth is that this bounded lifestyle has fit many of the needs of people at our stage of life – people who enjoy the peacefulness of their living room, people who have enjoyed the respite from frantic evenings racing to the theater, to book groups, to meetings of organizations they’re involved in, people who don’t have to tidy up and cook for guests.
Don’t get me wrong. Many of the things I’ve just listed are things we long for, particularly the real company of family and friends with whom we have kept the juices flowing with second-best virtual encounters. I find myself flashing on scenes from the many places we’ve been fortunate enough to travel. Wouldn’t it be nice to add to that list? Many nights I dream of the many classrooms I’ve spent my life visiting or working in. I’d love a return engagement.
These jabs in the arm may have lowered the risks of stepping outside our self-created bubbles, but they haven’t eliminated them entirely. We’re going to have to be monitoring the national situation before we make any drastic changes. How many people will get vaccinated and how quickly? How worrisome are the new strains? In short, much as we feel relieved that the vaccine is now flowing through our systems, the story is far from over, but maybe -just maybe – some real hugs from our loved ones aren’t as far off as they’ve seemed through this long year that’s about to come full circle.