Vaccines: Envy & Etiquette

COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out in the United States. It’s decentralized, and the questions of “how to get the vaccine” and “when am I eligible to be vaccinated” vary widely depending on supply and where you live, sometimes day by day. Municipal sites, drive through appointments, pharmacies and grocery stores, health care providers, community colleges all have different schedules and different requirements. 

I’m starting to get questions from people who feel a lot of anger and envy about friends who have been vaccinated and about the relative fairness/unfairness of who gets classified as “essential,” who has computer access and time to refresh appointment sites and make phone calls and who doesn’t. There are possibly even more questions about guilt about all of these things for people who feel comparatively lucky. What do do with all these feelings? How not to be a vaxhole?

Here’s where I am with it: 

I’m in Illinois, in “group 1B+”. I’ve had my first Pfizer shot, which I scheduled by getting up at 5:55 am every day, logging into the Walgreen’s site, and hitting “enter” to supply my zip right at 6:00 am, which is when they reportedly release appointments for the next three days based on existing supply. It didn’t work, it didn’t work, and then on the 5th or 6th day, it worked perfectly, I could see available appointments and nab one at a nearby pharmacy.

The system automatically schedules the second dose in the same location at the same time slot, exactly 28 days after the first one. I could alter it if I need to based on availability, though I don’t know what the rescheduling process entails and am reluctant to roll the dice on it. I appreciated that the default setting is to schedule both doses off the bat. They sent me a confirmation number as well as paperwork to fill out before the appointment and bring with me, noting that if I couldn’t print it out for some reason they could provide the same stuff at the appointment. 

At the pharmacy, they scheduled vaccine appointments at half-hour intervals, so there’s time to arrive 15 minutes early as requested, get the jab, and sit for the recommended 15 minutes afterward to monitor reactions, without people stacking up in a crowd. It went very smoothly and I barely felt the needle. 

A few hours after receiving the vaccine, my arm was numb and then very sore for a few days around the injection site, like I’d been punched, and I took some long, dense naps for a few days as well. The Pfizer shot is considered fully effective 2 weeks after dose 2, so April 12 + 14 days = April 26 = If we know each other in real life, please know that I have a hug list and a balcony at the new place where we can sit outside in the spring breeze.

After April 26, I plan to continue masking up on public transit and in retail and public spaces and following the rest of the CDC guidelines: Relaxing mask protocols with people who have been fully vaccinated so long as there is informed, mutual consent, and, when in doubt, erring on the side of caution. I am definitely calling my dentist and my hairdresser to see what we can safely accomplish together, but I don’t see myself dining in restaurants or posting a lot of social media images of mask-less funtimes as long as people are still getting sick and dying. It’s not over as long as new cases are happening. 

To get the vaccine appointment, I had a computer, a flexible schedule, and a lot of help: From friends who were on top of the news of when my group was eligible, from friends with desk jobs who had time, access, and inclination to hunt down appointments and share what worked for them. I had help with a ride to the vaccine site on the day (windows down, masks on),  and help from a blog reader who recommended the “Chicago Vaccine Hunters” Facebook group, a network of people who share strategies, real-time updates on available locations, as well as ways to connect willing volunteers with people who need help obtaining vaccine appointments. I personally found the group very helpful, it seems to be well-moderated, but it’s an extremely active community and there was a lot of wading through and filtering posts that weren’t relevant or useful before I found the specific thing that would help me, so, know that going in. 

I can’t tell you if what worked for me will work for you, but hopefully reading an account from a real, live person will help somebody out there with setting expectations and locating help (like your nearest “Vaccine Hunter” online group.) Ed. note:  Thank you to those who have sent links to these groups in response to this post, you’re doing good work! However, I’m not linking specific groups here on purpose, as the task of verifying and updating will quickly become overwhelming. Fortunately, readers who search the web and social platforms like Facebook for a combination of their city or region and key words like  “vaccine hunters” “vaccine connectors,” “volunteer vaccine scheduling,” “help scheduling vaccine,” “vaccine angels” and similar should get pretty far in locating the nearest resource. 

Looking at my inbox, my first wish is that people who have been successful so far in making vaccine appointments for themselves, and who have the time and resources to refresh websites and collate information, would offer to help their friends who work retail and other “Did you just look at the internet? You’re fired!” sorts of jobs. Figure out what you can realistically offer and follow through with before you offer (and if the answer is ‘nothing’, then don’t!) Script: “Friend, have you had your vaccine yet? Can I help with persistent Internetting or some other way of getting you an appointment?” 

My second wish is that anybody who needs that kind of help will ask their Eternally Online friends for it, or failing that, ask somebody for it, as there are volunteers plugging away at this who can be located in groups like the one I used. While it’s good to be mindful of privacy concerns before enlisting strangers,  logistically speaking, anyone who had my pharmacy login credentials, answers to the screening questions (easily obtained by me on a dry run), and time/geography parameters around appointments could have scheduled an appointment for me, if I’d needed that level of assistance. 

My third wish is about feelings, and triage. I think there are a lot of valid reasons to be angry about scarcity and disorganization and privilege and who always get to go first. For starters, I think it’s a crime against humanity that the vaccines aren’t freely available worldwide for manufacture and are instead of being reserved for wealthier countries. Vaccinate teachers and staff, at minimum, before opening schools, and have a much better plan for protecting children than “pretending they don’t get sick.” (They’re testing vaccines in kids and teens now, FYI). I want to say I can’t believe how many wealthy white people have deliberately scarfed up appointments that were meant to help marginalized and more at-risk communities, where people are more likely to be “essential” frontline workers, but I totally can believe it. It’s infuriating. 

But also, the fact that we even have these vaccines is a miracle. Which is why, when your eligibility group is up, when your community has available supply and appointments, please, go get your shot. No apologies. Every vaccinated person is one less vector. The sooner everyone is vaccinated, the less time that more contagious variants have to develop and spread. “Affix your oxygen mask before assisting others,” etc. If there’s an open time slot at your local pharmacy or community college or sports stadium, and you’re in the qualifying group, then that appointment is for you. You’re not taking it away from anyone else, your guilt is useless to anybody. Also, BMI is bullshit, we all know that, but if doctors would use that number to discriminate against you in providing treatment for COVID-19, then it’s definitely a good enough reason to get the vaccination as soon as you qualify. There’s enough medical fatphobia going around, don’t shame yourself out of saving your own life. 

If you’re one of the first people in your family or friend group to have the resources and ability to get your shot, and you feel guilty or ambivalent about fairness or luck or privilege, probably consider how much people who are more strapped for time and resources or not allowed to be immunized yet will enjoy comforting and reassuring you about something  that you have access to and they don’t. Judging by my inbox, they are not enjoying it. At all. It’s okay to be happy, relieved, grateful, you’re not getting vaccinated at people, but try to read the room, and hold off on the apologies or seeking validation. Comfort in, dump out. Again, your shame is not useful, but maybe your assistance is:“I’m really relieved to have gotten the vaccine. Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you to get yours?” 

My fourth wish is that people with relative power within their workplaces and institutional settings will use it: Managers, does your workplace have a If you can get a vaccine appointment, you can have that time off, no problem” policy? If not, why not, and how soon can you make one? A lot of the people who have written to me are retail workers or do other shift work that technically includes them in the eligible “essential workers” groups, but they can’t get time off or sufficient computer/phone access when things are open to chase down a time slot. Could an HR staffer (who already has access to and expectations of confidentiality around personal information)  be assigned to make appointments for willing employees on company time, working systematically until everyone is taken care of? Every vaccinated person is one less vector. Clergy, older members of your flock may not listen to their adult children or the CDC about vaccines, but they might listen to you, especially if volunteers from the church could help with making appointments, issuing reminders, and transportation. 

Finally, I’m also getting emails about what to do with “vaccine hesitant” relatives who can be immunized but refuse, and the honest answer is, I don’t know. Excluding the incredibly small number of people who cannot be vaccinated due to potential for adverse reactions, I’m not really privy to the logic that meets “This could save your life and the lives of people around you, plus, it’s free!” with “I prefer not to.” It’s even more incomprehensible when I encounter this attitude from older people with firsthand memories of polio. What? How? Why? 

In the end, it comes down to controlling what you can control. 

Uncontrollable: Crap opinions from the exact same relatives who met every aspect of the last year or so with “Above all, I refuse to be inconvenienced for any reason.” People who don’t take your word for anything aren’t going to suddenly take your word about this. 

 Controllable: Get your shots as soon as you can. Be transparent about what it was like for you. Where possible, ask questions to figure out why the reluctance exists, and clear up misinformation where you are able. Offer what assistance you can in cases where logistical help and access are the barriers, and maybe focus your helping efforts on people who want the vaccine and are having trouble getting it for now, especially when demand still outstrips supply.

If your relatives are true holdouts, then maintain strict masking & social distance protocols with those relatives, and present it as their choice: “It’s up to you. If you choose not to get vaccinated, then it’s masks & outdoor visits for the rest of 2021 whenever we spend time together, I’m afraid, and that includes all holidays, grandkid visits, and my wedding.”  They have final say over what happens to their bodies, you have the same boundary-setting options you always have about protecting yourself and others, and you’re not the jerk if other people push you to the point of exercising them. I have to hope that as more and more people get vaccinated, the tide of peer pressure will push in right direction, and many  “vaccine hesitant” folks will be influenced by their vaccinated peers, their doctors, other people they actually listen to. Later this year, once everyone who wants to be immunized can be, I’m okay with adding a little social pressure and jealousy about being left out of fun things to that tide. 

This isn’t meant to be a static, definitive, prescriptive account. Things are changing so fast, and the situation is going to look entirely different a month or so from now as rollout continues ramping up. For now, if somebody reads this snapshot and feels like they are more on top of how to get themselves immunized, more confident in asking for and offering help, and less alone with all of it, I’ll sleep well tonight. 

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