Since the severity of the novel coronavirus pandemic became clear last spring, the prospect of an effective vaccine has tantalized Americans eager for an end to the outbreak’s devastation.
In the abstract, a vaccine seems like a passport back to normalcy. But as vaccinated Americans are learning, normal ― or anything like it ― remains a ways off. While the vaccines may prevent COVID-19, the disruptions the virus caused to society remain and ”herd immunity″ is still months away. Vacations and family reunions will have to wait.
HuffPost interviewed six Americans who’ve taken the shot and found a mix of reactions. They spoke of relief and excitement about moving past a pandemic that has claimed more than 400,000 American lives, of anxiety about loved ones who remain unprotected, and of guilt about being vaccinated before others who may be more “deserving.”
Since the FDA provisionally approved the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines last month, about 26 million Americans have received at least one dose of these two-shot vaccines, despite widespread problems with supply and distribution. President Joe Biden has taken several actions to speed the process, with a goal of immunizing most of the population this year.
Most of those who’ve had access to COVID-19 inoculations so far are in the top priority groups: frontline health care workers and nursing home residents. But states are gradually opening up their vaccination programs to more categories of people, including other health care personnel, teachers and senior citizens.
According to survey data from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, only two in five Americans actually know someone who’s been vaccinated and can share their experience. These conversations are important as ways to encourage hesitant people to get vaccinated, especially as polling indicates a significant share of Americans say they intend to wait for others to take the plunge first.
I reached out to people in my social circle, including my sister, to ask those who have been immunized how it felt.
All six people described the actual shot as painless or nearly painless. They experienced mild side effects, such as arm soreness, fatigue and headaches, although two women described the second shot as being more unpleasant. These individuals also got vaccinated prior to recent shortages that have occurred in many jurisdictions, so they experienced little difficulty getting their shots. All of them qualified for the vaccine based on their jobs, which placed them in categories cleared for immunizations where they live. None of them had to pay for the vaccine.
On an emotional level, some spoke of being happy, even joyous. Some said they felt good being an active part of the mission to bring the pandemic to an end. Others said they felt nervous that they’d be judged harshly for getting vaccinated “early” when so many vulnerable people haven’t gotten shots yet. Everyone agreed that the days of wearing masks and taking other precautions are far from over.
Charles Anderson-Gray, Washington, D.C.
After finishing divinity school last year, Anderson-Gray, 40, took a job as a chaplain for an organization that provides support for homeless men with health care needs. His employment started in July and, unlike for many Americans, it’s not the kind of job you can do from home.
Anderson-Gray has been acutely aware that he’s at greater risk than many others, and that the risk extends through him to his family at home and to the people in his workplace. At times, he said, he’s felt like the “most dangerous person in the room.”
“It meant we were basically prolonging this sort of extreme lockdown ― as much as we could, until there were vaccines,” said Anderson-Gray, who lives with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter. He’s avoided relatives and friends, even with social distancing and masking, throughout the pandemic.
As part of their caution, Anderson-Gray and his wife have taken their child for three COVID-19 tests when she showed even minor symptoms (all were negative). For his part, Anderson-Gray has imagined he’d contracted COVID-19 many times in the last year, experiencing what he called “phantom symptoms.”
Although he always intended to get vaccinated as soon as possible, Anderson-Gray didn’t realize how meaningful the moment would be until it almost didn’t happen. When he reported to a clinic his employer operates to get his first dose of the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 28, he initially was turned away because of a mixup.
“I felt way more let down and depressed than I expected, and that’s when I realized how excited I was to get the shot,” he said. “Then, when I did get it, when I was walking back to my car, I was pretty emotional, just walking. That’s sort of when it all came over me.”
Still, Anderson-Gray doesn’t see much changing for him and his family in the short term. One practical advantage for his family once he’s gotten his second dose, he said, is there will be one person in the household who can safely go shopping.
Molly Hughes, Rochester, New York
Hughes, a 45-year-old pediatrician, is one of the rare few who got vaccinated as part of a clinical trial. She received her second dose of the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine, which isn’t yet authorized in the U.S., on Jan. 6. The University of Rochester researchers running the study released Hughes from it and informed her she’d gotten a real vaccine, not a placebo, after she became eligible for a shot under New York state guidelines.
Unlike some reluctant health care workers, Hughes had no qualms about being immunized. “It felt great,” she said. “It felt hopeful, like we could see a turn for the better pretty soon.”
For now, though, Hughes said she’s living in “limbo,” as other members of her household won’t get their shots for some time. But she’s allowed herself to imagine her family being able to resume a more normal life again soon.
“My son’s a pretty competitive lacrosse player,” Hughes said. “We’re already making plans. He’s in a showcase in New Jersey in June, and I think we could do this. I think this could happen.”
Lex Berko, Chicago
Before going in for her first shot of the Moderna vaccine on Jan. 19, Berko had misgivings. They weren’t about the vaccine itself, however.
“There was just a sense of: Do I really deserve this? And that’s what was going on in my head,” said Berko, 33. “Ultimately, I decided that because I take care of patients and will do so in the future, that was the most important thing to me.”
Berko is an audiology graduate student who sees patients and qualified as a health care worker in Illinois.
“It was just such a deep joy and excitement to know that I’m one less person who can ― ideally ― spread this thing, even though I know we don’t know that for sure,” Berko said.
Even though she’ll soon have as much protection against COVID-19 as possible after receiving her second dose, Berko doesn’t expect her life to be transformed much in the near term.
“I went to the supermarket this morning with a double mask on and I went really early to minimize the amount of people I’m around. So nothing’s really changed in terms of my day-to-day,” she said.
Berko is most excited about the prospect of seeing and hugging her father, who lives in New Jersey. She hasn’t seen him in about a year. Beyond that, she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to resume her life as it was before COVID-19.
“I love seeing live music, and I love being in a crowd of people,” she said. “Even if venues were to open up, it’s going to be so long until I don’t have anxiety when participating in that, even if we have herd immunity.”
Jaclyn Young, Sterling, Virginia
Young joined a line outside a local hospital facility the morning of Jan. 11, the first day teachers like her became eligible for inoculations under Virginia’s rules, to get her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. She wasn’t expecting a celebration, but that’s kind of what she found.
“Everyone was very excited, even though it was cold and we bundled up,” said Young, 38, who lives with her husband and three small children. “When I hit the door, that’s when it felt like a party started,” she said.
The sound of “mid-90s dance music” filled the converted conference space, Young said (including the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” and “No Diggity” by Blackstreet). “Everyone was getting excited, everyone was sort of dancing as they were walking through the line,” she said.
The nurses at each station held up small flags to indicate whose turn it was. “So she raised it and waved her flag and I was like, ‘Yay, I felt like I just won a prize!’” Young said.
She got her second dose this Thursday, which made her feel better about the future, but still realistic.
“There is a certain level of relief that just almost immediately happened. As soon as she finished putting the shot into my arm, it washed over me: Progress is happening. It’s real,” Young said. “We are moving in the right direction and we will get there eventually.”
At the same time, not much has changed. “I’m one of five people in my household. We don’t know how much, at this point, I am still able to contract and carry and bring it home, and so I’m gonna play by the rules for as long as I have to.”
But the recognition that there still isn’t enough vaccine for everyone who needs it tempers that relief, as does the fear of social condemnation for being vaccinated “early.”
“I wanted to be excited and tell everyone about this, what I thought was like a huge milestone in this pandemic journey for me,” she said. “But I very much am still very afraid of the reception.”
Laura and Jon Sklaroff, Los Angeles
Being part of what is, at this point, a select few to get vaccinated is strange for Laura Sklaroff, 37, a psychologist and health care researcher.
“It’s a weird thing to feel like I’m in this special class for having gotten in early,” she said. “It’s a weird thing to be congratulated on.”
Not that she resisted, though. Sklaroff got her second shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Jan. 15. Still, she felt funny about it because other vulnerable people, like grocery workers, have not had the opportunity, and she knows from her work how disparities in the health care system so often leave out people of color.
“I got the shot, but I felt very aware of my privilege while I was getting it,” she said. “My mind was going to dystopian fiction, where there are classes of people who’ve been vaccinated and people who haven’t.”
Her husband, Jon, works at a health care company and is slated to get his second dose in February, and while she is grateful for the protection of a vaccine, she is still wracked with worry.
“If anything, I think my anxiety has been ramping up a little bit more related to COVID. I had my first, very distinct ‘this is a COVID anxiety dream’ a couple of nights ago,” she said. “I had a dream that my immediate family was in our house and we were being swarmed by insects who were biting us and eating away our flesh, and we had this serum or something that would get rid of them, but we didn’t have enough and we couldn’t figure out how to use it. And I was like, ‘Oh, wow, that is pretty on the nose.’”
The couple plans to keep practicing safe behaviors, like mask-wearing, for the rest of the year. “We’re both in the mindset that it’s gonna be this way for a while,” said Jon, 39. “I’ve been saying for a while I didn’t think life is gonna be back to ‘normal’ until, like, 2022.” This is motivated, in part, by their wanting to protect their 3-year-old daughter.
Jon also recognizes his good fortune, and was eager to take a step that would help ease his mind.
“I am prone to anxiety and depression, and it’s been bad. It’s been very hard to do the things that I think I need to do to keep a clear head and stay healthy mentally,” he said.
In the beginning of the pandemic, his worries focused on his own health. “I said to my wife at some point, ‘I just feel like I’m waiting to die,’ but that part subsided,” he said.
He still worries, however, about his mother and father, who are in their 70s and live across the country in Pennsylvania. He hasn’t yet been able to help them find vaccination appointments. “I’m going to be super-relieved when my parents get it.”
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