A Covid-19 vaccine pilgrimage
In mid-January, I signed up for the Covid-19 vaccine waiting list in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where I live and felt hopeful. My chronic health conditions put me in the 1b category.
Two weeks later, the categories were updated and I became eligible in 1A, the group of people who were currently being vaccinated.
I went back to my county registration but the system wouldn’t let me update it. People on my social media started posting the map of Pennsylvania released by the state health department with dots linking to pharmacies and health care systems that had the vaccine available for people in 1A.
When I clicked the links to those pharmacies and health care systems, I landed on messages saying that they had no vaccine and weren’t taking names since their current lists were over 50,000 people.
I went on a hunt. I started staying up past midnight and waking up at 4am to click on links~friends would send me tips about pharmacies that might have openings. I actually was able to get an appointment for a Walgreens in Philadelphia and received an email confirmation but three days later someone from Walgreens called to say that even though the system took all of my info, they were only vaccinating people over 65 and I didn’t really have an appointment.
One friend got me connected to a Facebook group started by generous volunteers who are spending their free time and energy to find people vaccine appointments. I was able to submit info for my husband (also in 1A) and myself and about a week later, got an email confirming appointments for us at a Weis market pharmacy in Durryea, a small town outside of Scranton, about two hours from Elkins Park where we live.
The relief…the relief…the relief…
I think of those generous volunteers who got us our appointments as holy activists in a terribly broken system.
With the joy that came with the text from Weis pharmacy confirming our appointments also came a wash of awareness of the privilege my husband and I have in order to get to our vaccine shots: first we have a car; second, we have money for gas; third, we have white collar jobs where we can take an afternoon off without losing pay. Also, we have health insurance and we have access to a computer/smartphones and wifi that took let us connect with the volunteers in the first place.
Beneath my gratitude is rage for the older people in my state who have not been able to get an appointment (another one of my friends is volunteering to help change that), for the people with intellectual disability — like my own son — who are at the highest risk and are having the hardest time getting the vaccine. For all of the people who are at the most risk who because of their circumstances, not their humanity, lack access to health care.
Our drive up to Durryea was filled with anticipation — especially in the Groundhog-Day-like days of life a year into the pandemic — just the novelty of the ride to somewhere else, my husband and me, our teenage daughter and our dog (I was too anxious to leave them home) in the middle of the week shook up my brain. I wasn’t processing in real time that this was a lifesaving pilgrimage.
February 10th, the day of our first shot, was a miraculous break from the slew of snowstorms that hit Southeast Pennsylvania in the weeks before and the immediate days after that date. When we got off the turnpike and 81 north, I saw that Durryea was a small Pennsylvania town like the one I grew up in, the same older houses, the same railroad tracks, the same plaza with the grocery store, a Dollar Tree, a Chinese restaurant.
There was no line at the pharmacy. I hadn’t been inside a grocery store for over a year. There were shelves lined with Valentines Day chocolate, already marked on sale. My first impulse was to grab a cart, run through the aisles like a mad woman, filling it up with boxes of the Russell Stovers’ hearts and fresh fruit and 2 for a dollar pasta boxes.
But I stayed on course, walked past all of it to the pharmacy. There was no line, just a middle-aged pharmacist who was calm and kind; I could barely hand him my insurance card without crying. “All that waiting and then it’s just a shot,” he said. I nodded my head.
After, I took Odin for a walk along the trash-strewn road that led out of the parking lot and felt myself exhale. I was a teenager in a small town once who bought soda bottles and chips at the grocery; I knew those wrappers had stories to tell.
When we got our shots, I didn’t want to take a selfie to post, not the first time or on this past trip up for vaccine number two —a selfie wouldn’t capture the complexity of my feelings, of my gratitude and overwhelm, relief and my rage.
But I wanted to mark the moment somehow and remember the place where I would likely never return, my pilgrimage to this lifesaving Weis market pharmacy, the dedication of the scientists who made the vaccine into a record-time reality, the shipping clerks and truck drivers who made it possible for it to arrive here, that kind pharmacist, those amazing women who gave of their time to find these appointments for my husband and me.
So I took a photo of the parking lot itself on both of my trips, the path that led me into this miraculous moment in the most mundane of places. The grey of the February sky gave way to the most brilliant sun shining above the cars and the grocery carts, just thirty days later.
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