in Checking In, Health

Not throwing away my shot

Durham VA COVID Clinic sign

Durham VA COVID Clinic sign

I got the first of two COVID-19 vaccination shots on Saturday. For several years the Veterans Administration (VA) has been providing my healthcare. About two weeks ago I asked my doctor there if it was possible to get a shot. I stressed that I did not want to take one away from anyone else but if one were available I would love to get it. Thankfully, the VA has made it a priority that every veteran who wants a shot can get a shot. To my surprise, I got a call a day later! I was to be at the Durham VA on Saturday, 6 February at 9 AM to get my COVID-19 vaccination.

Our son Travis has been eager to get his vaccination, too, so in the offchance that he could pick up a shot, too, he accompanied me to the Durham VA. We hit the road shortly after 8 AM and drove through mostly-empty streets to Durham.

We arrived to a somewhat chaotic scene. One of the VA’s parking decks has been undergoing repairs for the past several months and parking has been tight even on a usual day. This day, there was a stream of veteran patients all arriving at the same time for their COVID shots. Though we got there at 8:35 for a 9 AM appointment, it took several minutes to find an open parking spot. Reaching the top level of the deck, we hopped out and headed to the walkway.

It was at the start of the walkway that I stopped to read the sign on the floor. No walk-in shots would be available. Regretfully, I turned to Travis and told him today would not be his day. With sadness, he turned back and waited for me in the car.

I joined a scrum of people waiting in line after line. First was the typical COVID risk screening at the entrance. A woman studied the masks worn by the visitors and switched out ones that didn’t meet her standards. I was amused when I was asked to trade the NIOSH-certified N95 mask that has protected me for months for an uncertified KN95 mask I was given. This was even more amusing when visitors with surgical masks that are not nearly as protective as my N95 were allowed to continue wearing them. Could it be that I know more about mask protection than healthcare workers?

The vaccination line at Durham VA

The vaccination line at Durham VA

After being asked travel and symptom questions and being scanned by an infrared temperature checker, I was given a green sticker to wear and joined a long line snaking through the first floor of the hospital. First I was handed a vaccination card and asked to fill out my name, birthdate, and last four of my SSN. I soon presented this to a woman with a laptop who was checking people in while they waited in line. This earned me an additional pink sticker to wear. Then I waited as the socially-distanced line slowly made its way down the hallways to the clinic area of the hospital.

I was happy to see so many people of color in line, too. Some Black people are wary of vaccinations and that is understandable, given the horrifying policies and experiments that were carried out on Black communities in the past. While I am not Black, I, too was once cautious of government vaccinations. I’ve often wondered whether the shots and pills I received in the military prior to Desert Storm might be responsible for the mysterious health issues I suffer from today. While I may never fully know about those military shots, I have no qualms about taking the COVID vaccine as I fully recognize that whatever side effects the vaccine brings on are trivial compared to the damage COVID-19 can ravage on my body. This is an easy call.

I was now at a crossroads of sorts. A woman with a paddle sign stood in the middle of the clinic hallway, watching a staffer at either the end of hall. Each had paddle signs that had a red “thumbs down” on one side and a green “thumbs up” sign on the other. When one of the end-hallway staffers would give the signal indicating an open seat, the gatekeeper staffer would direct the patient to that end. I was sent to the left, where I took a seat at the end a long hallway with clinic rooms on either side and veterans seated outside of each room. I spent the next ten minutes or so watching as newly-vaccinated vets walked out of each room while the vets still waiting made small talk.

The next thing I knew, the door next to me opened and a veteran exits. I was invited in.

Two women technicians wearing Duke Hospital pullovers greeted me and had me take a seat. I handed my vaccination card to one, who entered it into a computer and verified my information. While she did this, the other asked if I had allergies, gave me vaccine information, informed me of my second shot appointment, and offered to answer any questions.

“Do you know if there are more mass vaccination events like this one going on?” I asked while I waited.

She told me she wasn’t sure but knew that Duke Hospital and other big area hospitals in the area are doing big pushes right now.

Then the tech at the computer turned to me. She filled her syringe, let me pick the shoulder, and administered my shot of Pfizer vaccine. I feel, well … nothing, really. In two seconds it was over, so quickly I don’t think to snap a photo.

“This is more for show since there’s never any blood,” the tech explained as she tried in vain to get a bandaid to stick on hairy arm.

A supervisor or doctor entered the room and double-checks their work, making sure that the dosage information was properly entered on my vaccination card. Someone slapped yet another sticker on me, this one a paper label with “9:40” written on it. This is the time of my shot plus fifteen minutes. Then I was cheerfully directed down the hall to a waiting area where I would spend the next fifteen minutes in case there were immediate adverse reactions. I snapped my first post-vaccination photo here.

Post-vaccination photo

Newly vaccinated!

“Any one with 9:38 or 9:40, you are free to leave,” called out the staffer at the end of the hall. With that, I hopped up, wove my way through the throng of veterans still arriving, and rejoined Travis for the ride home. In an effort to cheer him up, I bought him lunch on the way home.

And that was it. Seems I was in and out like clockwork. I had no pain in my arm and in fact no reaction whatsoever to the vaccine. It was stressed to me that I still must mask and distance as I am still vulnerable until my body’s natural defenses ramp up, but the process has now begun. Data shows that even the first shot alone is capable of preventing serious COVID-19 disease; one shot alone is enough to keep me out of the hospital should I catch COVID. The full protection won’t kick in until two weeks after my second shot, which comes three weeks after the first (27 February for me). Thus, I should be at full protection by 13 March.

What does “full protection” mean? Dr. Fauci and other experts say that vaccinated people can be around other vaccinated people with no fear of infection. Among them, life can go on as if there were no COVID. A vaccinated person with an unvaccinated person are still suggested to mask up as at this date experts are still unsure how much protection the vaccine affords. I expect we’ll soon see further studies which fill in our understanding of this.

Now the wait begins for getting the rest of my family vaccinated. This may take a while but when our turn arrives we will not hesitate to step up. As for me, my vaccination has given me the security to volunteer with NC DHHS to assist with getting more people vaccinated. Before my opportunity for a shot opened up I couldn’t have considered stepping up and helping. Now that’s become possible.

Leaving Durham VA

I also have noticed a change in my mental health, too. I am hopeful and excited again. One of the few things that kept me going though this endless quarantine was the visualization of getting that shot in my arm. I pictured it in my mind on those days when I feeling down and felt like crying. I knew the day would come and if I held on to that I would make it. And so I have.

Now I want to bring that hope and relief to others. Hope is on the horizon! Biden announced this week that 200 million more vaccine doses have been secured, so by this summer anyone who wants a shot can get one. Heck, it might be sooner than that, even.

We can make it! The vaccine is here and within weeks or mere months everyone can be protected. Hang in there!