“I’m not vaccinated,” I said, from behind my mask, letting him make an informed decision.
I waited while he thought it over, ready to accept that he might decline, but he pulled up his own mask and took me in his arms. Soon I was spinning and smiling to Louis Prima like I hadn’t done in over a year. When we finished he used hand sanitizer.
This dance of disclosure is one I have to do many times a day since leaving the sleepy beach town where I quarantined and coming to live in Manhattan.
I’m not anti-vaccine. An unexplained stroke when I was 27 left me feeling cautious about the coronavirus vaccines. My doctor thought the vaccine might be contraindicated. As a 40-something, self-employed writer, I didn’t become eligible until late March. Like others, I was hoping to put covid-19 behind me. But two weeks later, when clotting risks presented themselves with the Johnson & Johnson shot, I felt relieved I’d waited.
There are good medical reasons people might not get vaccinated, including allergies, having recently had covid-19, certain autoimmune disorders, an adverse reaction to the first shot and clotting issues like mine.
Most days, I feel clear about my reasoning. Coronavirus vaccines are approved for emergency use, and we are learning more all the time about them — recently, the Food and Drug Administration added a warning about the rare but real risk of heart inflammation from myocarditis and pericarditis associated with the mRNA vaccines. Still, when my unvaccinated status becomes known, it evokes responses ranging from rude to empathic. Online, where people tend to be brazen, blanket statements are made about “the unvaccinated” as if we’re one entity.
But we are not.
Statistics show that less educated people are more likely to be unvaccinated. I graduated with a master’s degree, summa cum laude. “It’s Republicans who are skipping the jab,” I hear and read, yet I voted for President Biden. Discussing my medical history with friends, colleagues and strangers was never required, but now I’m confronted daily with the question of whether I’m vaccinated, and then why I’m not.
Even when swiping on the dating app Tinder, the intended aphrodisiac of advertising that one is vaxed, double-vaxed, or vax’d, means I’ll have to face an awkward conversation and possible rejection. My profile doesn’t bear the graphic sticker of a Band-Aid with the words “vaccinated.” How will it go when I share the news with a match? Do I need to tell someone I haven’t met that a blood clot years ago briefly robbed me of speech and control of my right side? Or that I recovered?
In person, I’m met more readily with understanding.
Other than one friend who spent time trying to convince me to vaccinate despite my history, most have been accepting. I wear a mask in public spaces and tell people before seeing them so they can decide whether they feel safe around me and under what conditions. My commitment is to protect myself and others. You see, those who have been vaccinated and those of us who haven’t been for medical reasons are not so different: We want the very same thing — to be healthy, to see children and grandchildren grow up, to return to normal lives.
Yet many of us have had to isolate because of not only the risk of the virus but also the collective message of shame fueled by the assumptions of who the unvaccinated are. QAnon. Conspiracy theorist. Defector. These assumptions can create contempt for anyone who isn’t vaccinated, whatever the reason. I even overheard someone suggest that if a person doesn’t get vaccinated, they deserve to die of covid-19.
But what about people who can’t get vaccinated? What could’ve been an opportunity for a global conversation about how to keep us all healthy has instead become reason to criticize and condemn.
In the early 1990s, I was a social worker on the front line of the AIDS crisis at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. While doctors and researchers toiled, lives were lost because mistakes were made and discoveries weren’t found quickly enough. It feels as if we’re in the same boat now. As infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci recently said on the podcast Sway, “You can be wrong if you’re dealing with information that is evolving.” The data about covid-19 and the vaccines seems to change nearly every day; for those of us with potentially confounding conditions, we carefully monitor that changing and updating data.
I admit being unvaccinated was easier when I was living in a remote place where I saw few people. But in a metropolis, I’m faced with these uncomfortable conversations much more. While people are willing to meet me outdoors in summer, understandably they may feel differently about meeting indoors next winter. I love dancing but my favorite classes are closed to anyone without proof of vaccination — attending with a mask is no longer an option. Do I have to rule out the activities that for me make life so joyful?
I put all of these things on a scale — the risk of getting covid-19 in a crowded city, wanting to join humanity in a collective attempt to defeat this horrible pandemic by getting vaccinated, the desire to participate fully with my community, and my questions about the risks of the vaccine with my specific medical history. Like a balance itself, I haven’t found a resting point yet that feels right.
In the moments when I tire of talking about this subject or feel unbearable social pressure, I consider defying the medical advice I received and walking two avenues to the nearest pharmacy where coronavirus shots are readily available. I know many doctors who would say that it’s fine, that the benefit outweighs any possible risks, and that you can also get clots if you get sick with covid-19. Some people say it’s my civic duty to take that risk for the greater good.
I consider all this but having friends who’ve experienced side effects from the vaccines, a few of them severe, gives me pause again. I need more time.
When I had my stroke, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that the human body is amazing but imperfect and sometimes things just happen. And science, along with the fearless humans who work in it, is equally amazing and imperfect. What’s correct today will likely morph tomorrow. Everything is evolving.
For some people like me, waiting to see how things evolve doesn’t make us stupid or selfish or conspiracy theorists, just prudent and pragmatic. Many people would like to get the vaccine but cannot. Until that changes, I hope we can have open and compassionate conversations about how to protect one another.