Chip Jones is a Richmond-based writer and author of “The Organ Thieves: The Shocking Story of the First Heart Transplant in the Segregated South.”
My wife and I had been signed up for weeks to get our shots through the Virginia Health Department, CVS, Kroger and so on. Our early efforts led to one invite from our home county, Henrico, that was actually meant for police, firefighters and other first responders.
“Whoops!” Henrico officials said in apologetic emails and news releases to thousands of disappointed citizens, including us.
False alarms about vaccines spread with viral intensity along our usually sedate suburban street. Drive down to Newport News or Roanoke, friends and neighbors said . . . or maybe Clarksville, wherever that is. My wife and I started Googling. We weren’t getting our shots, but we were receiving real-time geography lessons.
Eventually, though, all these “leads” started to take an emotional toll, not to mention cause sleep deprivation. Now, I say this as a 68-year-old man with no underlying conditions and who’s blessed with good health benefits. I face none of the well-documented struggles of health-care providers, teachers and others in the public sphere who should have been at the front of the vaccination line all along.
So how did so many other people get theirs first? This undeniable example of class and White privilege led to our decision not to travel out of the area to get a shot at some distant CVS pharmacy — whether it was east to Newport News, south to Clarksville near the North Carolina line, west to Charlottesville, or even as far away as Abingdon in far Southwest Virginia.
We would stay in place and wait our turn.
That’s why weeks later, when that Saturday phone call came, I tried to go back to sleep. My cellphone downstairs started rocking out. I had to go get it.
“Dad!” It was my very thoughtful daughter calling via Skype from abroad. “It’s opening up now. You have to try CVS!”
“Okay!” I said, wishing for a strong cup of coffee to match her intensity level. “We’ll check it out.”
“We” actually meant my wife, Debbie. She was the one who’d been putting in the most time checking the CVS website morning, noon and night. Rubbing sleep out of her eyes, she opened her iPad and set to work. She started by checking the site, but after typing in her age, and Zip code, and entering a date for a shot, there was no response. Even though all of the drugstores’ locations looked open across the state, nothing was coming up.
Taking another tack, Debbie dialed an 888 number and said “agent.” Finally, after so many weeks of silence and frustration, someone answered her call.
“Good morning!” she said. Soon she was engaged in a constructive chat with a young man who told her that, for him, it was the middle of the night.
He was working from home. This led to some comic moments, such as when he said, “Sorry, ma’am, my dog’s barking. Could you please repeat your numbers?”
Soon they were buzzing through a long registration form, easily overcoming any problems caused by distance or language.
Within 30 minutes, Debbie was assigned to a random location and her appointment times were coming in via text and email. After more form-filling, my information arrived as well.
“Thank you,” she told our distant deliverer. “Have a good night.”
“You too, ma’am,” he said.
But there was a catch. We had to head out of town to the arbitrarily chosen pharmacy site, some 100 miles to the northwest in Gainesville. After spending more time on Google Maps, a few days later we were cruising along what we call the back way to Dulles International Airport: Get off Interstate 95, take a deep breath of relief, then drive up U.S. 17 through the farms and bedroom communities of Fauquier County.
Some time later, we pulled up to a very large CVS. A group of baby boomers was lining up as though Jimmy Buffett tickets were going on sale.
Once Debbie’s phone app gave her a 15-minute notice, she was allowed inside. And because everything was running on time, I got in, too, well before my later appointment.
As we answered questions and rolled up our sleeves, two young, cordial pharmacists shared their stories of driving around Virginia this past winter helping fight the viral scourge. As it had with us, covid-19 had taken them out of their comfort zones, visiting new places in the mountainous regions around Woodstock and Harrisonburg, helping vulnerable people in nursing homes.
As I maintained my end of the conversation — no doubt from nervousness — I mentioned the fact that I didn’t plan to go inside to my church for Easter Sunday services, even if the church reopened by then.
“I hope we have outdoor services.”
My pharmacist, who wore a hijab, nodded and said she’d been thinking along the same lines. “We may have services outside our mosque.”
I shut my eyes and waited for the prick of a needle. But there wasn’t one.
“All done!” she said brightly.
For a moment in this troubled time, I actually felt protected — not only by the brilliant scientists who developed the Moderna vaccine, but by this gentle caregiver.
It was worth the wait.