But we know that we are next in risk, next most likely to die or come close to it if we are infected, and the D.C. vaccine rollout has seemed agonizingly slow. I howl into the electronic wilderness; that is, I tweet my frustration. A friend responds by direct message. “Most people I know are bagging D.C.,” he says, and getting vaccinated elsewhere. Several nearby states seem not to care whom they vaccinate, he continues, “especially if you are willing to go into red areas.”
A couple of days later, the same friend sends me a link to an article saying exactly that. The article contains some actionable intelligence: People share leads on a Facebook group called District Vaccine Hunters. There is nothing like an online community singularly devoted to an obscure quest that you share. I join the group and a similar one for frustrated Marylanders.
As expected, the hive mind buzzes in the vaccine-hunter groups. I start with a Google document that a seasoned hunter has set up for newbies. It confirms that several states within a reasonable driving distance, including Maryland, Ohio and North Carolina, will vaccinate nonresidents. Naturally, Maryland gets the most discussion on the main group pages because it is closest. “Hagerstown has a TON of appointments open tomorrow. J&J.,” reads a sample post. Maryland won’t vaccinate my age group for two weeks, however.
But tacked on the end of the long newbie document is an announcement for a mass vaccination event on April 1 at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Hollister, N.C. It appears to be open to anybody from anywhere who is over 18. There is a link to a SignUpGenius page showing the majority of slots open. This is two days away.
I hurriedly find Elizabeth and tell her that we should take a road trip to North Carolina, leaving tomorrow. She looks at me funny. True, we had discussed the possibility of looking for shots in a nearby state, but not traveling hundreds of miles on less than a day’s notice. Eventually she sees the sense in it. There may not be an opportunity closer to home for weeks — and what if we do not dodge every bullet until then?
Our 15-year-old son objects that the whole thing must be an elaborate hoax because the “event” is scheduled for April Fools’ Day. He is overruled. The trip is on.
Before bed, we find an Airbnb in Richmond, roughly the halfway point, for the next two nights. On March 31, after work, we drive there and sleep in a 19th-century house with stained-glass windows. The following day our son attends school, virtually, in Richmond. We leave after lunch for North Carolina.
The drive to the church is mostly highway, but when we get off the interstate, the road traverses farm fields. The church is tiny. For some reason, a sizable free-standing auditorium sits behind it, next to the church graveyard, and this is where the vaccine is given.
We enter near our scheduled time, and the auditorium is only about a quarter full. Almost as soon as I sit down, and while I am completing my paperwork, a woman asks me which arm I want to use. I answer and she jabs me, and like that I am vaccinated. It’s the same for Elizabeth.
We are in and out of the auditorium in 20 minutes — including the 15 needed to make sure we do not have an allergic reaction. In that time, I consider that the medicine in my arm, like so much else these days, has roiled presidential politics and continues to divide the country. Red and blue, rural and urban, one part of town and another. To me, the vaccine represents freedom. To others, it somehow represents enslavement, or at least an unacceptable encroachment on freedom.
When I chose this place to try for a vaccination, I thought perhaps the surfeit of appointments meant this was a red county, and therefore more likely to be populated by vaccine skeptics. A billboard we passed on the drive said, “God Loves Trump — Jesus 2020.”
I was wrong. The reality is more complicated. Halifax County is poor, with a mostly Black population — a blue, Democratic stronghold in a red state. Ultimately, it is not clear why there were so many extra doses here. It is clear, however, that vaccine hesitancy can appear anywhere, and that vaccine supply often does not match local demand. The short shelf life of the mRNA vaccines means shots need to go quickly either in arms or trash cans. Halifax County knew that, whatever the reason, it needed more arms to avoid the trash cans, and we were privileged to have the means to supply two of them.
Back in Richmond that night, we pick up pizzas and have them along with a glass of wine. The next morning, we return to D.C., our total travel time spread out over two days about eight hours.
Later we realize we goofed with the pizza. It is still Passover. Jews hold two special meals each year where we retell the story of the Exodus, in which God led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. Because the Israelites needed to leave Egypt in haste, they had no time to let their bread rise, and so ate unleavened bread. At least for less-religious Jews like us, the sole requirement for observing Days 3 through 8 of Passover is to abstain from eating leavened bread, to remind us of the Exodus. We failed this year.
Or maybe not. Our liturgy teaches that today, as in the Exodus, sometimes the path from bondage appears suddenly, and we must go without being fully prepared. Like the Israelites, we didn’t have time to pack everything, but this time we left behind the matzoh and we made do with pizza.
The liturgy also teaches that none of us is truly free until all of us are free. Now that I’m home, I’ll post links to the vaccine hunter Facebook groups to local listservs, so neighbors have the tools to pursue their own search. It’s a small gesture.
Yet the pace of vaccination is picking up throughout the United States — on Saturday, a record 4 million people were vaccinated. Some evidence suggests that suspicion of the vaccines is starting to wane. And finally, last night, D.C. announced that eligibility will expand on April 19 to cover all residents over 16.
With Passover just ending, we can at least hope to see the time when our redemption from this plague is complete.