Still, when I saw a social media post saying that the hospital in the neighboring town had 2,300 doses due to expire in a couple of days, I made the decision to go ahead and get one. The post made it clear that the hospital was hoping to avoid throwing any vaccine away. Within 15 minutes of arriving at a clinic that had taken on some of the hospital’s doses, I’d received my third dose, no questions asked, the date and batch number written on the third line of my vaccine card.
The decision to focus on giving booster shots to Americans, rather than on expanding global vaccination efforts, left me with a lot of mixed feelings; I know the best way to defeat the pandemic long term is to make sure the virus is under control everywhere. It’s especially saddening to consider how hospitals here wound up with such an excess of supply, while in low-income countries, only 1 percent of people have received even a first dose. Faced with the possibility of a dose getting thrown out, it was far better that the shot went in my arm rather than no one’s arm — yet another one of those infuriatingly suboptimal decisions we’ve all had to make, over and over again, throughout the pandemic.
I live in Midland, out in the flat, dusty plains of West Texas. When the vaccine became available this year, I watched as various groups become eligible and eagerly awaited my turn. It came a lot faster than expected: As it turned out, I qualified for my state’s Phase 1B by what felt like the slimmest, most ironic of technicalities: All my pandemic stress-eating had pushed my BMI into the high-risk category. I was right on the cusp, but I still qualified. Within a couple of hours after filling out the form online, I had an appointment to get my first dose that same afternoon, at a mass vaccination clinic put on by our hospital. For the first time in over a year, the constant tension in my body started to ease.
Even in the early days, while people in other parts of the country organized “vaccine hunter” groups, drove for hours and across state lines, or even lied on intake forms to get shots, there were hints that the demand here was quickly softening. The hospital in the next town over started offering vaccines to anyone who wanted them, regardless of their qualifications — a move that got it in trouble with the state. The hospital in my town was a little more circumspect, but it was still an open secret that there were doses freely available. Even with these relaxed standards, uptake quickly tapered off.
My community’s disinterest in the vaccine shouldn’t have surprised me, given its overall pandemic response. A year ago, our mayor declared Midland “open for business” and refused to enforce any state mandates on restaurant capacity. The few times I had to go out, such as when I took my car to the dealer for service, masks were few and far between. Last November, during the early part of the winter surge, my son’s day-care teacher tested positive for the coronavirus. Within just a few hours of our learning about my son’s exposure, our city council voted against an ordinance that would have enforced the state mask mandate. A week later, as I drove my son to get tested, passing by overflow tents being erected by FEMA to accommodate the surge in covid patients, our city council voted down yet another measure to enforce the mask mandate. My son was fine; he was sick for about a day, but his rapid test came back negative, and everyone else in the household stayed healthy. But the message was clear: Local leaders would not take the necessary actions to keep us safe.
Our mayor did encourage people to get their shots: “Let’s go ahead and participate in this vaccination process that President Trump got started,” he said at a news conference in April. But the message was considerably muddled by his statement, at the same news conference, that “I wouldn’t be getting vaccinated if I wasn’t the mayor.” When asked to clarify, he stuck by his words: “That is exactly what I said.” In a town where many were already skeptical about vaccination to begin with, this was not the most encouraging of messages.
Currently, our county’s vaccination rate sits at 36 percent. The hospital with the extra vaccines went so far as to ask the Texas health department whether it could redistribute the unused doses to medical centers that needed them more — only to be told that, essentially, there weren’t any: Everyone had too much vaccine on their hands. As hospital beds filled up with covid patients, demand stayed worryingly low.
Midland is currently a covid-19 hot spot, with our school district reporting some of the highest case rates in the state. In the midst of a huge surge in cases, seeing even a third of people wearing masks at a store is unusually high. I once again feel that knot in my chest, the ever-present worry about whether my family, which includes a toddler who won’t be eligible for the vaccine for a while, will be safe. The fact that this is preventable, that we have a vaccine that could greatly reduce this latest surge — if not stop it altogether — is devastating.
The past 18 months have been a nonstop barrage of hard choices: Do I pay my bills by going to an office that isn’t taking the necessary precautions or do I risk falling behind on my bills by staying safe at home? Do I send my child to a school where very few people are wearing masks or do I give up the career I’ve worked so hard for? This question — Do I get a booster shot that, in theory, would be better used on someone else, or do I let that dose get thrown out? — felt a little easier. In the face of my town’s disinterest in containing the pandemic, I could at least take this small action.
The booster gave me some measure of relief about the risks to me and my family. But it hasn’t relieved another, nagging burden: the knowledge that many of us are making the best choices that we can, under the most stressful of situations — but until we can count on our entire community to do the same, we’ll never find a way out of this.