The new class of the COVID vaccinated

In January this year, my 45-year-old cousin announced she had received her first dose of the COVID vaccine shot. A competitive runner, she looks reasonably fit. I was unaware of any comorbidities or medical conditions that earned her a ticket to the front of the vaccine shot line.

“I smoke. Not every day, but enough,” she replied, after I asked how she got the vaccine so quickly.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” I said.

“I have some kidney issues, too,” she then quickly added. The “kidney issues” sounded more genuine as a medical condition requiring an early vaccine shot. It made the urgency of a vaccine shot all the more understandable — sort of.

A day before her shot, her 74-year-old neighbor told her that she had struggled to get a vaccine shot appointment. Phoning the local public health office for hours, her neighbor had no luck. Hearing about her struggles, my cousin said she felt regret over her own shot.

In his 1947 novel The Plague, Albert Camus wrote about the plague ravaging the Algerian town of Oran: “No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all.” When we look back over this last year, it seems that our collective destiny has been upended by multiple individual destinies.

The COVID pandemic only sharpened the race to put the individual before the community. Ignoring what was best for the community (mask wearing, social distancing, limited travel), many of us opted for what worked to protect our freedom, our choices and our own lives. The health of the community be damned! We valued our own individual destinies more than any collective destiny.

Over the last year, we have watched humans innovate new ways out of COVID restrictions like nobody’s business. The Florida spring break revelers are just the latest reminder. Before them, we had the many maskless Trump rallies, the Sturgis bike rally, the Thanksgiving and Christmas family get-togethers, the White House coming-out party for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and other superspreader events.

At the end stages of the COVID pandemic, the vaccine rollout has eliminated any traces of our collective destiny. Take the new distinctions between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. The vaccinated now have the privileges, the free travel cards, that they alone carry. (With your COVID vaccine record card, you can now board a Royal Caribbean cruise ship for a voyage.) They walk in the sunlight.

In the meantime, the unvaccinated (myself included) languish. I have to wait like so many others for my turn. Among the unvaccinated ones, there are the vaccine resisters, the hesitators, the libertarians, the anti-Vaxx crusaders, and the many who are fresh out of luck because of a lack of vaccine supply. (Perhaps the vaccinated ones subconsciously fault us for being such vaccine losers.) Like the journalist Rambert in the Plague, we cannot not find a way out of the confinement of the plague-ridden city.

Curiously, our own public health agency seems to have given up on our shared collective destiny. On March 8th, the CDC issued “Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People.” The CDC acknowledged that fully vaccinated persons can visit indoors with other fully vaccinated people. Wearing masks or practicing physical distancing is not mandatory. Even the unvaccinated people “who are at low risk for severe COVID disease” can visit with the vaccinated ones indoors. Quarantine and testing? They both are a thing of the past for fully vaccinated people.

On March 29th, during a COVID Response briefing from the White House, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Director Dr. Rochelle Wolensky spoke unhelpfully and fatalistically of the “impending doom” from a new surge of COVID. If Dr. Wolensky felt this way, why did she not call for mandatory mask-wearing across the country? While a national mask mandate would be logistically challenging (given states’ powers), a workplace mask-wearing mandate is possible for the Biden administration. On the Rachel Maddow Show later that day, Dr. Wolensky punted on the question of a workplace mask-wearing mandate. She said it was for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to decide the matter.

As the head of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Wolensky could have appealed to our collective destiny during the pandemic — or at least the perception that we are all in this together — by keeping the same restrictions for vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Let’s keep mask-wearing in place for everyone until the end of the pandemic. We should all wait for our freedom until every last eligible adult is vaccinated in the country.

By treating us differently, by issuing separate public health rules favoring the vaccinated, the CDC has helped to make this new class division. I would think that, particularly even now in the midst of the “impending doom” of another wave of COVID, the CDC opts for dividing us into the privileged vaccinated haves and the unlucky unvaccinated have-nots, according to our vaccination record cards. What ever happen to E Pluribus Unum?

My cousin found ways to vaccinate her college-aged son and her husband who has high blood pressure. (Her husband was the least challenging to qualify for a vaccination.) She stared at her family’s destiny during the pandemic and worked all of them into the queue for a shot.

Never mind it would be good for everyone that truly high-risk and highly contagious individuals are taken care of first. There is a reason for the collective health that others have a higher priority. In the end, it keeps all of us safer. All the vaccine line jumping only defeats us.

We all have seen the sudden uptick in smoking. We have heard repeatedly of the self-diagnoses of diabetes, hypertension, and the long-lost childhood illnesses with a stubborn shelf life. There are the multiple immune-compromising diseases our friends and family had all their lives.

Funny, but now, this year, they are quick to mention them in public this year. Who knew Uncle George had such a condition?

The individual outranks the community. Our collective destiny is in shambles.

Seeking the Irish wilderness