Back when I got my second dose of COVID-19 vaccine, I sat in the requisite anaphylaxis-watch area afterward with a person who was vocal about their COVID doubts, distrust in the science, distrust in the vaccine – but was required to receive the shot for their healthcare-sector job. I informed the reluctant vax recipient that my mom was killed by COVID-19.
It’s not comfortable to share that with a stranger. It’s not comfortable to write it now. But this many months into our nation’s public health emergency, elucidating painful experiences has become necessary in a reflexive reaction to disinformation or downplaying of the crisis we still face. The fellow vaccine recipient acknowledged what I said, but their muted reaction didn’t convey recognition of the real human toll of this pandemic.
Both traditional and social media are currently brimming with the stories of those who are battling COVID-19, those who survived a devastating bout with the virus, and those who have lost friends, family, and colleagues. Wounds are opened in a common, gut-wrenching plea to the deniers, the conspiracy theorists, and the unconcerned to take simple steps to help end this catastrophic pandemic. Will being so frank about the pain wrought by this very real and very contagious virus help turn the tide, or will the attempt to open minds find that both hearts and minds are unmoved?
The latest stats are not exactly encouraging. As of this writing, 609,012 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States. Fifty-seven percent of the eligible population (over age 12) is fully vaccinated. Hospitalizations and deaths keep rising, and public health officials report that most of these cases are occurring in the unvaccinated population. A new poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 80 percent of unvaccinated American adults saying they definitely or probably will not get one of the COVID-19 vaccines.
After her death, I was shown a meme my mother posted on her Facebook page in May 2020: “These ‘governors’ who say they won’t open their state until there is a vaccine are arrogantly assuming that everyone will want to get the vaccine. I sure don’t want it!” I will never know whether that was actually her conviction or if she posted it in order to get “likes” from an online crowd that had been influencing her thinking on COVID and measures to battle the pandemic. My mom died Nov. 28, two weeks after contracting COVID – most likely by eating out at a restaurant to celebrate her birthday.
I will never get to have that debate with her and encourage her to get the vaccine. I will never get to refute the hollow arguments that were filling her head through a steady diet of social media disinformation. Pressed about his vaccination plans when the shots became available, my surviving parent thankfully took advantage of a drive-through site to get his vaccine.
That was when there were still lines of people having to make appointments to receive the lifesaving jabs. Now public health officials are trying harder to find takers, especially in areas hit hard by the delta variant that still have desperately low vaccination rates.
There’s a good chance that anyone who still lives with the pain of COVID doesn’t need to be told to re-mask in the new surge because the mask never came off in the first place. We know full well the pandemic never ended, even if cases temporarily abated, and paid rapt attention as the delta variant now blazing through many parts of the country first tore through India. Social distancing is accepted as an extra layer of caution, and delivery is another layer that also supports our communities’ small businesses. We are beyond grateful to have the vaccine while still acutely aware of the need to protect ourselves and others, like taking care not to drive recklessly even with a buckled seat belt.
At the same time, there is a unique pain and frustration among those who have lost a family member, friend or colleague – and finally exhaled as the brilliant scientific community dispatched vaccines – now watching so many people willingly eschew the jab that could save the vaccinated, their loved ones, or the stranger(s) they may infect from this horrible illness and its mounting death toll. Even with the constant science-based advice from her children in her ear, my mother made wrong choices that heightened her risk of exposure to COVID-19. But, ultimately, somebody gave the virus to my mother. It could have been an asymptomatic individual who unknowingly transmitted the virus. It could have been someone who knew they were ill but didn’t care about protecting others from contracting their virus. It could have been someone who fell gravely ill or suffered the same fate as my mom.
I’m at a loss of what to say that could change one person’s mind on the reality of COVID, the transmissibility of COVID, the severity of COVID, the need to get vaccinated, the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines, or simply the need to care as much about the life of a stranger as their own. The delta spike is unfolding as my father is sorting out my mother’s belongings into giveaway bags, and as I am still trying to decipher what was going through my mom’s mind in the final, haunting message she sent to me 36 hours before COVID took her life.
All I can say is please, please get vaccinated. And if you are vaccinated, please take precautions to avoid breakthrough cases with this insidious delta variant – what CDC Director Rochelle Walensky calls “one of the most infectious respiratory viruses we know of and that I have seen in my 20-year career.”
Get vaccinated, so that you or someone you may infect has a shot at reaching life’s precious milestones – like the 50th wedding anniversary my parents would have celebrated next month.
Get vaccinated, so that your loved one or the loved one of someone you may infect is not left deciding which belongings – each with a memory attached – to keep and which to bag up.
Get vaccinated, so that you or someone you may infect will not die in a restricted COVID ward without family or friends, as my mother did when COVID deprived her of the oxygen needed to sustain life.
Every person who shares their own tale of COVID-19 tragedy is grasping for the most effective way to convey the pain in a way that is heard and understood by the apathetic, the reticent, the misinformed, and even those actively working against pandemic-control measures. We hope that people can tap into a capacity for love – for a stranger, neighbor, colleague, family member, or oneself – that will lead them to do the right thing and do their part to stop this pandemic. And if people refuse to listen, we have to share that pain until at least one person does.