Dad Got the Vaccine, but No One Else Did -- Yet
Dr. Taison Bell, right, with his mother-in-law Diane from left; his wife Kristen; his son Alain; and daughter Ruby, who was at home in Charlottesville, Virginia on December 17, 2020. (Eze Amos / The New York Times)
On the morning of December 16, the threat of a snow storm in Virginia dropped out of school for 7-year-old Alain Bell. Instead, he spent the morning scribbling a sinister face with black markings on his father's newly vaccinated upper arm.
"It was his idea," said Alain of Zoom, pointing to his father, Dr. Taison Bell, 37, an intensive care physician at UVA Health in Charlottesville. "I feel good that he doesn't get sick."
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Taison Bell's real face was a smile. Just after 2 p.m. on December 15, he became the second person in his hospital to receive a dose of Pfizer's new coronavirus vaccine.
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"I'm fine," he said. "But my right arm, when you interview it, probably isn't upset about what happened to it."
His member was a little bit swollen and painful, nothing unusual for a vaccine. It was a sign that the injection had done its job: instructing Bell cells to produce a protein called Spike, which teaches his immune system to recognize and thwart the new coronavirus if he should ever encounter it. His second dose, scheduled for early January, will complete the process.
The shot introduced a microscopic shift that has an oversized impact on his risk of contracting COVID-19. But, Bell said, little else in his life will change until more of his community joins the vaccinated pool.
Bell remains a relative rarity among the people he sees both inside and outside of work. His wife Kristen and their children Alain and Ruby are unlikely to be vaccinated until spring or summer. Like many others, you will soon be living in a house separated by a thin needle prick - one person vaccinated, three not. They represent a limit state that will persist across the country for months as the first people to be injected control a new coexistence with the vulnerable at home.
Although the new vaccines have been shown to highly prevent people from developing symptomatic cases of COVID-19, there is little data on how well they can stop the virus from spreading, increasing the chance that people will be vaccinated even though they are much safer individually, could still pose a threat to those who love them.
Because of this, "we're still going to take the same precautions," said Kristen Bell. "Our daily lives won't change for months as the vaccines continue to be introduced."
It's not always an easy decision. Laura Lombardo, 40, a respiratory therapist at UW Health University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, received her first shot of arm pain and headache - minor side effects - on the afternoon of December 21.
But Lombardo, who is trying to father a second child, said she was concerned about the lack of data on the vaccine's effects on women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. She decided to stop her fertility treatments a few months ago and most likely will not resume them some time after her second injection.
But after months of watching her patients, most of whom are children, fight the virus, Lombardo is sure the vaccine is worth it - "a light at the end of the tunnel".
It will likely be many months before the rest of Lombardo's family get their own injections and their 6-year-old daughter Kaleena is impatient for change. She feels "good" when her mother is vaccinated. But the virtual school and months of distancing have taken a toll. With a carpet of fresh snow in her neighborhood, she misses being able to play with her friends. The vaccination for her, like so many others, won't be lightning-fast, but rather a sucker that extends at least into spring.
Even families with multiple health workers at the top of the vaccination line are not ready to mingle just yet. Jeanel and Mike Little, nurses at UVA Health, will both be fully vaccinated by the end of January. But the timeline is much bleaker for her 7-month-old daughter Ruby. Children have been largely absent from vaccine trials, and the virus appears to affect the very young in unusual and understaffed ways.
"It was the biggest variable for us," said Mike Little.
They will continue to be vigilant about their own hygiene, knowing that they may still be able to transmit the virus, he said. Ruby only started daycare in December and has not yet established regular personal contact with her grandparents. But it will stay that way for everyone for the time being.
"Our families didn't really hit our baby," said Jeanel Little. "We're not going to relax these restrictions anytime soon. We still need to isolate them as much as possible."
Public health experts have estimated that a majority of Americans, perhaps 70% to 80%, will need some level of immunity to the virus in order for it to spread and slow down. Reaching this threshold takes time, effort, and patience as scientists overcome hurdles from tight supply chains to the deep-seated suspicion of vaccines that pervades some populations.
But even as vaccines end up in more and more weapons, scientists will continue to study their effects on the general population, looking for signs of unexpected or infrequent side effects, and monitoring whether the vaccine might limit the ability of the coronavirus to transmit from one person to the other.
UVA Health's Bell is careful with the unknown. Perhaps the biggest problem is transmission and whether the vaccine will help tame it. He suspected that the vaccine would have at least some influence on the risk of infection. Once fully vaccinated, Bell could consider making the occasional masked visit to the gym - a luxury he gave up months ago after discovering his usual hangout spot was inundated with people who had tossed their face covers aside.
Kristen Bell said her husband's vaccination brought her hope and "a sense of relief - it's nice to know he will have some protection".
But in other matters the bells are set. Before the pandemic, her son Alain would often greet his father with a friendly tackle on the door. That stopped in the spring. Bell plans to keep his routine of throwing away his work clothes and showering before engaging with his kids.
Alain, who intends to become a doctor himself - ideally in space - said he was impatient and excited for his own injection. "Most of the shots are fun," he said.
But he has also started to grapple with the real toll of the pandemic. He once asked if he or his father could die from COVID-19. Taison Bell said to his son, "I'll do my best not to get infected."
Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, 42, an infectious disease doctor at the Medical University of South Carolina, where she received her first dose of Pfizer's vaccine on Dec. 15, said she was giving herself a post-vaccination allowance: a trip home to California her parents and sister to visit, which will be born at the end of January.
"There is no way I would go if I didn't get the vaccine," she said.
Due to the unknowns associated with the transmission, she will still be quarantined upon arrival, wearing a mask and keeping her distance from her parents, who are older and have health issues that increase her risk for severe COVID-19.
But Kuppalli, who lived in Palo Alto with her parents until August, has been living in isolation in South Carolina for four months amid a pandemic that has closed stores across town.
"As of January, COVID has been all I've eaten, slept and drunk," she said. "And I'm alone. It's been a difficult transition."
Her mother Veena was initially excited about the shot. After the first dose has been given without any serious side effects, she is relieved and excited to see her daughter arrive next month.
"We always took the precautions," she said. "I don't think there will be a difference."
Kuppalli and others have expressed discomfort about being first to get the vaccine while so many others in the U.S. and beyond line up for their own shot to safety.
"I don't think guilt is the right word," she said.
The tier system recommended by government officials to prioritize those at greatest risk made scientific sense. But there was still an immense privilege, she said, hidden in the tiny droplets of liquid that were stabbed in her right arm this month.
After almost a year on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus, health workers are finally receiving a long-awaited coat of arms. It felt strange to wear, they said amid the many millions who are still left without their own chain mail.
Manevone Philavong, 46, who has been with the environmental services of the University of Pittsburgh's Passavant Medical Center for 21 years, was one of the first in the nation to be vaccinated on the morning of December 14th.
He long ago got used to the risks involved in his job of cleaning almost "every aspect of the hospital," he said. When he comes home from work, he goes into the garage and undresses in the basement before going into the house, where he is with his mother and father, who are in their 80s, and a niece who is 30 years old and is pregnant, lives.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Philavong has tried to keep physical distance from his parents. They speak to each other from opposite sides of the living room. His father had to work alone while he tinkered with the family cars - a 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee and a 2009 Ford F-150 - and tended the herbs and vegetables in the garden. That year, the family skipped their regular trip to Moraine State Park to fish for trout and perch.
When Philavong told his parents about his injection, they were delighted.
"They said," Now you can spend more time with us, "he said." I said, "Not quite yet."
The vaccine offers "a layer of hope," said Philavong. "But I'll still take all the precautions I can."
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
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