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‘It feels like freedom,’ 8 people describe getting their COVID-19 vaccine

The COVID-19 vaccine cards are record-keeping necessities. Slightly smaller than an index card, the white piece of paper pinpoints when and where you were vaccinated. But it doesn’t capture the wide range of life experiences that led to that moment.

As the Biden administration and local governments expand the availability of vaccinations across the country, that little piece of paper has taken on added weight. Many have shared selfies of themselves after getting the vaccine at a school gymnasium, a large convention center, or an alleyway behind an urgent care center. Some dress up — a sparkly floor-length gown, an outfit that exactly matched the fabric of a mask — marking the moment as one would a major life event.

For others, getting the vaccine is steeped in emotion, like opening the door to hugging a loved one that’s been a year in the making. There’s also the anxiety in trying to secure an appointment, traveling long distances to get the vaccine, or making the decision to get vaccinated despite family members or friends, who aren’t choosing to do the same.

Daniel Owens recieves his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Grand Canyon University POD in Phoenix on March 27, 2021. Photo by Chloe Jones/PBS NewsHour

When we asked our audience what getting the vaccine meant to them, many alluded to its significance in moving the country toward the end of the pandemic, or how it helped them shed the persistent fear over the past year that they or their loved ones would contract the virus. Many called it a harbinger of something better at the horizon.

Andrew Burgess of San Francisco referred to it as getting an “elixir of life.” Elisa Bermudez of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, said the vaccine allowing her to again have some safe, physical contact with another person was “priceless.”

When Daniel Owens pulled his SUV into the waiting area of a Phoenix drive-through clinic after receiving his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, he smiled and pumped his arms inside his car, holding his vaccine card.

“It feels like freedom,” Owens said.

Owens, 46, said a friend’s uncle died of COVID during the early stages of the pandemic, becoming one of the state’s first recorded COVID-related deaths. Owens has feared the virus ever since.

The night before his shot, Owens said he had that “first-day-of-school” kind of excitement. After a year of isolating and living in fear, he said he’s excited to “venture into the world again.” When it becomes safer to travel, the Gilbert, Arizona, resident said he plans to go on a vacation with his mom — maybe Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. She lives in Boston, and he hasn’t been able to hug her in more than a year.

Mandi Long of Jacksonville, Alabama, a therapist intern, said she felt “immense relief” after getting vaccinated in January, enabling her to protect herself, her family and the clients she saw every week.

“To me it felt like the end of the darkness. It’s a new beginning,” she wrote.

For some people, getting the vaccine was a moment of pure joy. For others, the experience was also the culmination of a process that included significant barriers. Here are seven more stories from people across the United States about how they felt receiving the vaccine.

‘No one is untouchable’

Gilbert Galaz got a COVID vaccine for one reason: To protect his family.

When the pandemic first hit the United States Galaz said he and his family were careful. The 60-year-old works in a warehouse and knew he was at higher risk, both for his age as well as his line of work. They sanitized their groceries, always wore masks and socially distanced as much as possible.

Gilbert Galaz, a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, receives his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, on May 6, at an event hosted by his tribe in Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Chloe Jones/PBS NewsHour

But in July, he, his wife and his three kids all got COVID-19. Galaz was hit the hardest.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Galaz said. “It just took me by surprise, you know, I didn’t expect that.”

Galaz said he was in the hospital for five days. He said would get as many vaccine shots as he needed to so he and his family never have to experience COVID-19 again

Galaz received his vaccines at an event organized by his tribe, Pascua Yaqui, near Tucson, Arizona. The tribe has about 4,000 to 5,000 members that live on the reservation and has had at least 1,800 cases and nearly 30 deaths, according to tribal councilwoman Herminia Frias.

“No one is untouchable. It can hit anybody at any time, even the strongest person, the oldest person,” Galaz said. “You just gotta respect [the virus] and respect others around you.”

‘A miracle of miracles’

Evelyn Shaw has lived in fear ever since COVID-19 first came to the United States. The 81-year-old lives in New York City — one of the pandemic’s early epicenters — and is in a high-risk age group.

The prescription a doctor wrote Evelyn Shaw that helped her have the confidence to hug her granddaughter. Photo courtesy of Evelyn Shaw

She said she hardly leaves her apartment. When she has to make an essential trip, like going to the grocery store or taking out her trash, she wears her mask and gloves and stays six feet away from people. As a widow, the past year of being locked in isolation while fearing for her life has taken a huge toll on her mental health.

“When they put that injection in my arm, I cried,” she said “Not because the injection hurt. I cried because I was so relieved. The vaccines are really a miracle of miracles.”

But even after the two weeks it took for her second dose to fully kick in, Shaw was still nervous to reenter the world. Too afraid to see her loved ones, she continued life as she did before the vaccine: Alone and anxious.

Shaw sees the same doctor as her daughter and granddaughter. While her daughter and granddaughter were at a check-up, they told their doctor about Shaw’s fear and loneliness, and that’s when the doctor wrote a special prescription for Shaw that read, “You are allowed to hug your granddaughter.”

The two decided to surprise Shaw with the prescription two weeks after her granddaughter’s second dose. When they first arrived at her apartment, Shaw said she wouldn’t let them inside. Then, they showed her the prescription.

“It’s a moment that I will never forget,” Shaw said, reflecting on her first hug in a year. “The prescription that the doctor wrote me helped me to reenter the world.”

Shaw is still cautious, but she said the prescription is like a “permission slip” to start living again — even in small ways, like riding the elevator with more than three people. She keeps her prescription tucked into her journal. “It’s a treasure,” she said.

Sticking the landing

Evan Manivong went beyond a selfie to celebrate getting vaccinated. During a March 22 gymnastics meet, the 20-year-old University of Illinois sophomore ended his spectacular vault routine by pulling out something that he had tucked into his leotard.

As soon as he stuck the landing in his vault routine, University of Illinois gymnast Evan Manivong flashed his vaccination card in celebration. Video courtesy of University of Illinois Athletics

“Not sure what that is,” one announcer said. Manivong had flashed his vaccine card for the cameras. Soon after, he learned he tied his career-high score with a 14.750.

The athlete said he and his teammates were vaccinated a couple of weeks before the meet. The decision to bring it into his routine was a way to “flex” his vaccine card for his own celebration on live television, he said. A clip of the moment was shared widely online.

Manivong said that prior to his vaccine, he had to get tested for COVID three times a week while competing with the team. He also hadn’t been able to visit his family in Kansas City, Missouri. They were able to attend a few of his meets, but he wasn’t able to interact with them closely.

The athlete said the pandemic has affected the world of men’s gymnastics throughout the country. Both the University of Minnesota and University of Iowa cut their men’s gymnastics programs, citing budget constraints from COVID-19. Manivong said he also flashed his card to bring light to the dwindling support for men’s gymnastics.

“Although it’s a highly watched sport on the Olympic level, men’s NCAA gymnastics is kind of dying out,” he said.

A long drive

Lauren Schlesinger drove 152 miles round trip to receive her COVID-19 vaccine.

Schlesinger teaches high school and college, and her classes went back in-person in January. As a teacher, she was in one of Illinois’ priority vaccination groups. But in February, when she received her vaccine, appointments in Cook County, Illinois were scarce and slots filled up in seconds.

Lauren Schlesinger wears her mask and shield to work as a teacher. Her parents sent her a photo of their dog to help cope while they couldn’t see each other. Photos courtesy of Lauren Schlesinger

She started checking every county’s appointments daily and then one day, she saw an open slot in Boone County. For Schlesinger, the hour and a half drive was nothing compared to the possibility of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to others.

The Walgreens where she received her vaccine had run out of vaccine cards, so Schlesinger received a ripped piece of paper after her first dose with a doctor’s signature. After making the 152-mile trek for her second dose, she traded the paper for an official card.

“By me receiving the vaccine, many of my students gained a sense of hope, both at the secondary level and at the college level, that with science and safety measures, we would then come out of this and be able to move back to some type of normalcy,” Schlesinger said.

After a series of losses, ‘a chance at life’

For Jim Glines, the vaccine did provide relief, but he said that “more than that, I am grateful that I have a chance to live when my brother-in-law did not.” Getting vaccinated, Glines said, was “at least a chance at life, life he was denied.”

Jim Glines put both of his COVID-19 vaccine stickers on the cover of a notebook. Photo courtesy of Jim Glines.

His brother-in-law Chuck Roby, a New Britain, Connecticut, police sergeant, died on Christmas Eve, about three weeks after contracting the virus. He spent most of that time on a ventilator, Glines said.

Roby was a “remarkable man,” someone who always did his best to make him laugh, Glines said. Roby had taken Glines to an eye appointment, the last moment they were together before his brother-in-law was hospitalized.

Glines’ year before the pandemic was punctuated by crises he describes as “three punches in a row.” Glines was still in pain after the loss of his sister, Roby’s wife, who died the summer before the novel coronavirus emerged in the U.S. A few months prior to his sister’s death, his mother also died. The death of his brother-in-law as a result of COVID extended his period of grieving.

After seeing other people experience crisis after crisis throughout the pandemic, Glines said he has urged people to get the vaccine. He also wonders why some people aren’t “knocking down the doors to get the vaccine.”

The vaccine “is about being responsible,” he said. “And if you’re not a responsible member of society, then what are you doing?”

Normalcy ‘feels like freedom’

As a counselor at a correctional facility in the Southwest, Noelle Vasquez got her vaccine before other members of her family, including a sister who works at a grocery store, another sister who’s a teacher, and her parents.

Two of Noelle Vasquez’s children stand in front of Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at a local dinosaur museum. The family’s museum trip was a step toward some semblance of normalcy. Photo courtesy of Noelle Vasquez

Vasquez was also pregnant with her third child during the pandemic, but said “it just felt really weird that I got it first.” Her child was born in August, months before vaccines were rolled out.

It would be several months before her parents were both vaccinated. Her mother was on different waiting lists for the vaccine and spent a significant amount of time each day calling pharmacies, asking about openings.

Finally, she got her shot. To celebrate, Vasquez, 36, and her mother, along with her three children, went to a dinosaur exhibit. (Her 3-year-old son really loves dinosaurs.)

“It was cool to have a little bit of normalcy,” she said of the family’s museum trip. Spending more time together, thanks to the vaccine, “feels like freedom,” Vasquez wrote.

Social distancing throughout the pandemic had been hard, especially for her 3-year-old, Vasquez said, who hasn’t been around other kids his age. She hadn’t realized how much time she and her family had spent indoors until they went for a hike last summer. Vasquez said her son said, “I’m so happy! I’m so happy!” during the hike.

A plan interrupted

At the beginning of 2020, Carly Dillis had a plan: She would move from Massachusetts to Namibia, a country in southern Africa, and work at an environmental education center as her final project to complete her master’s degree. Then COVID-19 hit.

Carly Dillis moved to Montana as an AmeriCorps volunteer, a change of plans from what her job would be pre-pandemic. Courtesy of Carly Dillis

The Clark University graduate’s plan was upended seemingly overnight, and she had to quickly figure out a new project nearby to complete her degree in international development. She decided to work on a farm near her home, graduated without a ceremony, then moved to Whitefish, Montana, as an AmeriCorps volunteer.

“When most people finish college or high school, they’re sort of thrown into that world of adulthood. There’s all of these wide open paths you can take and it’s the biggest task of that era in your life to figure out what your first steps are going to be and what direction you’re going to put yourself in. And COVID just narrowed those options,” she said.

Dillis hopes she can one day move overseas and use her international development degree. The vaccine, she said, gives her hope that more options for her career will open back up.

“The vaccine, to me, doesn’t mean that our relationship with COVID is over, but it means that COVID no longer has the power to set the course of my life and it’s once again up to me,” she said.