My wife’s grandmother is almost 95 years old and we visit her and her husband Rainbow on a regular basis. Both of them grew up in poverty and their strength and their humor rises from that. We have meals there as often as we can and they tell us stories of hard times and past lives.
At least, that’s how it used to be before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then we talk to them on Skype and they figured out how to set that up on their computer. It’s good to see them face to face, even if it’s on a screen.
It doesn’t help when their house lost water pressure or when the oven quit working. The temptation to go into the house to fix things is strong, but I want to keep our distance. I am around sick people in the hospital and I’m careful to wear the proper personal protective equipment I need. I wash my hands often and I keep my distance from people as much as I can.
Still, I know I am a risk.
Elders and those with chronic illnesses are most in danger of complications from COVID-19. There are people who don’t think this is a dangerous disease because it only kills a small percentage of those who get it. So far that translates into over 300,000 deaths from this virus and the daily death count in the United States is in the thousands.
There are parallels to the 1918 influenza pandemic. There were mask mandates then and there were protests against them. There were conspiracy theories that a popular brand of aspirin contained the virus. Travelers and gatherings spread the virus and over 50 million people died worldwide.
The science wasn’t there in those days. Now it is. The COVID-19 vaccine was first delivered in the weeks before Christmas. The vaccine has been extensively studied in clinical trials. This is over 30,000 people for the Moderna vaccine and over 43,000 for the Pfizer vaccine.
Both vaccines use new technology and are messenger RNA vaccines. This means no virus particles are given. What is given is a message to your cells to make the spike protein we all know from the images of the virus. That spike protein causes your immune cells to form protection.
The first dose of the vaccine primes the immune system. When the second dose is given 21 or 28 days later, optimal immunity happens. When the immune system reacts to the second dose, some people can feel sick for 24 to 48 hours.
This can be a headache, body ache, chills, fever and other symptoms. These symptoms are NOT COVID-19, but a side effect of your own body’s immune response. Medicines like Tylenol and Ibuprofen can help and overall side effects from the vaccine have been mild.
With all the advances in medicine over the last century, the most impact has been from public health, clean air, clean water and vaccines.
Right now there isn’t enough vaccine for everyone and this means it will take time to build up immunity in the population. That means we need to continue to wear masks, keep our social distance, wash our hands frequently, avoid public gatherings and sanitize frequently touched surfaces.
Is this a sacrifice?
Not compared to losing an elder. Ivy and I go to her grandmother’s house and we stand outside the window and we wave and we can talk on the phone. I can see the sadness and longing in Ivy’s eyes and in her grandmother’s. I can see the distance that pane of glass puts between them.
Hugs are out for now. Meals together are out. Setting up the air mattress and making pancakes in the morning is out.
We keep our distance because we want them to get through this pandemic. We need all of us and we need our elders. Our stories live in them.
We’ve been through pandemics before, but never with a resource like the COVID-19 vaccine. Don’t believe the myths. I’ll talk about the myths next time. Getting vaccinated not only protects you, it prevents the spread of the virus. Get the vaccine. Both doses.
This is going to allow all of us to cross that threshold and go inside without costing us our elders.
Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He is a member of the Association of American Indian Physicians and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.