COVID-19 Vaccines Are the Last Frontier of Pandemic Scolding

Cynthia Cochran Leyva, a 64-year-old attorney in Columbia, Missouri, did announce on Facebook that she had received her first shot at the end of January. She was surprised and saddened, she told me, when a longtime friend questioned her eligibility.

After a series of online exchanges, Leyva said, “I realized, Oh my God, she thinks I jumped the line.” At the time, Leyva’s daughter, who lives in Arizona, was very close to giving birth to her second son. Her friend seemed to imply that Leyva had manipulated her way into the vaccine line to expedite meeting her grandchild. In reality, Leyva had qualified for the inoculation because of her type 2 diabetes, which has been linked to a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19. Her friend, she told me, hadn’t been aware of her condition.

“It really took me aback,” Leyva said. She had expected only support—with perhaps a touch of good-natured jealousy—when she posted her photo. “I just thought of it as an exciting thing in my life, after a year of hard things,” she told me. Shaken by the tussle with her friend, Leyva kept the news of her second dose to herself.

There’s a special kind of survivor’s guilt that comes with lucking into a vaccine—getting a dose that would have been thrown away without a willing and available arm. One such arm belongs to a writer I spoke with in Wisconsin, who was offered an extra dose from a workplace health center after nearly all of her colleagues had gotten their shot. She jumped at the opportunity, knowing that the dose would otherwise go to waste. “I didn’t take a vaccine from someone else who needed it more,” she told me. “But I did accept a vaccine before others who needed it more had the chance.”

Disclosures aren’t just about bragging rights, or sexing up a Tinder profile. Personal narratives of individual vaccinations can help sway the hesitant and uncertain, especially in communities of color that have been repeatedly disenfranchised, ignored, and abused by the medical system. “Some of us felt a calling in this moment,” Utibe Essien, a physician and health-equity researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, told me. “We knew how important it was to get it out there, that these vaccines are safe and effective.” Even the weeks-late announcement of President Donald Trump’s January vaccination might persuade some reluctant white Republicans, a group in which vaccine distrust is particularly high, to sign up for their shots.

But for some people, disclosing their vaccination status means openly acknowledging the health condition that qualified them in the first place. Several of the conditions that check an eligibility box carry immense social baggage. A New Jersey scientist told me she was eager to extol the virtues of vaccination, but embarrassed to admit that she got the shot because of her high BMI. Leyva, the Missouri lawyer, said she’s hesitated to discuss her diagnosis of diabetes, a condition that often invites judgment about the lifestyle choices of those it afflicts.

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