And, Exhale: Getting Vaccinated

For months we have read about the failure in the U.S. of incentivizing people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.  Apparently free donuts from Krispy Kreme, free cheeseburgers from Dick’s Drive-In (shoutout to Seattle!), and free entry into million dollar lotteries in multiple states do not tip the scale enough for those still missing their Fauci Ouchies to trade in their resistance to getting the jab in exchange for building their resistance to COVID-19.  Meanwhile, as public health and government officials in the U.S. begged people to get vaccinated, in Panama we waited not for donuts, cheeseburgers, and vaccination lotteries; rather we waited simply for the ability to get vaccinated.  

The Panamanian government said in January that the first shipments of Pfizer vaccines were coming soon, and laid out a tiered system of who could get vaccinated in what phase of the grand public health project.  As the Head of ISP, Audrey would get her shots in an early phase that prioritized educators.  Brian, as a “jubilado” (retired person) still more than half a decade away from age 60, would have to wait through the phases until the general population had their turn.  Still, Brian registered online  back in February so that he could get a date as soon as possible.  

In March, ISP took care of registering Audrey and arranging for her shots with the rest of the staff.  Brian drove her to her first dose appointment at a Panamanian school about 15 minutes from our house.  Knowing that unused Pfizer shots have to be discarded, he bundled up hope and walked with her through the entry line on the off chance that he could sweet talk his way into getting a shot with an extra dose.  Guards at the entry point checked off Audrey’s name on their list, then gave Brian a look that said implicitly he would go no farther.  Undeterred, he smiled and asked brightly if he could go in and wait to see what leftovers might be available at the end of the day.  Their stone-faced, simple, and clear response:  No.

So Brian returned to the car and watched Netflix on his phone while Audrey got her shot and waited 15 minutes to see if she would have a negative reaction.  She was fine, and after a total of about 45 minutes she joined Brian at the car and we headed home.  A few weeks later they repeated the process, though this time at a different school 20 minutes away in the opposite direction and without Brian bothering to ask if he could wait for an extra dose.  Again it took at most 45 minutes for her to finish.  Neither time did she suffer any noticeable side effects, and we were relieved that at least one of us had Pfizer’s vaccine coursing through her veins.

That was the last we heard about Pfizer until just recently.  With the U.S. holding off emergency approval of AstraZeneca in the wake of reports that several people out of millions had suffered blood clots after receiving the AZ vaccine, the USA started sending its stockpiles of AZ abroad for other countries to use.  Brian cared less about getting Pfizer specifically than about getting whatever reputable vaccine he could (which he counted as Pfizer, Moderna, or AstraZeneca) as soon as he could.  With Panama planning its vaccinations with AstraZeneca instead of with the Russian or Chinese vaccines about which Brian had concerns, he steeled himself to be patient.

Even after Audrey got her shots, we both continued living in a relatively small bubble until Brian could get vaccinated as well.  Initial hope in early 2021 that this would come quickly dissipated.  As weeks and months passed, we learned of many people who traveled to the U.S. to take advantage of the readily-available vaccines not being taken by people living in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere.  Once shipments of AZ started coming to Panama, despite having registered online months before, Brian needed to go online again for one of the AstraZeneca vaccination events sponsored by MINSA (the Health Ministry), with the windows for doing so opening sporadically and briefly.  He tried several times when he heard that the online site had opened up for an event, only to discover time and again that the limited number of doses available had been claimed in a matter of hours.  After hearing one night that people who showed up at a vaccination event at Estadio Rommel Fernández were able to get vaccinated without appointments, he drove to the stadium the next day only to find the entire complex empty, a ghost town with abandoned signs announcing the event as the only evidence that it had happened at all…It had closed the previous day after running out of doses.  Frustrated that he could not secure a date, Brian decided that if he failed to get shot locally by the end of July he would exercise the U.S. option as well.

Then, finally, it happened.

With several people on the lookout for helping Brian get an appointment, our ISP neighbor Priyanka (who had been so helpful when we first arrived a year ago) once again saved the day by plugging his residency information into the online site, then texting Brian to say she had an appointment for him on June 1 in a grand vaccination event to be held at Estadio Rommel Fernández.  Brian quickly contacted friend Tupac, another ISP trailing spouse, to let him know about the opportunity to register.  Tupac got an appointment for June 2, and they decided that Tupac would drive Brian on June 1 and Brian would drive Tupac on June 2.

On the morning of June 1, Tupac picked him up at 10:15 for the 11:00 appointment and drove him to the stadium.  What they found did not resemble Audrey’s school vaccination site at all, and impressed them greatly.  First, with all the flags and signs (including sponsorship signs from grocery store chains, health organizations, the ever present “Claro vs. Tigo” mobile phone marketing battle, and more), the event seemed almost festive.  Second, the cars lined up moved at a good pace through the long line due to excellent organization of the event.  Third, when they stopped at the first checkpoint and Brian showed evidence of his appointment for that morning, Tupac asked if he could get his first shot as well.  Showing the official the email confirming his appointment for June 2, he let Tupac get his shot as well rather than having to return the next day, and put “first shot” stickers on both their residency cards.  Winding through the Disney-like car line of switchbacks to make people feel like they proceeded more quickly than they actually did, with additional check points to check IDs and get vaccination cards, they eventually discovered that the entire “Auto Rápido” process occurred outside on the stadium grounds’ access roads and parking lots without ever exiting one’s vehicle.  After pulling into the drive-through tent where the jabbing took place, they got their shots and then followed the Disney course to a section of the parking lot that Brian dubbed “the Facebook Area.”  Meant for people to park and wait 15 minutes to ensure no bad side effects (and with a medical tent on site to care for anyone with a bad reaction), there seemed an unwritten rule that everyone waiting there had to snap selfies and post for posterity their receipt of the vaccine.  Tupac and Brian, of course, did so as well.  After waiting 15 minutes and posting photos on Facebook, they headed home.

Though Audrey suffered no side effects from her Pfizer shots, by that evening Brian’s upper arm felt very sore.  By the next day, he exhibited flu-like achiness and exhaustion, and slept most of the day.  Then all passed and he felt fine again.  One dose down, and MINSA started sending daily emails reminding Brian of his second dose appointment scheduled for July 1.

When July 1 came, this time Brian picked up Tupac (who also received a July 1 appointment for his second dose) at 7:18 am and they set out to repeat the process.  With morning traffic, the 15-minute drive to Estadio Rommel Fernández took 30 minutes, marking their arrival at 7:48 am.  Driving through the entry arch welcoming them with “Bienvenidos – Centro de Vacunación – Auto Rápido” they found no cars lined up until some ways down the chute.  Upon stopping with a handful of cars lined up in two lanes, an official held them briefly.  The first check went quickly and they got their “second shot” stickers on their residency cards, then the official waved them forward past the right lane filled with cars and into the empty left lane driving past 20-30 vehicles.  At the second checkpoint where they showed their vaccination cards, they again found no cars in their left lane and got waved forward to curve through the Disney line past another 10-20 cars and straight on to an empty vaccination tent while the other tents had lines waiting at them.  Inside the tent, they again showed their vaccination cards and IDs, got their shots from an efficient vaccinator, then rolled on to the Facebook Area to post about COVID liberation while making sure neither suffered bad side effects.  With their assigned vaccination appointments at 8:00-9:00 am, they hit the Facebook Area at 7:54.  A mere total of six minutes expired from their arrival to receiving their shots.  This time, Brian had no side effects at all; just a little soreness at the injection spot for a day.

Then the waiting game began, knowing that it takes a couple weeks for the vaccine to take full effect.  Despite the temptation to pop out of his bubble, Brian resisted until two full weeks passed, celebrating Liberation Day at a (still outside) rooftop restaurant birthday dinner surprise for Audrey planned by several of her leadership staff at ISP.  We came out further the next week when we headed to El Valle – a town  2 ½ hours away in the Interior nestled in the crater of a dormant volcano – for Audrey to lead an ISP Leadership Team Retreat.  Overall, though, we have remained restrained in order to minimize Brian’s exposure before heading to the Pacific Northwest for seven weeks to help his octogenarian mother with a number of projects with which she needs assistance.

While she will miss him during his absence, Audrey looks forward to shellfish-allergic Brian’s departure so she can eat seafood every night and open her bubble more freely.  Brian looks forward to his return in October when finally he can open his bubble and see the inside of a church for the first time since 26 February 2020 when he went to Ash Wednesday Mass with friends Nic and Lyle in Prague.

Despite our lingering practice of precautions for the time being, with both of us finally vaccinated, we breathe more easily with much less worry about COVID making it harder to breathe at all.

On your mark, get set, here we go!

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