The Dallas Morning News

Post-vaccine whiplash swoops in

After a year of questionin­g every social decision, freedom is more than a little terrifying

- By PEGGY WEHMEYER Peggy Wehmeyer is a writer in Dallas and a former religion news correspond­ent for WFAATV and ABC News. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

The massive box from Costco was splayed open on my foyer floor and still unpacked when my friend June stopped by to borrow my ski boots. It was the first week in March 2020.

June laughed at my stockpile. “What are you? Some kind of Eagle Scout?” she said. The box was stuffed with everything needed to survive a pandemic, from hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes, to tuna, rice and peanut butter.

Most of my friends know that as a journalist I keep up with a handful of newspapers a day. They also know I’m the one most likely to win in a game of Worst Case Scenario.

I’d considered COVID-19 a threat before anyone in my family or friend group knew the virus had a name. While June was planning her ski trip to Utah, I canceled a trip to California.

Ten days later, June had landed back in Dallas and called me on her way home from the airport. “I have a fever and I feel terrible,” she said. We think June was the first victim of COVID-19 in ZIP code 75214.

I may have beaten my friends and neighbors on the toilet paper run, but no one could have prepared for the year ahead. Like millions of Americans, I retreated to my home, learned to order groceries online, stopped seeing my grandchild­ren and stared at the empty calendar.

The greatest risk my husband and I took was having a couple of friends over to our back yard for a socially distanced meal. When they asked to use the restroom, we waved them toward the bushes. “You need to loosen up a little,” some of them would say. “How can you stand living in such fear?”

What they didn’t know was that I’d rewired my brain in 2020 to weigh every social decision I made against one question: “Could what I’m about to do send me to the ICU on a ventilator?”

The answer was often yes, so there was little hand-wringing over my choices. I learned how to get small; to make the best of my shrunken, isolated world.

About the time I knew the name of every dog on my street and the difference between a house finch and the pine siskin on my bird feeder, the first shipment of COVID vaccines had landed in North Texas.

I signed up on every waiting list available and badgered friends for tips on how they’d scored their vaccines.

“Go to this pharmacy,” someone said. “they’re tossing out the extras at 7 p.m.”

“Try this link,” someone else told me. “No one knows about it yet.”

My phone pinged with a text at 7:43 a.m. telling me to make an appointmen­t, only to find that all the available slots had been filled by 7:45.

One morning in January I scrambled out of bed before sunup and drove in the dark to a small hospital rumored to have the vaccine. I arrived before the doors opened and a security officer asked, “You looking for the vaccine?” “Yes!” I said with a rush of hope.

He gestured toward a nondescrip­t building across the parking lot. “Go to the second floor and you’ ll find them there,” he said.

I hurried to the empty building, got in an elevator for the first time in months, and followed the signs through a maze of hallways to “Vaccine Clinic.” When I got there, I found a large paper sign taped to a locked door: “Out of vaccines. No supplies scheduled at this time.” I almost cried.

Then one day, after weeks of playing whacka-mole on a hospital website, I hit the vaccine jackpot, and for the next six weeks while waiting for my antibodies to build, I fantasized about liberation. I booked a cheap flight to the beach with two friends for the exact day when my vaccine was supposed to protect me.

Within minutes of boarding a crowded flight to Fort Lauderdale, my giddiness turned to anxiety. I’d just rubbed shoulders with strangers hoisting their carry-ons into the overhead bin. The woman seated behind me had a dry cough — the kind no lozenge can silence. Cattycorne­r to me a passenger was snoring, with his mask sagging below his nose.

At 30,000 feet, it dawned on me that I was knee deep in behaviors that I’d spent a year convincing myself could make me very sick.

My POST-COVID whiplash left me wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake. I closed my eyes, turned the air vent up full blast and repeated: “You’ve trusted science all year. Trust it now. Your vaccine is protecting you.”

A few times I glanced over my shoulder at the woman coughing behind me, convinced she had COVID-19. When my anxiety got the best of me, I pressed the flight attendant call button.

“The woman behind me is sick,” I whispered to a nonplussed flight attendant. “And don’t you make people on these flights wear their masks?” I directed my eyes toward the man sleeping partially unmasked.

“Ma’am, if you’re not comfortabl­e where you’re sitting, you’re welcome to find another seat,” the attendant said. “And yes, we do ask people to mask, but we don’t disturb them when they’re sleeping.”

I wasn’t the only one bursting out of my COVID prison to get to South Florida. The streets in Fort Lauderdale were packed with unmasked revelers. Inside restaurant­s, you’d never have known we’d all been living — and still were — in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

I basked in the sun and the company of my friends in those five days, but at times I found myself humming the tune from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborho­od, the one my 3-year-old granddaugh­ter sings when she’s excited to come to my house, but a little scared to leave her mommy. “Sometimes you feel two feelings at the same time and that’s OK,” she sings from her car seat on the way to my house.

I wouldn’t trade my POST-COVID life for the narrow world I inhabited in 2020. But narrow has its gifts, and I don’t want to lose them. As my social calendar fills and my list of things to do grows, I hope I’ ll remember to slow down and fill my bird feeder.

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