The Washington Post Sunday
This spring, many Americans are taking road trips to get vaccinated.
The author joined the many Americans traveling to immunization sites hours away from home
As I headed south on Interstate 55 in central Illinois recently, windshield wipers slap-tapping against a heavy rain, an overhead sign blared a warning in all-caps golden neon letters. “Pay Attention,” it said, “You Never Know What Is Ahead.”
Fitting, I thought. By driving 169 miles from my home in suburban Chicago to a downstate CVS Pharmacy for my first coronavirus vaccination, I was investing seven hours of a workday to protect myself from what may be ahead. As a 62-year-old with preexisting conditions, I had decided to take a one-day “vaccication.”
One year into the pandemic, Americans are focused on travel precautions, vaccine passports and securing vaccination appointments. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new travel guidelines saying it is safe for fully vaccinated people to travel domestically, the paradox is that some unvaccinated Americans are traveling during the pandemic to get a vaccination — giving new meaning to the label covid long-hauler.
According to a recent study by West Health Policy Center, which focuses on seniors’ health care, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, vaccination distribution and availability across the country varies widely. There are some counties in which 100 percent of the population lives more than 10 miles from a vaccination facility, and others with fewer than one facility per 10,000 residents.
“Some 9 million Americans live further than 10 miles from the closest vaccine administration site. Requiring even one person to travel outside of their community to access the vaccine is a burden but asking this of millions of Americans is its own public health emergency,” Sean Dickson, director of health policy at the West Health Policy Center, said in an email.
No one seems to be officially tracking how far Americans are traveling for shots. Doug Ward, a Colorado Springs resident and founder of VaccineHunter.org, said by email that, anecdotally, he estimates about 40 to 50 percent of people are finding vaccine appointments within 30 minutes of their homes. Others are not so lucky scoring a nearby option and are making day trips or longer drives for their vaccinations. “Out of 10 members of my family, five did two- or four-hour round trips for vaccines,” said Rachael Dzaiba, a high school junior who co-founded the Illinois Vaccine Hunters Facebook group.
Many states are reporting that nonresidents are receiving vaccinations; in Pennsylvania as of press time, over 139,000 of the more than 2 million people fully vaccinated in all counties were out-of-staters.
So, I’m clearly not alone in choosing to travel for a vaccine rather than wait longer locally.
“There is an immediate sense of relief, knowing you have taken that step,” said Inger Burnett-Zeigler, 40, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “I think the option to go get the vaccine is providing people with hope and optimism about being able to return to some normality.”
But, she added, traveling is not an option available to everyone. “For folks in under-resourced areas, the idea of going elsewhere is out of reach.”
Lou Grossman was willing and able to hit the road. The 69-yearold Sarasota, Fla., resident and his wife, Amy, 63, both partners in Grossman Public Relations Counselors, spent a total of seven hours driving to and from West Palm Beach, Fla., for their vaccinations.
After doing the trip in one day for the first shot, they decided to take it easier for the second dose. They stayed overnight in a hotel, and enjoyed dining outside, taking a walk on a local beach, window shopping and visiting friends in Palm Beach. “We had a relaxing two days,” he said. “I feel relieved.”
Though she only drove an hour each way for her own vaccination, Jenny Thompson, 53, CEO and founder of SafetyPIN Technologies, spent more than 11 hours round trip (with a few stops) to drive her 79-year-old mother, Meira Cagan, to and from her second vaccine appointment.
“She was registered on five to six sites and could never get appointments anywhere in Baltimore. I was starting to get nervous,” said Thompson, who is based temporarily in West Orange, N.J. So, she drove down to Baltimore and then to Upper Marlboro, Md., to secure her mother’s shot.
Deborah Dreyfuss-Tuchman, a Chicago resident living part time in Palm Springs, Calif., signed up her family to volunteer for eight hours at a site four hours away in Glendale, Ariz., to get their vaccinations.
Dreyfuss-Tuchman, who is a business development director for a media advertising company in her early 60s, worked registration. Husband Jeremy Tuchman, a long-term-care insurance broker also in his early 60s, picked up trash in a golf cart. And daughters Haley Tuchman, 27, an attorney, and Danielle Tuchman, 22, a graduate student, worked in the hospitality suite. “After the second vaccine, I felt more comfortable, and it was spectacular being able to dine with friends in Arizona,” Dreyfuss-Tuchman said.
Twenty-five-year-old Jake Seaton, a tech start-up founder, said he and two friends took a six-hour, 400-mile overnight trip from D.C., to Florence, S.C., for their first Pfizer shots in hopes of being able to return to a more normal life (and getting a second shot closer to home). “We looked at states where we were eligible this early, and South Carolina was the closest,” he said. “It was fun to go on an adventure on the road with friends.”
As for myself, after spending at least 30 hours online trying to get a vaccination locally, I Googled a map of Illinois and started typing in cities where an appointment might be available. Peoria, no. Rockford, no. Aurora, no. Springfield, no. Pekin, boom. That’s why, on that rainy Thursday, I set out with my appointment confirmation and prescribed medication for asthma, high blood pressure and high cholesterol — all to prove my eligibility — for the small city of nearly 33,000 people near Peoria.
Central Illinois felt expansive and smooth, but the storm robbed me of the chance to enjoy the views of winter-starved open land and enormous trees primed to turn green. When I stopped in Dwight, Ill., to use the restroom at a gas station/mini-mart, I bought a Diet Coke to be polite to the cheery woman at the cash register. It felt rude to just use the restroom and leave.
After I left Dwight, it took a few tricky turns to reach Pekin and the shiny white CVS Pharmacy where I would get my shot. A nurse named Roz guided me through the quick and orderly process. No one asked to see my prescription bottles. As the shot went into my arm, sincere relief spread throughout my body like a prayer.
After I waited the requisite post-vaccination time, Roz smiled and said, “See you in three weeks.” She was nice, but I hoped not; I planned to get my second Pfizer dose closer to home. (And I did, in Flossmoor, Ill., about 30 miles away.)
A few miles down the road, I pulled into what looked like a locally owned small-town restaurant called Cobbler Corner, which promised food I probably shouldn’t eat on a regular basis but knew I would enjoy, for my only taste of Pekin. I settled on the combo of onion rings, mozzarella sticks and breaded mushrooms to start. For the main course, I ordered a chicken patty melt with fries, and then I added two cobblers — naturally — to bring to my sons at home.
The combo arrived with a small dish of spaghetti sauce for dipping. An older woman at another table asked how it was. “It’s great,” I told her. She thanked me and smiled and waved at me throughout the meal. I waved back. I had made two friends in Pekin, which is way more than I make in a day working in my home office for 11 hours at a stretch.
It was still raining when I got back in the car. There was no neon sign to remind me to PAY ATTENTION but I managed to swerve around not one, but two fallen bumpers on my way home, secure in the knowledge that I was already halfway to a safer life.
“Some 9 million Americans live further than 10 miles from the closest vaccine administration site.” Sean Dickson, director of health policy at the West Health Policy Center