Richard Alishio, 68, is fully vaccinated. He got his second shot weeks ago and had big plans to lounge on the beach in San Diego or visit his 97-year-old father in Chicago. There’s just one problem: Nobody’s ready to travel with him yet.
“It’s kind of like being dressed up with nowhere to go,” Alishio says. The Columbia City resident was already going to restaurants and gyms when guidance allowed, but the vaccine further lessened his fears. Now, he’s waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out across Washington. An estimated 27.4% of people (and counting) have received at least one shot, but those who have been vaccinated find themselves in limbo. They are safer (the vaccines are about 90% effective in real-life conditions), but some are still cautious, mindful that the vaccines are not force fields. And they don’t want to somehow unwittingly pass on COVID-19 to the unvaccinated, so they find themselves waiting for loved ones — or even the public at large — to be vaccinated before they loosen many of the restrictions they’ve been living with for the past year.
Lance Lu, 71, is a drummer and percussionist who lives near Greenwood. He’s been practicing music alone in his basement for three hours a day, every day, since performances with his band were canceled last year — a situation that’s far from ideal. “Music is not a solitary thing. It has no meaning if it doesn’t make somebody else happy,” he says. And “there are some skills in music that you cannot develop alone, you need to create with other musicians.”
Lu, who recently received his second shot, plans to set up small practice sessions with other musicians who’ve been vaccinated. “It will be very small, like playing jazz with a piano, bass and drums,” he said. “We will follow CDC’s guidance on how to do that safely.”
But even the relief of being vaccinated hasn’t relieved the anxiety of the pandemic. Alice Fleck of Kirkland, 68, expected to feel much freer once she received the vaccine. As a retired teacher, she’s helped her daughter and son-in-law with online schooling and child care over the last year. They’ve been extremely cautious, so when she received the vaccination, she went a little wild. She went to Costco and it went so well that she went to another store. That went well too. But at the third store, there were a lot more people. There were so many masks.
“We came home and I had a panic attack. A full-out panic attack,” she said. “My husband was helping me regulate my breathing.” After a year of barely leaving the house, it was just too much. “Reentry anxiety is a real thing.”
Fleck reevaluated her plans and instead decided to take smaller steps toward a return to normalcy — focused mainly on activities that bring her joy. She’s gone to her favorite coffee shop. She went to Burgermaster with a former colleague and walked around her local plant nursery. She took her granddaughter to the mall for a haircut. “I could do that because she was holding my hand and they have the rule that everybody is masked,” she explains.
For some, the joys of vaccinations have been quiet and personal. Rainier Valley resident Patricia Vazquez, 87, had been watching church services online over the last several months. She was able to take communion at church this month, which she said was “marvelous.”
After her second vaccine, 77-year-old Cristina Alvarez went to a popular local diner and her local library in Kent. But she’s really hoping to meet her 7-month-old grandson for the first time soon — maybe for Easter.
Indoor, unmasked gatherings with friends have been some of the first real steps toward normalcy that many have taken, which is no surprise since it’s one of the few activities the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved for vaccinated people. John Lynch, 52, an infectious diseases doctor for UW Medicine, dined with vaccinated colleagues and friends. Even though he’s been far from socially isolated due to his work, being in someone’s home was meaningful. “To get back to that was really gratifying, somewhat like a relief, a little respite from the stress of the year,” he says.
Amy Sing, 63, lives in North Seattle and visited friends recently in Arizona. All six of them were vaccinated. Not only were they able to have a big dinner together, they were able to hug. “Hugs is a big thing. A year of no physical contact has been brutal,” she says. Perhaps even more important was that she got to hug her 90-year-old mother after her care facility started allowing vaccinated visitors. It was “wonderful,” she says. “I was very emotional.”
Robert Nielsen, 73, of Greenwood, watched a basketball game with friends. But the vaccine “hasn’t made as huge a difference as you’d think,” he says. They’d already been seeing friends distanced and with masks, and it was more comfortable without them. That’s about it. He feels safer, but in general, he’s still concerned. “I really don’t want to give the virus to anyone else, even if I’m immune to it,” he says. “I’d like to say it’s expanded my horizons. It has. But it’s still constrained to a certain degree.”
Several people mentioned getting back to or increasing essential tasks like shopping instead of having groceries delivered, but the full benefits of vaccination still seemed to be somewhere in the future.
Travel is a popular goal. Nielsen says he and his wife are looking at travel trailer trips to national parks this summer, especially now that some visitor centers will be opening.
Albert Shing, 67, who has a timeshare in Hawaii, just rebooked a canceled flight from last year for May. He’s keeping an eye on whether vaccination passports will make it easier to travel abroad without the headache of quarantine or testing. Beyond his travel plans, his day-to-day hasn’t changed much. He’s still being cautious. “I have a little more confidence now,” he says. “I can go to the store and not feel like I’m going to die, maybe.”
As for Alishio, more people in his social circle have gotten at least one shot. At this point, he says the biggest thing holding him back from traveling is himself. “I could go now,” he says. “It’s just a matter of getting myself motivated to go.” That’s harder to do when so many places are still largely shut down and his friends aren’t ready.
When, exactly, will people feel more comfortable loosening the reins? Many said they’re waiting on further CDC guidance. Others said things won’t feel fully safe until masks aren’t necessary in public. Most expressed hope that anyone who wanted the vaccine could get it in the near future.
“I hope everybody gets it,” says 66-year-old Mansak Douangdala, who is retired but has been driving supplies to SouthEast Seattle Senior Center and got his second vaccine recently. “If everybody gets it, that would be good news.”
Donnetta Gillum, who turns 80 this year, just wants to be able to go back to worship in person. She’ll do that, masked, soon — maybe in June or July — when her church members decide to resume. “It’s something to look forward to,” she says. The weather is warming. Her spirits are up. “If we can make it a year, we can go the last mile.”