They are joyful things, these vaccines.
Worth getting dressed up for. Cause for celebration and selfies. Impetus for unexpected upwellings of emotion.
Even as their rollout can seem, at times, haltingly, achingly, maddeningly slow, it is happening. More than one-third of the United States now has one. About the same percentage in Washington state. And half of King County.
One day last week, 8,000 people got the Pfizer vaccine in a Seattle convention center, likely the most people, to date, to get a shot in one spot, in one day, in the state.
The vaccines are free and health insurance is not required. On Thursday, all Washington residents ages 16 and up will be eligible to receive one. And vaccinations continue apace, despite a pause for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while federal officials review safety data.
Strip it of context and it’s almost dystopian: 8,000 strangers herded into a steel and concrete hangar to stand in a maze of lines awaiting their turn to get jabbed in the arm with a sharp piece of metal.
But after living through the last year, they’re like keys, unlocking that which has been out of reach. They herald the imminent return of the monumental and the mundane — weddings and movie theaters, far-flung trips and afternoons at the library, packed concerts and watching a game at a friend’s house.
“Look at this, you know,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said to a staff member as they walked in the Lumen Field Event Center mass vaccination site last week. “I’m going to start tearing up.”
Omar Joya took the day off work last week — he’s a product engineer at Microsoft — to volunteer at the event center.
“It’s a real joy, seeing people coming in,” Joya said. “Everyone’s just in a great mood, really great.”
Patients arrived at his station (Line A, Station 15), he logged their information. Then they got their shot from a nurse.
It’s taken a lot to get to that point.
There was the year spent in pandemic anxiety — every social interaction analyzed, every cough interrogated — as the virus killed more than 5,300 people in Washington. Then the vaccines arrived and there are months of waiting turns and slogging through the appointment process.
“It’s been so hard to figure out appointments,” said Bobbi Gant, a nurse, who administered the shots at Station 15 after Joya logged the data. “They’ve gotten to their phase, they’ve gotten their appointments, this is an environment where it’s rare that you have a disgruntled person at all.”
“They’re only disgruntled if they’re afraid of needles,” Joya offered.
Gant, retired after a career at Swedish Edmonds, has been volunteering at vaccine clinics since January, first at Seattle University and more recently at the city-run clinics.
People want selfies. They want to take pictures with her. She’s happy to comply.
Others, overcome, cry.
“I have had people, all of a sudden, I just notice the tears are flowing,” Gant said. “And they will apologize and say ‘I’m sorry for doing this but it’s just heart-wrenching for me that I’ve finally made it this far.'”
Every one of those 8,000 vaccinated at Lumen Field last Wednesday, every one of the 917,000 vaccinated in King County and the 2.6 million in Washington and the 122 million nationally has a story, has things they want to return to, things the vaccine will make possible.
Ilays Aden blinked and winced as Gant put the needle in her arm. A smile quickly shone through.
She started her job at the Port of Seattle during the pandemic and hasn’t met her colleagues in person yet. A Somali American, she talked about the importance to her community of getting vaccinated and telling people about it, “so that we don’t have those misconceptions or misinformation.”
She was nervous about getting the vaccine, but the feeling disappeared after she got it.
“I’m ready for life to open up again,” Aden, 33, said. She’s been hoping to go to a cousin’s wedding in New Orleans in late May, so the vaccines are arriving just in time.
“I’m a little safer than I was yesterday,” she said. “The future feels brighter, I think.”
Across the hangar, John and Alex Veazey strolled together through snaking Line C toward their appointment, their infant son, Sawyer, strapped to Alex.
The couple works for a Ballard company that services fish processing equipment. Alex, 28, was eight months pregnant when the pandemic hit. It’s been a long year. They haven’t left the state since the pandemic hit, “which is hard because we travel a lot.”
She worries that Sawyer, 11 months, has spent his whole life so far away from other people. Other than his parents and his grandmother, “he won’t let anyone else touch or hold him, even family members,” she said.
But, her doctor noted, every other kid born last year is in the same boat.
Their turn to get their shots came. “Can we get it together?” John, 29, asked a volunteer. No such luck.
Alex was off to station 7 and John to 17. But a couple minutes later, they were back together, sitting in neighboring chairs for the requisite 15-minute observation period.
“We were just talking and then all of a sudden she stuck me, I was like, oh, we’re done, quick and easy,” John said. “It took longer to get here and get parked than it did to get vaccinated.”
He’d booked their appointments as soon as they became eligible.
“The last year was really just hard on everybody,” he said. “I’m relieved. I feel like it’s the start of something better, we’re kind of on the upswing now.”
They’re planning a trip to Hawaii next year.
No vaccine yet for Sawyer, who kicked off one of his green slip-on lion shoes as his parents passed him back and forth.
“Hey, you’re missing a shoe,” his dad said. “We gotta be careful, he’ll just take off. He’s a runner, man.”
Julitsa Fleming, 59, has been waiting her turn for a while, so she dressed up for the occasion: regal purple pea coat and a hand-stitched pink and green hat she’d made.
An artist, she’s kept busy during the pandemic painting and sewing. But she’s from Brazil, where the pandemic is currently raging out of control.
“I see what’s going on there and I can’t wait for everybody to get vaccinated over there,” she said. “The vaccination is the solution for this pandemic, please!”
Tomas Medrano rises in the dark every morning in his Beacon Hill home so he can arrive at the bagel bakery where he works by 4 a.m. For him, the vaccine brings peace of mind. He’s been tested for the virus a half dozen times over the past year. He doesn’t want to bring it home to his wife and two young daughters.
“Now I can go to work and don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “I’m happy.”
The last time Supaporn Pasiri, 38, was at the stadium complex was for a Beyoncé concert.
“I miss concerts,” she said. A server at a small Thai restaurant in Belltown, Pasiri saw her take-home pay fall when they had to go to takeout only. Now, back at 50% capacity, customers keep asking her: “You get the vaccine yet? You get the vaccine yet?”
She signed up online last Monday night when appointments opened up. Then she called a co-worker. Should she book an appointment for her as well? She did. Then she called a friend and asked the same question. And another. And another.
Pasiri booked appointments for six friends and co-workers, all Thai immigrants, like herself. Some had been too busy to do it themselves, some couldn’t figure out the booking process, some just appreciated the extra nudge.
“They said, ‘Thank you so much,'” she said.
Pasiri described herself as “the person who doesn’t like to get shots sometimes.” She snapped a selfie after it was over.
“I feel happy right now,” she said. “I’m a lucky person. A lot of people in my country they didn’t have a chance to get the vaccine.”
After the seven friends sat for 15 minutes post-vaccine, they posed for a group portrait. Then they left, bound for a Chinatown International District restaurant to celebrate.