A Vaccination and a Ray of Hope, Finally

People wait to get their COVID-19 vaccine dosages outside the Community Vaccination Center on St. Thomas at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Sports and Fitness Center on Friday. (Photo by the V.I. Health Department)

My phone pinged, alerting me to a text from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Hi Sian, it’s time for your first v-safe check-in,” it read, with a link to the agency’s portal that is collecting real-time COVID-19 vaccination data.

It was just under five hours since I had received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine and logged onto the CDC website to enroll in their monitoring program, as recommended by the V.I. Health Department.

Did I have a fever? Pain or swelling at the injection site? Did I feel good, fair or bad? Was I experiencing any other symptoms such as headache, nausea, fatigue, chills or abdominal pain?

That was at 2:04 p.m. Monday, and I was happy to report that I had no side effects whatsoever. In fact, I was surprised that when I received the shot at my doctor’s office, I did not feel it at all.

Fast-forward a few hours, though, and my arm had developed a deep ache and tenderness that has persisted. I reported that fact when the CDC checked in with me again on Tuesday afternoon.

It felt good to be able to contribute data – to contribute something – when so much during this past year has felt entirely out of my control.

I celebrated my sister’s 60th birthday on a Zoom call with about two dozen others on Monday afternoon, including my 80-something parents, just as 10 months earlier they had attended my wedding on St. Thomas by peering through their computer screens at the tiny gathering. They are in Canada, and the border has been closed to all but essential travel for almost a year now. I was unable to be there for my dad’s cancer treatments last spring or my sister’s emergency aneurysm surgery in August, which she endured alone due to COVID-19 restrictions. I harbor fears that I might never see them again.

It is a heartbreaking time, and my sorrows pale in comparison to the millions who have lost loved ones to the virus, unable even to offer the comfort of a familiar face in their final moments, or to grieve together with family and friends afterward. It is a staggering loss whose true toll we have not yet begun to fathom, the wounds still too fresh.

Navy Lt. Thuy Pham prepares a syringe with the vaccine in the Community Vaccination Center’s pharmacy at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Sports and Fitness Center on Friday on St. Thomas. (Photo by the V.I. Health Department)

Which is why, yes, you bet I embraced the opportunity to get a vaccine that promises to ease, if not eliminate, the ravages of COVID-19.

In fact, I likely would not exist but for science.

Back in the early 1940s, when my father was still a boy, he was badly bitten while breaking up a dog fight. The large wound quickly became infected, and the doctor of his small Welsh village was called to the bedside. Surveying the situation, he told my grandmother (who had already lost a baby to childhood cancer) that there was a new treatment he could try, but he could not guarantee the outcome.

Pulling out a large syringe from his bag, the doctor shot my father full of penicillin, a drug that today we take for granted, but back then was just coming into use. When he woke three days later, my father’s infection was gone, his young life saved by science. I wish I could say the same for the great-uncle I never met, who died of rabies in India for lack of treatment.

Rabies is a miserable and frightening way to die, as is COVID-19. A 30-something former colleague recently posted on Facebook, bemoaning the cold Idaho weather and polling friends on where she should travel to get a few rays of sunshine and ditch the “stupid masks.” (She settled on Mexico, a virus hotspot.) “If I die, I die,” she wrote, with no apparent thought of those she might infect along the way or that given a choice, you probably do not want to die hooked up to a ventilator while your lungs crystalize.

In hindsight, that is what I would tell the two older women I overheard while waiting in line at Walgreen’s on St. Thomas last week. An acquaintance who had just received his vaccine asked them if they had gotten theirs, touting the fact that the shots are now available to all ages through free community clinics set up by the V.I. Health Department in conjunction with the Department of Defense and the V.I. National Guard. 

“No. I’m still doing my research,” said one of the women, to nods of agreement from the other.

I have relied on the expertise of people like Dr. Tai Hunte-Caesar, the medical director at DOH and an infectious disease specialist, who has stressed the safety of the vaccines. We now have a choice to help defeat this virus – a choice that the 25 people lost to COVID-19 here in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and more than 2.5 million others around the world, never got to make.

I am happy, and relieved, to have made mine.

Vaccination is now open to all residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense and the V.I. National Guard. Call the registration line at 340-777-8227 for an appointment or at the website.