I was vaccinated earlier this month. It was the first of two Moderna vaccines, with the second one slated for early February. About 10 days after that, I will be immune to the plague that has ruled my life, and that of everyone on the planet, this past terrifying year. My God, free at last!
But hold the Champagne. My V-E Day — Vaccinating the Elderly Day — was a blessing so mixed, a clash of feelings so jarring, that it was hard to keep one’s bearings.
There we were, off to the Strawberry Festival Fairground in Plant City. (Cue John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever.”) We were supposed to form a line, to wait in our cars for my appointment-only COVID shot. On the car radio, the House countdown had begun for the second impeachment of the most destructive president of our lifetime. The week just past, our Capitol had been invaded and sacked, a gallows put up outside by a rabid mob. Next to me was my wife Thia, a year younger than I, no vaccine soup for her — supplies had run out for her 65-to-75 age group. And in a family close to us, a second case of COVID was just reported.
Tap-tapping on the steering wheel, I waited. An hour and a half later, health workers moseyed us along, ding, the deed was done. Half-pocked, we headed for home.
In the fusillade of exploding world and family events, it was tough to hold onto any one ricocheting emotion for very long:
A jab, that was easy, my life’s changed! Well, not for everyone.
Hang in there, honey, website says just 60 more days for you. We’ll work every angle.
Siri, directions home!
Let’s check in with the patients. How are they? Oh, damn.
Get CNN on your phone — what did Nancy say? They wanted to hang Pence?
Sure, I’m happy! Promise. It’s just. … Watch out, the guy ahead of us, no blinkers.
In my past columns in these pages, I’ve chronicled how we seniors are puttering along in this part of Florida in the Age of COVID. I’ve covered everything from the maskless party dudes of Clearwater Beach; my granddaughters’ invention of foot-hugs during a distanced vacation; the “what-me-worry” golf cart caravans at the Villages.
I was never easy on Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Trump disciple who kept our state under fewer restrictions than any other large state. His Darwinian approach kept a lot of businesses open, but sent a lot more people to the ventilators than needed. An approach he’s still practicing, I guess, to judge by the lack of any statewide mask mandates in Florida, with the nation’s third-highest rate of infection. Last week, in my apartment building, I again waved away two more millennial dudes who wanted to enter my elevator without masks. I pointed my cane at them, and squinted, trying to look like Clint Eastwood on a lawn. (Mostly, my fellow residents are polite and thoughtful.)
When the first online sign-up was announced a few weeks back, the rollout start was a first-class, world-class snafu. (Google the origin of snafu during World War II, by G.I.’s unimpressed with their knuckleheaded superior officers.) Indeed, it was a snafu nationwide.
I preregistered on the Hillsborough County website, as I was supposed to. At one second after the appointed hour for my group, I began madly filling out my medical information. I did this 40 times, refreshing constantly, filling the same boxes. When at last a tempting list of appointments popped up — slots available! — my heart beat faster. Click, confirm, then, the hammer of doom … the same message, over and over:
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
“Unhandled error reported processing the flow. Contact the administrator.”
Thanks, fellas. I’m computer savvy, but you had one job — you couldn’t come up with an error message in English for an older crowd? Like “Sorry, full up?” As to contacting the “administrator” — what administrator? At the website? At Hillsborough County? There was a number. I dialed it. Now, everyone ready for a surprise? The number was … wait for it … busy! So busy, it switched instantly into that super-wah-wah-busy mode, signaling not so much, “How about trying again?” but, as in the caption of the old New Yorker cartoon, “How about never? Is never good for you?”
For sure, it wasn’t just Florida. By early January, there was a mad, frenzied scramble underway coast to coast, a free-for-all that pitted everyone against everyone else. Who had priority? Who do you know? What’s your underlying condition? Can your primary get you one? CVS? Really? The grocery store chain? C’mon, really? Didja hear Cousin Charlie, in perfect health, got an appointment, the jerk?
Suddenly, DeSantis changed his mind. Old people first. By the time the next slots were announced for Jan. 13, appointments were to be divided into three age groups — 85-plus, 75-85, 65-75 — with staggered sign-up times. Of course, when you tried to sign up, everything was jammed, but at least it was plausible.
Though health workers can still get prioritized through their own networks — as they should be — when it came to sorting out the rest of us, Florida put aside many of the impossible-to-verify preconditions and went with older first. (I have two very high-risk conditions, but agree it was looking crazy-complicated to prioritize for that. Thankfully, I’m 76. Now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.)
Elsewhere, the authorities were tangled up trying to prioritize by occupation and a plethora of high-risk illnesses, a total mess. Though minorities and people without access or computer skills will surely be shorted — and I hope we can do better — I think throwing it open to the elderly makes sense. And I’m not just being elderly about it. Eighty percent of Florida’s deaths have come from our ranks. Start where the need is greatest.
I got my appointment simply because I persisted, nothing more, but the process was at least sane. Almost 1 million of the state’s 4.5 million seniors might be vaccinated by the end of January, not half-bad. One-quarter good, actually. So I grant DeSantis credit.
But given that DeSantis has taken us on a wild, let ‘er rip ride these past 10 months, that may not saying much. How many thousands of Florida’s nearly 25,000 COVID deaths might have been avoided by mask use and closed bars? Nor should it be forgot that he found time to cheer on Trump’s election-fraud “investigations.” And topped things off by jailing a data scientist who blew the whistle on dishonest state COVID-19 stats. She may have contravened a computer-use law, we don’t know yet.
So, yes, give him his due. He was right, and ahead of the pack, about distributing the vaccine by age groups (as he was about letting kids go to school). Not that it’s fairer. A 67-year-old marathon runner doesn’t deserve a vaccine before a 52-year-old with diabetes. But it’s simpler, it’s do-able.
It could still become a full-blown fiasco, of course, as it has elsewhere, blue states and red states alike. New leadership in the White House, where virtually none existed before, should make a difference. But whatever happens, these arguments about who gets the vaccines, how to find an edge, who-do-you-know, remind me of times past, particularly wartime.
In my era, the Vietnam War tore us apart, splitting us between those who chose, or were drafted, to serve their country in combat; those who joined up but looked for angles to avoid being deployed to Vietnam; those who opposed the war but looked for other ways to give service; and those who found that crippling bone spurs prevented their participation. It dominated every discussion, changed the course of our lives.
During Vietnam, we had protests, marches, family fights, riots (though without anyone taking over the Capitol, as I recall). We thought we were on the brink of civil war, too. Then another devious leader got smart, and I give him credit for it. Richard Nixon created a lottery to let fate decide who would get drafted.
Though Nixon would go on to intensify the war and cause countless more U.S. and Vietnamese casualties, the lottery quieted a lot of internal combustion. Protests lessened. (To our discredit, some of us would later say.) But every man in my generation remembers the day of the draft lottery, and the number he drew — mine was 312. Those with lower numbers were drafted, and that was at least seen as unbiased. Still tragic for the unlucky, but essentially “fair” in its method. You got to blame fate, not your better-connected neighbor.
So, when it’s time for Florida’s other millions to get their shots, and the scramble starts in earnest, might a lottery make sense? It worked in my day.
Meanwhile, I’m staying masked and distanced for the duration. Thia, the youngster in my pod, still needs to get her vaccine. Until then, I’ll be at my keyboard, refreshing, waiting for the slots to line up for us. Waiting for the war to end.
In World War II, to stretch out the wartime theme, fighting ceased in Europe in May 1945, and guys were shipped home. Lots of celebrations.
Of course, the war was only half over, and the revelers in Times Square knew that. The Japanese still needed to be defeated, and V-J Day was, possibly, still a long way off. Unknown threats to life still loomed. In fact, victory in the Pacific was only months off. And then came more celebrations. That’s where we got the war’s most famous Life magazine photograph, the sailor who grabbed and kissed the nurse in Times Square. Locally, it’s been turned into a kitschy, but oddly affecting, oversized statue on the Sarasota waterfront.
So when our own V-J Day arrives (we’ll call it V-E-E Day — Vaccinating Everyone Else), maybe we’ll drive to Sarasota and take selfies in front of the sailor kissing the health worker. On that day, I think all health workers should be kissed, though less aggressively — and only with their consent. Me, I’ll strike a pose, holding my cell phone up, and my cane. I’ll kiss my own partner, give her a jitterbug dip, and hope to God we both don’t tumble over.
Barry Golson is a writer and a retired editor who supervised the Playboy interviews, TV Guide and Forbes Traveler. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise.” He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.