The millions of Americans who’ve been vaccinated are still a pretty exclusive club. That means a lot of couples, roommates and families divided into haves and have-nots, with some shifting roles, feelings and expectations.
Dr. Jay Schuur, an emergency room physician, remembered a flood of relief, gratitude and hope that the needle going into his arm would be a turning point in the pandemic. He cried. Schuur’s wife, Lauraine Boccone, described the weight lifting from her shoulders.
“Jay getting vaccinated for me was the relief that my partner would live,” said Boccone “because we weren’t sure in the beginning.”
But there’s no such relief for Schuur yet because Boccone is not vaccinated, and she has asthma. It’s not an official COVID risk condition, so Boccone will have to wait, with the general public, for her shots. Schuur’s vaccination doesn’t protect her.
“We know it prevents people from getting very sick and dying and that’s fabulous,” he said. “We don’t yet have evidence on how well it prevents infection or transmission.”
So until Boccone gets the vaccine she and Schuur will continue to wear masks in their Cambridge home and sleep in separate bedrooms. It’s been almost a year. While Schuur’s brain understands the science behind their safety precautions, his heart doesn’t.
“Part of me feels like I’ve been through all of this, I’ve been vaccinated, I should be able to let my guard down,” he said. “But I could still transmit it so I need to be cautious. I could transmit it to my wife, and I don’t want to do that.”
Schuur and Boccone have two teenagers who follow some pretty strict rules, too. They go to school, but outside school they can’t hang out with friends indoors. Boccone said they want more freedom now that dad is vaccinated.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” she said, referring to the questions they ask and she answers over and over. “ ‘Can I do --?’ No, because nothing has changed.”
“Part of me feels like I’ve been through all of this, I’ve been vaccinated, I should be able to let my guard down. But I could still transmit it so I need to be cautious."Dr. Jay Schuur
It’s not just long-term couples and families who are trying to navigate this new semi-vaccinated, shared life. Ali Setaro replayed one of the dreams they had about Rachel Hemond soon after they started dating in October.
“We’re going to go in for the kiss in this romantic dream, but then I would wake up and sit up straight and be like — COVID,” Setaro said with a laugh.
Setaro had a nasty case of COVID last March and likely has some immunity. But Hemond has diabetes, which increases the fear about what might come with that kiss. The couple didn’t even hold hands for more than two months.
Then Hemond, who works with patients in one of the coronavirus vaccine trials in Boston, got the shots. Dates started to feel a little more ... normal.
“Like to be able to kiss without being like, ‘I’m going to kill Rachel,’ ” Setaro said.
With the vaccine and lots of planning, Hemond moved out of their parent’s home and into an apartment with Jackson Ennis, an old friend. Now Hemond, Setaro and Ennis socialize in a small bubble that includes Ennis’ parents, who are health care workers and have been vaccinated.
Hemond said they talk about expanding their pandemic bubble to include more Vaccine Injected People or VIPs, but not right away.
“Until we know more, this VIP list,” Hemond said, “will stay as ‘that would be great,’ rather than ‘we’re going to have people over a lot.’ ”
It could get complicated. Hemond checked with Setaro recently before Ennis visited with his parents. Setaro said it feels weird to have that kind of input with someone they just recently met.
The questions — about who friends or loved ones have seen, who wears masks and who doesn’t — may just get more complicated when adding this question: Who’s vaccinated, and who’s not?
“The dynamics of these really small pods and the conversations that are happening are interesting and different and somewhat uncomfortable,” said Ennis. “That’s just going to be the norm until things are much better.”
Right now, for many people, being vaccinated is largely a promise of future privileges.
“Getting the vaccine, being among the first people to get it, feels a little bit like being the first of your friends to turn 21,” said Becky Spoehr, an emergency room physician assistant in southeastern Massachusetts.
Spoehr would like to drive to Pennsylvania and visit her mom, who she hasn’t seen since Christmas 2019, or hang out at the bar where her husband pours drinks. But, “until we have more information about the risks of me spreading it [the coronavirus] to other people even though I’ve been vaccinated,” she said, “I’m not going to make any moves for a little while.”
In fact, right now, Spoehr is in quarantine. Her husband got COVID-19 last week.
“The vaccine actually makes a huge difference because I feel a lot more protected myself in our home,” Spoehr said.
In some homes the newly vaccinated dad, daughter or roommate becomes the person who does the grocery shopping and public errands so that the still-unprotected members of the household can limit their exposure until it’s their turn for the vaccine. Grandparents are testing the boundaries of safety with their grandchildren.
Nothing much has changed on a practical level in the Aguilar-Restrepo home, where both Margarita and her husband have been vaccinated. The Restrepos are on the cleaning staff at a hospital just north of Boston. Their daughter, Carolina Aguilar-Restrepo, will wait until appointments open for the general public. That worries her mom.
“Carolina is a healthy young woman,” said Margarita Restrepo, (as her daughter translated). “But for this virus there is no age, this virus takes everyone, young or old.”
The Restrepos’ decision to get vaccinated is a gift to their daughter, a near guarantee that she won’t suffer the pain of more than 460,000 families who’ve lost someone to COVID. Aguilar-Restrepo says she’s thankful.
“For me, the biggest priority was my parents getting vaccinated,” she said. “With them working at a hospital, I’m relieved that they were able to get the vaccine and protect themselves.”