There were more people at the entrance of the Bethel hospital on Tuesday than I’ve seen during the pandemic. It was the first day that COVID-19 vaccines opened up to the general population in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and I was one of those getting their first dose.
I walked up to the second floor of the hospital and opened a door with a sign that read, “COVID-19 Vaccine Here.”
Inside the hallway, lined up but spaced 6 feet apart in chairs, were people both young and old waiting to get their first or second dose of the vaccine. Eighteen-year-old Ethan Sundown was a few spots ahead of me. He said that he was surprised he was receiving the vaccine so early into 2021.
“When I got the call to schedule, you know, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, my goodness, it’s, it’s here. My dose is here,’” Sundown said.
Sundown said that he initially had mixed feelings about getting the vaccine: excitement, along with some guilt.
“It was hard for me to reconcile, you know, whether I should get this or not, considering I’m a young guy,” Sundown said. “To me, I think I’m a pretty healthy person. I’m not at risk. And so what bothered me was, ‘OK, are you taking somebody else’s spot that might be more at risk than you?’”
He said that he realized public health officials had already made the decision for him. Since they said it’s his turn to get the vaccine, he felt comfortable receiving it.
Once I got past the line in the hallway, the vaccination process was pretty simple, almost mundane. A health care worker asked me my name, my birthday, if this was my first or second dose and whether I consented to receive the vaccine. I said yes.
A quick prick and it was over. I joined about a dozen people on the other side of the room who were waiting the required 20 minutes to make sure they didn’t have an allergic reaction.
Laurie Meythaler-Mullins, a Bethel-based veterinarian, also received her first dose on Tuesday. Afterward, she said that she didn’t experience any side effects, only relief.
“And I was actually surprised how almost emotional I was getting it,” Meythaler-Mullins said. “Because the pandemic’s just been so hard and knowing that this could help ease the pandemic and hopefully eventually bring it to a close, it was just, it was emotional.”
Meythaler-Mullins added that she felt it was her duty to get the vaccine and convince others to get it as well. She and many others have been posting their vaccine experiences on Facebook to encourage others to follow their lead.
It will take time for enough people to be vaccinated to allow life to return completely to normal. Experts estimate anywhere from 70% to 90% of the population would need to be vaccinated to reach “herd immunity,” where the virus can’t spread anymore. But Meythaler-Mullins expressed cautious optimism that it wouldn’t be long before people would be able to gather in small groups with friends that have also been vaccinated.
“If we know for certain that those other households have gotten it, yeah, I think that would make us feel safer to do,” she said.
In Newtok, Carolyn George said that she isn’t taking any chances. Even though she has been vaccinated, she said that she’ll continue to follow all precautions until there are no longer any cases of COVID-19 in the community.
“I’m still gonna wear my mask, still continue with social distancing and sanitizing,” George said.
As of last week, almost 4,000 people in the Y-K Delta had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Anyone who would like to receive a COVID-19 vaccine is asked to fill out an online form.