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Coronavirus vaccine guilt is a real thing, and I felt the weight of it

My first dose of the Pfizer vaccine came with mixed feelings.

I got my first shot of the COVID vaccine in early March.
Amanda Kooser/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

The pathway of a needle, the space inside the tube, is called the lumen. I think of "lumen" as a measure of light. Both uses of the word stem from the Latin for light or an opening. This double meaning seems right in this time of COVID vaccines. Needles as radiance in a time of darkness.

On March 5, 2021, I got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Behind me in line inside The Pit, a basketball arena in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was a 91-year-old man I overheard telling a volunteer about how happy he was to be there. I was happy, too, but a heaviness tempered my elation. Why now? Why me and not others, more deserving? Vaccine guilt is real.

I wasn't expecting to get vaccinated until summer. I'm 44 and have no preexisting conditions, but I got a text message from the New Mexico Department of Health offering me an appointment for a University of New Mexico Health Vaccination Clinic, and I took it.

New Mexico is distributing vaccines through a statewide system. You fill in your information online, and when your eligibility group opens up, you wait and hope. I know people in their 60s and 70s who are still waiting for the call.   

My appointment popped up shortly after a new push nationwide to vaccinate teachers. "Today, I am directing every state to prioritize educators for vaccination," President Joe Biden tweeted on March 2

I'm a creative writing MFA student and a teaching assistant at UNM. If it weren't for the pandemic, I'd be in a classroom with dozens of students right now, working through the subtleties of poetic line breaks in Margaret Randall's La Llorona. Instead, I've been teaching online and over Zoom for a year now. 

I made excited little fist pumps when I scheduled my appointment. I've heard from other UNM colleagues, close in age to me, that they're also scheduled. But I still ended up in line right in front of a 91-year-old, a reminder of all those people more at risk than I am who are still in limbo, at the mercy of a computer algorithm.   

In January 2020, I first wrote about the "never-before-seen virus" for CNET. At the time, I couldn't have imagined the weight of what was to come, with a pandemic killing more than 2.5 million people globally, over half a million in the US and more than 3,800 in my beloved state of New Mexico, a land of sunshine and mountains and roadrunners dancing between houses.  

The University of New Mexico's basketball arena, The Pit, is where I got my first COVID shot. It's capable of processing thousands of vaccines per day.

Amanda Kooser/CNET

As of March 9, New Mexico has administered over 680,000 vaccine doses and more than a quarter of the state's over-16 population of 1.7 million people has received at least one dose. CDC statistics show that over 61 million people in the US have been given at least one dose, with more than 32 million people fully vaccinated. 

Getting a COVID vaccine can be an emotional experience, a first stab of sunlight breaking the darkness. It's the messenger that whispers we won't have to live like this -- caught in our houses, separated from loved ones, detached from other bodies -- forever.  

I've said the same thing to everyone I've told about my vaccination: "I don't know why I came up so soon, but I guess it's because they're trying to get teachers back into the classroom." That's my guilt talking, feeling like I need to explain and excuse my place in line.

My mother was one of the first people I knew who got vaccinated. She's in her 70s and incredibly healthy and got her first shot in January. I called her and told her my worries. "I don't feel guilty for having gotten it at all," she told me. "But I was sad because I wanted my whole pod to get it, too."

Now my slightly older brother, who teaches science, is scheduled, as are a group of bewildered younger people who are talking about the shots on a Reddit group called r/coronavirusnewmexico.

"I am in my early twenties with no health conditions and, although I physically go to my place of work every day, I am not an essential worker, I am not in a public-facing position, nor do I work in anything related to healthcare. To me, this seems like a huge mistake," wrote a poster in Albuquerque who wanted to stay anonymous.

And there it was, my internal conundrum written out by an internet stranger: "I definitely have this nagging feeling of guilt about it," the person said. Instead of a social media boo-fest, the Reddit comments were uplifting: 

"Go get it!" 

"Take it. Really, just the fact that you want the vaccine makes you a good person to get it. Don't feel guilty." 

"Shots in arms is all that really matters, honestly."

"As far as guilt or whatever. DOH has a system and they said you're up, trust them."

I found comfort in this. At a time when isolation and loneliness are pervasive, these Redditors were offering compassion and common sense. They chose to cheer and not blame. I'm trying to learn to do that for myself, to accept the good luck and do my part to inch us that much closer to herd immunity and some sense of normalcy.

Now I'm standing here, a slight stiffness emanating from the shot site on my left shoulder. My second Pfizer dose is scheduled for just under three weeks from now. I'm feeling relief and sadness. I'm imagining myself walking back into a classroom in the fall. I'm imagining hugging my family and friends, maybe even seeing my little sister in California before too much more time fades away. And I want this for everyone. That hope that rides through the lumen of a needle.