The Journey to Planet Vax
By Tom McDermott
Last week, we landed on Mars – just when our idea of a “moonshot” was managing to get a first or second dose of a vaccine. Normally, Martians don’t worry too much about earthlings, since we’re socially distanced by 130 million miles. It does not seem a stretch of the imagination to believe most of the red-planet’s population was wondering, “Why us?”
Back on earth, Sputnik V was supposedly circling the planet in search of enough vaccine recipients who know little of Dr. Putin’s regular medical practice – the data suggests a clinical inefficacy rate of 99%. Perfection was marred by one recent case in which the rare survivor of the bad doctor’s treatment was sentenced to three years of state-sponsored quarantine, without a food taster. In Russian, the words for food taster and undertaker are the same.
As an elder, I have learned that one quick way to empty a room — based on experience with my own family who suddenly have pressing matters to attend to, like oral surgery or, well, searching for vaccines — is to begin a conversation with: “When I was a boy.”
However, let me tell you, when I was a boy, my father and I went to the roof of our apartment building in Queens, where from five stories up we searched the sky for man’s first satellite. My father, who was educated to be an engineer, had noted the satellite’s ETA in our sky and the direction of its orbit, but the real trick to finding it among all the stars laid out against the dark was to focus the eye on one section of sky only. At the appointed time, in October 1957, one could make out fairly clearly one “star” moving in a kind of jerky path in relation to the real stars.
Back then, we had Dr. Jonas Salk, not Dr. Anthony Fauci, who provided a vaccine that was also not immediately available for all. My aunt, a single, working mom and proverbial “go-getter” packed us in a half-block-long ’48 Cadillac for a trip to Park Avenue. There, Dr. Singer inoculated my sisters, my cousin, and me. Some time later, we returned for boosters.
The other big threat at the time was a little thing called the nuclear bomb and an invisible killer known as fallout. When I was a boy, the nuke threat occasioned community-wide air-raid drills. In our town, the siren sounded from atop P.S. 101; teachers pulled down window shades (well-known protection against the flash of the blast) and students skittered under our desks with our arms over their heads.
One drill occurred while my family was at home and we scurried down to the basement of our building with other residents. I remember two things at the conclusion of that drill: 1) for the next few hours while riding my bike, I kept a close eye on the sky for Russian jets; and 2) the below-ground rooms where we had congregated were completely covered with asbestos.
We landed on Mars last week, but our mission to actually get one or two shots of Covid vaccine in our arms has been, to say the least, a complicated journey, fueled by digital determination, hold-time stamina, word-of mouth info, just showing up, and blind luck.
It happens that my wife and I recently received our first Moderna shot, after which I wrote a note to my longtime doctor to let him know about it. “Doc, it is unlikely that the governor or CDC will remember to let you know about this event. Please mark my chart accordingly. P.S. If you need help getting a vax, give me a call.”
When I was a boy, we never imagined that getting shots would be like rocket science.