COVID Would Kill Me. Too Bad I Live in a Vaccine Hellhole.

Kevin Lee
·6 min read
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Photos Getty

The COVID-19 vaccine is wracking me.

My ears ring from elevated blood pressure, and my breathing is hampered. But these aren’t side effects. We know the vaccines are safe and effective.

It’s frustration—and some vertigo.

I’m as high-risk as virtually anyone but not—at least so far as I can tell with any clarity—allowed a shot yet. Not in Alabama anyway, where about half a million people have had it before me.

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It feels virtually guaranteed a case of COVID-19 would kill me. I’m middle aged—in my 50s—but was diagnosed with genetic emphysema in my late 30s. A missing chemical component called Alpha-1 antitrypsin allowed my immune system to gradually destroy my lungs’ elasticity. My breathing capacity is under a fifth of what it should be for someone my age.

I went from an active life—commuting by bicycle, hiking, and running with my dog—to struggling for breath in just a few years’ time. It’s why I quit working in the smoke and heat of restaurant kitchens and turned to writing for a living.

It’s also why I sleep and exercise with a stream of oxygen flowing into my nose—why even a head cold or hay fever causes bronchitis, then pneumonia. It’s led to more than half a dozen hospitalizations in the last 16 years.

My first hospital stay cost $8,000 for four days, all from missing a pharmaceutical dose. I’ve since qualified for disability and the attendant Medicare coverage; otherwise I wouldn’t have insurance at all, or access to the nearly $250,000 of medicines I need to stay alive each year.

When a “strange new pneumonia” emerged over a year ago, it obviously caught my attention. By March 2020, COVID-19 was oozing across the United States, and my doctors told me to quarantine at home and take all safety measures.

Vaccine breakthroughs have come amazingly quickly, and Alabama’s phased rollout started in December, going to frontline workers and group home residents first. Understandable and fair.

Last month, some facilities moved to phase 1b—those over 75 years old, first responders, essential workers dealing with the public. Interested parties were directed to websites or phone numbers for registration.

Around this time came a social-media parade as younger, healthier faces proclaimed their vaccinations. Every other day, my wife would seethe.

“How did they get this? Why can’t you get that?” she shouted.

We discovered some lawyers were eligible—or at least we heard they were getting shots. There are 18,000 members of the Alabama Bar Association, two-thirds male, about 90 percent white. Librarians, publicists, city hall employees, and others were vaccinated, too.

As for me, some websites had no specific listing of media personnel (my profession) or pre-existing conditions for eligibility. I registered anyway, but never heard back.

Rumors circulated of facilities intermittently opened to first-come, first-served and no restrictions. I never received notification.

Conditions tightened. One clinic’s website closed. Another announced critical shortages. A phone number for another only gave an “out of vaccine” message.

This shoddy scenario ruled the state. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, we were last in the nation in vaccinations, with only 10,013 per 100,000 residents. All while we had one of the highest rates for positive coronavirus tests at 29 percent in recent weeks, per Johns Hopkins University.

The causes are obvious: Alabama is largely poor, rural, and unhealthy. When the state rejected Medicaid expansion for Obamacare, it stressed an overburdened public health system that has seen rural healthcare access evaporate. In February 2020, one quarter of Alabama hospitals risked closure.

Latent paranoia engendered by historic racism and horrific experimentation on Black populations makes some here understandably—if unfortunately—leery of inoculations. Black folks comprise 27 percent of the Alabama population—the state’s most impoverished rural counties are majority-Black—but just 11 percent of the vaccinated are Black, by one recent estimate.

The broader politicization of COVID-19 and paranoid beliefs also play a role. It’s why just a quarter of Mobile, Alabama’s police force had been vaccinated as of earlier this month. Add to this the jumbled communications I encountered, and the results become inevitable.

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Some of those police officers worked Mobile’s massive Mardi Gras street party last Tuesday, a potential superspreader event presided over by Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson after the state legislature passed a bill protecting businesses and governments from COVID-19 lawsuits. Attendance expected to be in the thousands was dampened by cold temperatures and warnings from public health officials. It could prove a savior.

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris admitted vaccine supplies are low and, when paired with the aforementioned factors, it’s a headache. He said the Biden administration has straightened snarls, but it’s not enough.

“We’re not a healthy state to begin with. We have a lot of diabetes and heart disease and other things that predispose people to bad health problems,” Harris recently told reporters. “Adding that chronic disease category might add two million people to the list. It’s not helpful to say every person’s eligible immediately when there’s no vaccine to give them.”

Despite Harris’ statement, mixed signals are still on the streets. A restaurant worker told me he arrived at Mobile’s largest clinic on Feb. 13 and—without being asked for ID “or anything”—got a shot. His diabetic wife got the needle, too, he said.

Walmart announced its vaccine distribution earlier this month. On its website, I called myself an essential worker—as media personnel—rather than a high-risk individual. Ironically, if I wear portable oxygen, then my wife can piggyback as “living with a high-risk individual,” though it appears the “high risk” patient would still be in a later vaccine group.

I don’t know the source of all these gaps in protocol, between official schedules and what is happening. We’re tired of worrying about it. We tried to play strictly by the rules, but we’re tired of playing with my life.

Three days before our scheduled vaccination appointments, I awoke with my first-ever bout of vertigo. The inner-ear disturbance had me reeling and retching enough to preclude my vaccination, since it would now be impossible to differentiate vertigo from possible inoculation side effects.

A visit with a medical specialist will take precedence over the vaccination—assuming I’d have been able to get it at all. The week until then will be fraught with questions about COVID-19’s local spread. Was Mardi Gras enough to fill the specialist’s office with the deadly virus? Will I roll into the waiting room seeking relief only to find my doom?

The only certainty is that if I find relief from the vertigo specialist that day, we’re going straight to Mobile’s largest vaccine clinic, where stories continue to emerge about ignored priorities, appointments, and protocols.

Our patience and choices are exhausted, and I need that shot.

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