Virginia fails to protect elderly: My parents caught COVID while vaccines languish unused

April Ponnuru, Opinion contributor
·6 min read

Like many older people, my parents live with a number of health challenges. This week, I discovered they suffer from an additional risk: living in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Eleven years ago, when my parents moved from Scottsdale, Arizona, to live near their grandchildren in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., we took comfort in the fact that Fairfax County offers an excellent standard of living, including top-notch medical care. It’s one of the wealthiest, most highly educated counties in the country.

When the new coronavirus hit last spring, we joined millions of families across the country in taking precautions to keep our loved ones safe. We felt relief when a vaccine was announced: We had nearly made it to safety. But bad news came just after the new year, when my 81-year-old father-in-law, who had recently moved to an assisted-living facility in Missouri, tested positive for COVID-19. Thankfully, after a weeklong hospital stay, he was released and is on the path to recovery. Our family seemed to have made it through the pandemic, and soon we would all be vaccinated.

Patience is not a virtue

My siblings and I were determined to get our parents in the front of the line for a vaccine. I told my mother to let her doctor know that she wanted to be added to the list. At 80 years old and in fragile health, Mom was told by her doctor that she would have to sign up for the vaccine with the county once registration was open online. Fine. We waited on the county health department’s website for announcements about vaccine eligibility and scoured the fine print as soon as they came out. Her age put her in the second eligible group, Phase 1b, just behind health care workers. On Jan. 12, my dad sent in the form and we waited for a call.

April Ponnuru's parents, Don and Shirley Foster, in Alexandria, Virginia, in May 2020.
April Ponnuru's parents, Don and Shirley Foster, in Alexandria, Virginia, in May 2020.

It didn’t come. The health department warned on its website that my mom’s group included approximately 150,000 people. My father, in his early 70s, would have to wait even longer.

After a few days, we decided to make some calls of our own. The health department explained that there were no openings. We’d just have to be patient.

Vaccination has been maddeningly slow in Virginia. As of Jan. 25, we had the highest percentage of unused vaccines in the nation. My parents were left unprotected, not because there wasn’t enough vaccine available, but because there wasn’t a sensible plan in place.

I assumed catching COVID was your own fault: We were cautious. And yet, somehow, my entire household got COVID-19.

As the languid pace continued, I read reports that county school teachers, many of whom have not taught in classrooms since last spring, were being prioritized for vaccines. At the same time, their union was making demands: Teachers — vaccinated teachers — should not have to return to classrooms even in the fall. And maybe not even this calendar year: The union stated that all school children must be vaccinated, too, before teachers should return to school. Never mind that there’s no vaccine that has even been approved for children under 16.

And still we waited. No call.

Two positive diagnoses

On Jan. 23, Dad told me he wasn’t feeling well. Because it was a weekend, we encouraged him to get a telehealth appointment with a local clinic we had used before. We sent him the link, and he got an appointment the same day. The doctor prescribed him a Z-Pak to help with his upper-respiratory symptoms and ordered him to get a COVID-19 test from a mobile testing center. The next day, it came back positive.

Our challenge was now more complicated: how to take care of Dad while keeping Mom safe. The doctor didn’t want Mom to rush out for a test — the cold air is hard on her lungs, and she doesn’t drive much anymore. We were told to watch for symptoms. My sister and I urged Mom to stay with one of us while my father recovered. No way. She wasn’t about to leave her husband of 49 years when he was sick. They would do their best to isolate from each other while sharing a home.

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My sister, my husband and I gathered items from our homes that could be helpful to them, ran to the drug store (twice) and the grocery store, and made a million phone calls. On Monday, I loaded my car with meals made by a dear friend and get-well cards crafted by my children and drove to my parents’ home. At the door, my mom looked tired and worried. I asked her whether she was feeling OK — her asthma had been acting up — and she insisted she was fine. “It’s hard for you, not being with Dad, isn’t it?” Her lip quivered, her eyes filled with tears and she nodded.

Last Tuesday, Mom had a scheduled telehealth appointment. My parents use my dad’s smartphone for these appointments, which made keeping the appointment almost comically complicated. Dad had to clean his phone with alcohol wipes and explain from yards away what button to push. When Mom accidentally hit the wrong one, they had to start over.

Once online, the medical team noticed her breathing was labored and told her to go to the emergency room. My sister raced our mother over, double-masked and windows down. I met them there, we checked her in and waited. A few hours later, she had a chest X-ray, a positive COVID test and an immediate transfer to another hospital, where she received a monoclonal antibody infusion.

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Our area’s hospital system has just said that it’s canceling first-dose vaccination appointments in response to a change in state directives. Gov. Ralph Northam says there will soon be a statewide registry so people can learn when they will get a vaccine, "even if the answer is they can't get an appointment for a month or two."

For my family, though, the snafus no longer matter. Mom and Dad are home, and at least they are finally able to care for each other. Even so, my siblings and I are worried about them.

We’ll spend the coming days trying to get my dad a monoclonal antibody infusion, monitoring their symptoms, bringing them things they need. My family — all of us — are doing our part. Millions of families are making countless sacrifices to try to keep those around them safe. It’s baffling and infuriating that our government has not done the same.

April Ponnuru lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and is managing director of Ridgely Walsh, a public affairs firm. She was previously the policy director and senior adviser to the Conservative Reform Network and is a veteran of numerous Republican congressional offices and Jeb Bush's presidential campaign. Follow her on Twitter: @AprilPonnuru

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Virginia fails to vaccinate. Meanwhile, my parents caught COVID-19.