Make Room For The Under-65s: What the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Has Taught Me About My 'Value'

Vaccine eligibility forces this metastatic breast cancer patient to confront the value society places on her life.

The email was short: “What has been your experience with the COVID-19 vaccine?”

My equally short reply, in the interest of not alienating a friend who cares: “My vaccine experience has not been great.”

My “vaccine experience” has been waiting for the vaccine to reach me. As someone living with cancer, waiting is an all-too-familiar fact of life.

This waiting, however, is different. I’m waiting, but now I’m also watching as less at-risk people pushing ahead and receiving the vaccine before me.

After this experience, it is hard to avoid the idea of how little value my life has to society. Patients actively receiving treatment (particularly those with lung and hematologic cancers), regardless of age, are at greater risk of dying from COVID-19, at greater risk of severe complications, and apparently even at greater risk of contracting the virus when compared to same-age healthy people.

My “experience” has meant doing everything possible to protect myself, while hoping others do the same. In the highest risk situation, when I needed to travel due to a death in the family, I drove alone and stopped infrequently.

I knew then and see now that when it comes to value, people under 65 with serious health concerns seem to matter very little when it comes to receiving the vaccine. There really isn’t any other way to explain the failure of so many in power to look at the data and acknowledge that the risk of dying, the risk of spreading the virus, the risk of overwhelming the hospital system is greatest among those with considerable health risks. These risks exist even if the person is under 65, where children, jobs, and family responsibilities weigh heavily.

I see it on the local school board, where parents pushing to maximize in-person learning have been a vocal and insistent force since last summer. I, too, want in-person learning. I want my son, who is approaching his final quarter as a high school student, to “go back to normal.” I want to be able to trust that the families, the children themselves, and the staff are honest and invested in keeping the community safe. Yet, as with the plea for vaccine eligibility, I am led to believe that my life has less value than anyone else in the equation.

I sound like I feel sorry for myself, but what I feel is anger and sorrow for us all. I watch as the people who push to re-open everything talk about the vaccine, making statements that the unvaccinated and those at risk can protect themselves but that “the rest of us should live our lives.” I wonder how I counted some of them among my friends.

This past year has been both so fast (how have hundreds of thousands of people died unnecessarily in such a short amount of time?) and so dreadfully unchanging that I can easily recall hospital systems, cities, and states putting out COVID-care guidelines for someone such as myself, someone whose expected return on investment was not adequate should I land in the hospital.

So, I sit here wondering when I might be eligible. Despite my state moving people such as myself up a half a tier, my county has refused to do so. As I wait and watch, I think about the people who denied the virus, whose irresponsible push to re-open everything contributed to the awful winter surge, and I judge them harshly.

You bet it hurts when you have evidence that your life doesn’t have the value of someone who works alone in a lab, or an animal shelter, or is a work-from-home hospital administrator.

You’d better believe it has changed how I think about people.

How’s that for a “vaccine experience"?

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