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She’s vaccinated against Covid-19. He isn’t. Now what?

After a year spent navigating job losses and lockdowns, sickness and fear, some families are experiencing the long-awaited arrival of vaccines with not elation or relief, but a fraught combination of confusion, jealousy or guilt.

By: New York Times | New York |
March 31, 2021 10:09:26 am
Colin Kinniburgh, left, and his partner Ashraya Gupta stand for a portrait in Brooklyn's Prospect Park on March 15, 2021. He has not had a COVID-19 vaccination, but she has. (Chris Facey/The New York Times)

Written by Sarah Maslin Nir

Burly and well over 6 feet tall, Andre Duncan takes pride in carrying the groceries for his wife, Michelle, and views himself as her personal bodyguard.

Now, she is his: Ever since she got the coronavirus vaccine in February, Michelle Duncan, who works in hospital management, has insisted she run their errands alone. When she goes shopping, Andre Duncan, who is unvaccinated, stays home.

Andre Duncan, 44, said he feels gratitude but also guilt, and that tension has altered the dynamic of their marriage. “She has to take risks and chances on her own, when that’s my partner, that’s my honey.”

As of this week, more than 145 million shots have gone into arms since the vaccine began rolling out in the United States in December. But amid supply chain snarls and inconsistent state-by-state eligibility rules, just 16% of Americans are fully vaccinated. As a result, an untold number of households now find themselves divided, with one partner, spouse, parent or adult child vaccinated and others waiting, sometimes impatiently, for their number to come up.

Now, after a year spent navigating job losses and lockdowns, sickness and fear, some families are experiencing the long-awaited arrival of vaccines with not elation or relief, but a fraught combination of confusion, jealousy or guilt.

“In that moment that I got the vaccine, instead of, ‘I should be so super-happy, I survived this nonsense,’ instead of all that I felt the biggest guilt of my life,” said Lolo Saney, 65, an elementary schoolteacher who lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Her mother, who lives abroad, is still waiting.

In New York, people who hold certain jobs and have certain conditions are eligible. And while people age 30 and older were made eligible this week, it will be weeks or even months before any number of partners or spouses of nurses or teachers, or those straddling previous age thresholds, are able to secure coveted vaccine appointments.

Some of the newly vaccinated are finding that the tentative return to normalcy is at least partly on hold as they navigate uncharted new worries: how to coexist with and care for relatives, roommates and partners who are not yet vaccinated.

Although the Biden administration directed states to open up vaccine eligibility to all adults by May 1, at the current pace, the entire population might not be vaccinated until August — and that assumes all pledges of supply are met, and children eventually qualify for vaccines, according to a New York Times analysis.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that even if every adult in a home gets vaccinated, any young children will likely not be for some time; while in New York, people 16 and older will become eligible on April 6, vaccine trials for young children have only just begun.

Until then, some who were the first in their families to be vaccinated are finding that the shots come freighted with new responsibilities: shopping for groceries, going to the laundromat, visiting the sick.

Just-released data shows the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines provide strong protection against infections, easing fears that vaccinated people could pass on the virus to others. But the data is new, and the vaccinated have spent months wondering whether their newfound freedoms, like trips to the movie theater or dinner with friends, could bring the virus home to loved ones.

“These are all layers that just weigh heavy on everybody, and can sometimes cause more anxiety and tension and depression,” said George James, a therapist with the Council for Relationships, a Philadelphia-based mental health center that focuses on couples and families. But one possible plus of the past tumultuous year, he said, was that families may now be better equipped to navigate this new twist.

“That doesn’t mean that families aren’t in crisis or overwhelmed or at their breaking point,” James said. “But if I was to look at it as a whole, I think there has been more strength and resiliency and ability to say, ‘OK, we figured this out, we can figure this next thing out.’”

Ashraya Gupta, 34, was vaccinated because she teaches high school science, and teachers were made eligible for the vaccine in January. She now has the pleasure of planning vacations, weekends away with friends and movie theater outings. But life for her as-yet-unvaccinated partner, Colin Kinniburgh, 30 — a freelance journalist, with whom she lives in Brooklyn — is largely unchanged from the year of lockdown.

Recently, Gupta spent a weekend away with a friend, a schoolteacher who was also vaccinated. It was the first time she had seen that friend in over a year, she said — and one of the few times she and Kinniburgh have been apart since the outbreak began. The weekend was restorative, she said, for both of them.

“I thought, ‘Once I get this vaccine I might be able to do more things that will make me feel able to function,’” Gupta said. “Which I think is ultimately good for him and good for our relationship.”

For others, like Andre Duncan in Harlem, the situation has created a strain. He feels that he is failing in his duty as a husband, he said, when his wife asks him not to join her on the grocery run. “She believes she is protecting me, and it is the right thing to do, and I feel like I don’t want her to,” he said.

He added: “It takes a lot from the relationship.”

Others have found themselves struggling to overcome more intense feelings of guilt.

Saney, the teacher from Greenwich Village, said some members of her immediate family do not yet qualify for the vaccine, and she longs to be face to face with them safely. But causing her greater anguish is the fact that her mother, an 89-year-old U.S. citizen, has been stuck in their home country of Iran where she was on a visit before the pandemic began, and unable to get a shot.

“It is against all the codes of ethics that I was raised with that you don’t do anything good for yourself until you do it for your loved ones first,” Saney said, beginning to cry. “All my life I put them first, and it is the first time in this older age I feel most terrible because I did it before they got it,” she said.

Gustavo Ajche, 38, and his wife Lorena Ajche, 36, stand for a portrait in Brooklyn on March 16, 2021. He has been vaccinated against COVID-19, while his wife has not. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

Food delivery workers like Gustavo Ajche, 38, were made eligible for the vaccine in February. For Ajche, getting the shot before his wife, Lorena de Ajche, a nanny who was not yet eligible, became an opportunity to give the vaccine a trial run on others’ behalf — and to prove its safety to friends and family who are skeptical.

“I’m the only one vaccinated in my home,” said Gustavo Ajche, who received his first vaccine shot in February. He and his wife live with some of their cousins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, he said, and they closely watched as he developed a fever after his second shot this month: “They see me as a trial.”

In some cases, the imbalance in vaccine status is a choice. Jason Bass, 51, said he has declined to get vaccinated so far because he believes the accelerated emergency rollout did not allow enough time for scientists to study long-term effects. Yet his wife, Denise, a nurse, was among the first cohort to be eligible in the state; she has been vaccinated for months.

Life is different in small ways, Bass said. For example, when the couple go on Target runs, his wife goes into the store while he stays in the car, he said.

But for his wife, who saw up close the ravages of COVID-19 in the hospital where she works, there is a major change, he added, one with far-reaching effects on her unvaccinated family members: stress reduction.

“She feels much better,” her husband said. She now works in a clinic administering the vaccine.

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