A glimpse of post-pandemic normalcy

Ashley Fetters

THE WASHINGTON POST – After 10 months of living in a deadly pandemic, what would you do with your first weeks after being vaccinated?

Angela Carps, 39, lives in the small town of Fife Lake, Michigan, and works as a nurse at a medical centre in Traverse City, often on COVID-19 duty. She is also studying for a Master’s degree in nursing education and is a single mom of a 13-year-old son, Josiah – as well as one of the 6.3 million fully vaccinated Americans.

While Angela and others might be inclined to return to life as we knew it before (birthday parties! first dates! carpooling!), they’re butting up against a hard truth: Having a degree of immunity isn’t the same as escaping the pandemic, and it’s still unclear if a vaccine prevents you from unknowingly transmitting the virus to others.

Below is a retelling of Angela’s experiences getting vaccinated and her first days afterward. Some of her choices still involve risks – especially given the coronavirus variants that have reached the United States (US) in recent days, and experts’ uncertainty about how much protection vaccines offer against them.

Angela spoke to The Washington Post in a series of phone calls. Some parts have been lightly edited for clarity.

Angela Carps and her son Josiah talk at her kitchen table while she works on her Master’s in nursing education. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Angela and Josiah pet and feed her parents’ horses

DAY ONE

“Congratulations. You’re eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. Please call to schedule your appointment.” The email came earlier this week. Best Christmas present ever, I thought.

I go to work on my day off to get the vaccine. Physically, the shot feels no worse than a flu shot, and before I leave, the volunteer gives me an orange sticker that said ‘I GOT MY COVID-19 VACCINE!’ I put it on my name badge, and I take a photo of it.

Emotionally, I’m ecstatic. Just about everyone I know is aware I’m getting vaccinated today. My friends were teasing me last night, saying, “You’re gonna grow a third arm!” I responded, “I can’t wait! If I grow a third arm, I’m fine with it!”

DAY TWO

The day after that first dose, I felt no symptoms other than a stiff, sore arm. At this point, being vaccinated feels pretty much the same as being unvaccinated. I still have to wear a mask when I go shopping and my normal PPE at work. Josiah and I still can’t hug my parents. They live next door, but they spent last winter in Florida – so it’s now been a year since we’ve spent time with them indoors or from less than six feet away.

DAY SEVEN

My parents, Josiah and I have a celebration on December 25 together; my brother and his significant other come over, too. It’s wonderful to see them. But we can only open presents out on the porch, in minus-seven-degree weather with snow falling on us. It’s a pretty short celebration.

DAY 12

By now, I’ve started to daydream about all the things I’ll suddenly be able to do again once I’m fully vaccinated. I realise I could take Josiah on his first airplane ride this year; it’s tempting to plan for right away, when flights will be cheap and empty. But I think I’ll wait and take him to see the ocean when it’s sunny and warm.

Meanwhile, a nurse friend of mine who’s getting her second dose the day I do tells me she’s decided to have a birthday party – a joint one, because she’s turning 40 and her son is turning nine. Josiah and I make plans to go. It’s been a long time since either of us got to go to a party.

DAY 19

I’ve started texting with a guy who went to my high school after we matched on OkCupid. I didn’t recognise him right away; we weren’t really friends back then. But he recognised me.

Several months ago, I went through a breakup. In large part, it was because we learned that different beliefs about COVID-19 and politics just don’t really work together. In the end, it was like, well, if my expertise and experience as a nurse won’t sway you, I guess there’s not much that will.

The guy from high school told me he’s already had COVID-19 – and thus should still have antibodies. We decide to go on a date this weekend.

It’s probably pushing it a little; we’ve been told it takes a week after the second dose for the vaccine to reach its full effectiveness. But we can still socially distance somewhat.

DAY 26

Two days ago, I got the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Again, no side effects other than a tender arm. And it’s official: My parents have their first doses of the

vaccine scheduled.

“So that means that I can go over and hang out with Grandma and Grandpa again, and I can give them a hug?” Josiah asked when I tell him the news. Oh, you melt my heart, child.

I know how he feels, though. I’m already excited for our first dinner together. I’m sure we’ll cook for them, and then play cards.

There is, of course, a small chance that one of us could still contract COVID-19 if, say, Josiah were to be exposed at school. But the illness would probably be much less severe.

;The risk of a less severe form of COVID-19 is entirely outweighed by the ability to have time with family again.

Our birthdays are all in the springtime, so we didn’t get to celebrate them together last year. It makes me laugh to realise that by the time we’re done with all of our belated 2020 birthday parties, it’ll be time to celebrate our birthdays all over again.

DAY 28

Date night arrives. I’m pretty excited, though it does feel a little weird to be going out on a date when most of the places people usually go “out” to are still closed. Arcades and bowling alleys in our town are scheduled to open back up on Saturday, but it’s Friday night; we joke that we might as well get together and go to the Meijer grocery store, since that’s the only thing open.

Instead, though, we make a plan to get takeout Chinese food and meet up at a spot on Lake Michigan we just call the Bay. He has a picnic table set up by the time I get there, so we sit in a covered area outside to have dinner. But it’s zero degrees out and it’s raining, and soon we relocate to his car and talk. We talk for hours.

Neither one of us wears a mask, and it strikes me as we sit there just how nice it is to see someone’s facial expressions in full again. I can see that you’re smiling, and you can see that I’m smiling, I realise. My laughing near you will not kill you! We decide we’ll definitely be doing this again.

DAY 30

On the day of my friend’s combination 40th and ninth birthday celebration, we meet at a hill for a snow-tubing party. But only my friend and I have had the vaccine, so we all wear masks and keep 10 to 15 feet away from one another. Josiah and I sit at a different table to eat our cupcakes.

It’s a shortened birthday party, in the end, because we don’t want to keep the non-vaccinated guests out too long. In other words, not everything is normal again quite yet.

DAY 31

Today feels great. One week after my second dose of the vaccine, I’m about 95 per cent immune to COVID-19. Plus, I also turned in my final master’s project last night.

At work, it feels like a weight has come off my shoulders. For the past several months, we’ve had to be extra careful around patients at the times when they can’t wear a mask; when they take their pills, for example, or when they brush their teeth. Today, though, these patients can take their time. Oh, you want to take your pills one at a time? And there are 20?

Go for it.

DAY 35

My parents get vaccinated early this afternoon, and I’m so relieved. Then Josiah, whose school brought the students back for in-person instruction this week, texts me to ask if he can sleep over at his friend’s house.

It stays in the back of my mind all afternoon. On the one hand, it’s still a pandemic.

On the other hand, he already hangs out with this friend at school, where students get five-minute, non-socially distanced “mask breaks” that are usually outdoors but aren’t always. Plus, he’s only coming home to me, and I’m vaccinated. In the end, I let him go.

DAY 36

For our second date, my high school classmate and I go night sledding.

It’s freezing, but we have a blast.

He tells me he wants to go out for a real, classic, dinner-in-a-restaurant date after restaurants open back up for indoor dining.

I’m sure we’ll still wear masks, at least until we start eating, just to follow the rules (and to set a good example). But right now, a meal indoors at a place where I don’t have to cook or do the dishes is just about the most exciting thing I can imagine.

DAY 37

I go out sledding again, this time with Josiah.

And when I tell my friend who’s recently recovered from COVID-19 about our plans, she said she’d like to come with. She has antibodies, so she comes over and we all ride together in my car.

Afterward, we carpool back to my house, and we have dinner and watch I Am Legend.

I’m looking forward, of course, to when we’ll be able to hang out together in public places again, with more friends, in bigger groups. But for now, these little moments of normalcy are good enough.