Cowed by Vaccine

Edward Jenner putting his cowpox to work.

Lynn got the call, although it was probably a text: she goes today at precisely 3:54 for her initial covid vaccination.

Gunnison County will administer more than 500 first doses today, bringing our county total to just under 6,700 injected arms, which at an estimate would be roughly 37 percent of the population. Except that we don’t know for sure how many of these are official county residents. Some percentage are likely second homeowners, and I believe our governor has now mandated that any Coloradan can be vaccinated anywhere in Colorado. But it’s still well ahead of the state and national percentages, which are about half that.

Kara’s sister is on today’s waitlist, so she will get a shot if there are no-shows or the vaccinators can squeeze extra doses out of the vials. I would hope we have a system in place for these reservists so that if there aren’t spare doses, they go to the top of the list the following week. Because what would dishearten you more than if they just kept dangling a vaccine tantalizingly in front of you? Oh, didn’t get it this week? Come back next week. Maybe the week after that. Keep the faith!

Gilly’s husband, who drives a bus around Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte, is scheduled for his second shot — one of more than 800– on Thursday. Gilly said the bus company, which has several employees getting their second shot, has scheduled potential replacement drivers on Friday in the event that side effects render the recipients unable to work.

Rumor on the street has it that side effects from Pfizer are worse than those from Moderna, but I have no idea if anyone is keeping actual statistics on that. You would think, if there are people who can tell you what Major League Baseball players’ on-base percentages against left-handed pitchers whose names start with R in away games on Tuesdays in the second inning of games that start at night (and there are), that someone somewhere would be tracking things like whose vaccines have the most severe side effects. But maybe you don’t want to make information like that public, because you don’t want people refusing a vaccine because the only one available that week is the less desirable brand.

I have to confess, I’m sort of not looking forward to the day, whenever it might come, when it’s my turn. The first year I got a flu shot nothing happened, but every subsequent year I end up a day later feeling rather run down and flu-ey.

So if we were giving me a choice — which I understand isn’t going to be the case — I would opt for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that isn’t yet available, although it might get approval as early as this week. It maybe isn’t quite as effective, although the company is promising an absolute guarantee that it prevents death from covid. It is one-and-done; no second shot with its increased possibility of more severe side effects.

I’m sure I have more time to ruminate on all this, but what no one can tell me is how much longer. There is nothing like a pandemic to tell you how non-essential not only your business but your life in general is, and even if the Center for Disease Control has tried to invent a numbering system where no one has to be told they’re second class, I may not be worthy of Class 1.B.3. Which, if you stop to count in real numbers, is already fifth place. Blue ribbons for everyone!

At the business Zoom yesterday we learned that “food service,” encompassing both groceries and restaurants, are blue-ribbon fifth placers, but no one could tell the bank employee who asked if she and her colleagues are part of this class. I did hear the county public health director sort of mumble once upon a time that all front-facing personnel — people who deal with the public — would be counted, but perhaps that was her interpretation and not the state’s.

Not that we’re Georgia, but when one county there “prematurely” vaccinated teachers and then made the further “mistake” of telling the state that yes, that was what they had done (because they thought that was what they were supposed to do), the state punitively took away all that agency’s doses. Pandemics make for a lot of weird behavior in people who think their little authority is a lot.

And in Florida, where the weird turn pro (as Hunter S. Thompson used to say), you can only get a vaccine if you’re a wealthy donor to the governor. So perhaps it’s best to be in Colorado where maybe it’s okay to interpret who is eligible for the next “tier” as broadly as possible. But I still don’t know if I’m in the first fifth place or not.

But I can be assured, no matter when it happens, that my vaccine won’t have been orphan-powered, as turns out to have been the case in history’s first mass vaccination effort. Yesterday I learned of Spain’s Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition, as detailed by a Harvard historian (we can save the a/an/H discussion for a different day).

Dr. Joyce Chaplin (I’ll have to ask the Wall Street Journal is it’s all right to refer to a mere woman in this fashion) suggests that some false advertising might have been in play even here, back in 1803, because Spain’s motive was likely less philanthropy and more profit (keeping those global supply chains thriving), but no matter the impetus, royal ships set forth on a 10-year mission to vaccinate the world against smallpox.

About a decade earlier, English physician Edward Jenner (a real doctor in the Wall Street Journal sense), had taken the work of Ottomans and West Africans and figured out how to use cowpox (a milder yet related disease) pus to inoculate against smallpox. Fun fact: “vacca” is Latin for cow. So with the world’s first cowination at hand, the Spaniards set sail.

Because they didn’t have little glass vials filled with fluid, or refrigeration, the Spanish needed some means of transporting the vaccine. So they brought along orphans. Twenty-two boys ages 3-9 were boarded, and as one boy showed symptoms, his pus would be transferred into the arm of the next boy. Another 26 boys were added in Mexico City, and ultimately a total of 62 boys kept the vaccine functional as hundreds of thousands of people were vaccinated. This was not without cost: four of the boys died, and I doubt very much if a single of them was asked if he wanted to help humanity in this fashion.

Despite this bold Spanish effort, it took another 200 years, and the death of over 300 million people in the 20th century alone, before the World Health Organization began a worldwide campaign that started in 1967 and ended in 1980 with the declaration of eradication of the smallpox scourge.

So we should not rest too easily on our blue-ribbon tiers until every person on the planet is declared essential enough to receive a covid vaccine, but it ought to go more smoothly and involve fewer cows and orphan manipulation than that initial smallpox effort.

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