Back to Normal? How the COVID-19 Vaccine Changes Lives

By Sarah Sammataro

Visitors and employees drive under the iconic bridge at the New Orleans Children’s Hospital at 200 Henry Clay Avenue, New Orleans, LA in April 2021. 

Every Monday morning, Bailey Batt, a twenty-four-year-old aspiring Child Life Specialist, parks her car outside the New Orleans Children’s Hospital and gets ready for her shift as a Child Life volunteer. She dons her mask, then crosses the road beneath the hospital’s bridged passageway, and pushes through the glass doors to enter. After a routine temperature check, she is ready to gather her census of patients and begin her day.

          On the morning of March 15th, 2021, it’s quiet as Batt makes her way into the hospital; birds chirp, a careful, restrained melody, gently carried through the air by a humid breeze. The sun began its morning amble to the sky, slowly but surely making its way out from behind the jumbled skyline of New Orleans.  

          These days, it’s often quiet in New Orleans. The city, once vibrant and lively with melodious improvisations tucked behind every corner and gregarious laughter tumbling out of bars, has carried on in a solemn hush as the COVID-19 pandemic swept in unwelcome change.

           Last March, the city of New Orleans entered into lockdown in a nationwide effort to combat the pandemic. New Orleans has suffered, losing business and prosperity as tourists were discouraged, bars were shut down and their live music silenced, and Mardi Gras was cancelled in an unprecedented move. The city’s people faced harrowing losses as well, with low-income households and minority populations were hit especially hard by the pandemic.

           In an effort to combat COVID-19, a new wave of mandated regulations came through. Large gatherings were prohibited, in-person dining was closed for a vast majority of restaurants, and the wearing of a mask in public slowly but surely became the norm. People were encouraged to leave their houses only when necessary, a measure that was essential for public safety but catastrophic for business, especially small   businesses reliant on in-person customers. As a city that thrives on the commerce and revenue of tourism, New Orleans was hit particularly hard by the unprecedented challenges presented by the pandemic.

          Yet in December of 2020, after a year of hard work from scientists and advances in modern medicine, vaccinations for COVID-19 became a reality. One after another, the vaccines became authorized by the FDA; first the Pfizer vaccine on December 11, 2020, then Moderna on December 18th, 2020, and at last Johnson & Johnson on February 27th, 2021. In the state of Louisiana, distribution began initially for those in the healthcare field.

           Along with the other employees at the Children’s Hospital, Bailey Batt was able to receive her first shot of the vaccine not too long after the words “Pfizer,” “Moderna,” and “Johnson & Johnson” became household vocabulary. Yet even in mid-March, after she has received both her doses of Pfizer, she still remains cautiously hesitant.

          “I still don’t feel comfortable when people are too close to me,” she admits. As she waits to begin a Child Life Internship starting May 24th, Batt divides her time between her shifts at the Children’s Hospital, nannying, and working as a florist in a boutique – all jobs that, at their core, revolve around interactions with other people. Likewise, all of these jobs, like all of society, have become complicated by COVID-19.

           For instance, Batt’s volunteering at the Children’s Hospital has adapted to optimize patient and employee safety in the pandemic. In the past, volunteers like Batt would monitor the ‘Play Room’ and the ‘Teen Room’ – rooms in which patients can participate in activities like videogames or arts and crafts as a reprieve in their stay – while patients would come and go as they pleased. But due to the pandemic, these rules have been adjusted. Now, only one patient can enter at a time, masks must be worn, and the rooms must be sanitized in between patients. 

           “It’s definitely made things [at the hospital] more difficult,” Batt said. The new procedures implemented due to COVID-19 are necessary but tiresome. Even with the vaccine, life continues to be restricted. Until herd immunity is reached, restrictions at the Children’s Hospital and across the board will remain in place for the sake of public health. 

           But while the vaccine has not yet had a large-scale impact on the way of life under COVID-19, the vaccine may provide comfort on an individual level to those who have received one.

          “I think it’s [the vaccine] changed my life in regard to protecting those who are immune compromised around me. My dad has various problems, like diabetes and heart issues, so it’s a big relief knowing that I’ve been vaccinated, and he has too,” Batt said. “I have been able to finally see my grandparents after a year, they both have been vaccinated.”

          Like Batt states, while society has not yet changed, there is no small amount of comfort in knowing that one and those around oneself have received protection from COVID-19 via the vaccine. For high-risk individuals like her father, or the elderly like her grandparents, though receiving the vaccine may not yet alleviate all inconveniences and measures induced by the pandemic, nevertheless it still brings on life-changing relief for many.

          “I think that the vaccine has made me feel normal to some extent kind of like the flu shot, it protects you to an extent,” Batt said, “But I’m not sure when things will go back to normal…maybe the fall of 2021?”

           Despite the individual comforts of seeing family and friends again, much remains to be done before society can fully return to normal. Even once society does begin to become normal again, the lasting impact of the pandemic will not soon be forgotten.

           “I hope that they continue to evolve this vaccine to the mutated strain if it continues to threaten our community,” Batt commented. Despite the progress achieved through the development of the vaccines, the various adaptations and mutations of COVID-19 continue to persist as an unwelcome reminder of the mutable nature of disease, and the unyielding efforts of science that must be maintained in the future order to continue combating it.

          Either way, Batt recognizes that despite the positive changes brought on by the vaccine, the battle against COVID-19 is far from over, not only medically but emotionally as well.

          “This kind of social anxiety is going to stay with us for a while.”

          As a young adult in her early twenties, Batt narrowly missed the margin for having COVID-19 impact her college experience, a fact that she says she is very thankful for. During this pandemic time period, college students faced a unique set of challenges.

           In March 2020, universities across the United States shut down, leaving students forced to return back to their childhood homes and shunted into online classes. Now, over a year later, the fate of many universities and their students remains yet to be determined.

           Valerie, a senior at Loyola University, waited to receive her second dose of the Moderna vaccine at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on the dismal, rainy Saturday of April 17th.

Last March, the Convention Center shut its doors to the public along with the rest of the city and the nation. But in this March of 2021, the Convention Center reopened as a wave of fresh hope swept into the city. With the coming of the vaccine, the Center has lowered its bars and transformed into a bustling hub for vaccine distribution, filled to the brim with citizens such as Valerie who are eagerly awaiting their doses.

While Valerie is “excited to be fully vaccinated,” she says that she is still not quite sure of what the future holds for her and her peers.

“There’s been a lot of anxiety about being a normal college student and going out this year,” Valerie remarked. For her, this year of quiet evenings in has been a stark contrast to the previous three years of her undergraduate experience.

“I’ve been seeing mostly family, but not too many friends,” she said. Staying in, keeping her social circle small, and following COVID-19 guidelines even when many others at her university have continued to go out has been a struggle for her this year. But soon, “things will go back to normal,” Valerie hopes.

Harriet, an older woman with a fanny pack strapped around her torso, props herself up with her cane as she waits farther down the line from Valerie. Like Valerie, Harriet came to the Convention Center that Saturday looking forward to receiving her second shot of the Moderna vaccine.

“I’ve had no problems [with the first shot] so far. I just want to get it over with,” Harriet remarked, saying that she is tired of life amidst COVID-19. Ever since the onset of the pandemic, she said that both her and her friends and family have struggled, feeling burdened by the constant stress and caution.

“I’m always tired, and I didn’t want to do nothing,” Harriet said. But, after receiving the first dose, things took a turn for the better.

“I feel restored. Everybody else says that their health is restored too. The vaccine gives you your life back.” Hopefully, things can continue to improve for Harriet and those close to her with the second dose and onwards.

By the time that Valerie and Harriet went to receive their second doses on April 17th, Louisiana had updated its vaccine criteria, sweeping a hopeful wave of newly eligible candidates into vaccination centers across the state and into the Convention Center’s vast halls. Starting on March 29, 2021, all Louisiana residents aged eighteen and older are eligible to receive any of the COVID vaccines, and individuals sixteen and older have access to the Pfizer vaccine. Nationwide, every state in the United States, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico has expanded its availability to these same criteria, as decreed by President Biden.

Ever since its reopening on March 4th, the Convention Center has been a mainstay of vaccine distribution. It continues to make bounds toward accessibility through convenient walk-in appointments and a partnership with Uber for free rides. Michelle, a teacher at a local elementary school, made use of the Convention Center’s convenient facilities as she went receive her second shot of the vaccine on Saturday, March 20th.

New Orleans residents wait fifteen minutes after receiving their vaccine in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on April 17th, 2021 at 900 Convention Center Blvd, New Orleans, LA. 

As an educator, Michelle was part of Priority Group 1-B in Louisiana, and thus granted vaccine eligibility in Louisiana on Monday February 22nd. Responsible not only for herself but for her students – who have been attending class in-person – Michelle was quick to book her first vaccine appointment as soon as it became available.

“It will make a difference,” Michelle said. “Hopefully, we won’t get quarantined anymore.”

Quarantining from contact tracing has been a recurring issue for Michelle. Despite the school’s best efforts, many people have been put in quarantine. These sporadic periods of absences have disrupted the flow of teaching and learning, she said, which is causing some students to fall behind. But she believes that the vaccine will change things for the better, both for her school and for her personal life.

“I’ll be able to see people I haven’t in a while,” she said, as one of the things she’s looking forward too. She is also eagerly awaiting the days when people “don’t have to wear a mask anymore,” which she believes will come once the vaccine reaches enough people.

“I just want to see some light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. 

Danielle, a young woman from New Orleans seeking her first dose of the vaccine while Michelle received her second, hopes that the end is in sight as well.

“Hopefully we can get from behind these masks and go back to normal,” Danielle said. She arrived at the Convention Center with bright eyes and left her worries back at home, saying that she felt “fine, excited even” to receive her first shot.

Danielle believes that the vaccine’s increased availability, as well as the New Orleans community’s receptiveness towards the shot, bode well for the future. While she said that the vaccine has not yet altered her day-to-day life, she believes that it is only a matter of time before things begin returning back to life pre-COVID.

“It can only have a positive effect on the community as a whole moving forward,” she said. “Hopefully we can get everyone vaccinated in a timely manner and move towards normal and get kids back in school.”

Further ahead in the line from Danielle, New Orleans native Yamil waited for his first dose of the vaccine. Yamil, a young man with an artfully tousled beanie and clear round glasses frames perched on his nose, described himself as a proud as a member of the New Orleans community at large. That day, he said that he came to the Convention Center with the needs of this community in mind. 

“I feel that it’s the thing to do, but it’s not going to change my day-to-day life yet,” Yamil said, agreeing with the consensus established by Michelle and Danielle. While the mobilization of vaccines is a significant step forward, there’s still a lot of time before the world returns to normal.

Yet this return to normal is highly anticipated by Yamil and all those around himself, he explained. Like many other healthy young people dealing with the pandemic’s forced isolation, Yamil has felt that this year has been “more emotionally taxing than physically.”

 However, Yamil believes that soon “people in my community will feel more peace,” and that alone makes the vaccine worthwhile. He also believes that the pandemic could be an opportunity for society to progress, once the worst is through.

“Once people feel a little calm we can take the things that we’ve learned from this time of introspection and move forward with the things that we’ve learned,” he said. Though the dreary days of COVID-19 seem to be coming to an end, Yamil is well-attuned to society’s other issues, and believes that there is a potential for the world to take advantage of the knowledge accumulated during the pandemic and use that to better society. Ultimately, Yamil hopes that “even as we move to normalize society, we move to a more evolved normal.”

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