My COVID vaccine experience: Safety, peace of mind and music

Rich Hunter, from the WTOP Traffic Center, gets his first COVID-19 vaccine. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

Over the past year, I have become familiar with medical terms that I could have gone my entire life without ever knowing what they mean: coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, community spread, super-spreader and my personal favorite, efficacy.

But on Jan. 18, 2021, my wife, Kathy, and I received a text, an email and a phone call that we were eligible to register for our first vaccination for COVID-19. We’re in Phase 1b in Fairfax County because of underlying medical conditions.

It was not lost on me that it would have been my Mom’s 89th birthday if she lived to see what our world has become. Kathy also found out that we were two of 41,000 residents that registered that day. The likelihood of getting our first vaccination soon seemed unlikely, but we were happy to get started on this journey.

On Monday, March 2, I woke up around 4 p.m. — I’ve been working the overnight shift in the WTOP Traffic Center since 2013, so that’s about normal. I got up and went to check my cellphone to find a text from Kathy saying, “You should have an email link to make your vaccine appointment, do it soon!” She had already made hers.

The email from the Fairfax County government had the magic paragraph: “Your information has been reviewed and it meets the eligibility requirements for the COVID vaccination at this time. You are invited to schedule an appointment online.”

I quickly went to the website and looked for the earliest appointment and at the location closest to where I live in Fairfax. Herndon was already booked; the remaining two choices were the Mount Vernon District Police Station or Eagle Bank Arena on the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax. As an alum, it was an easy choice.

I grabbed the first available appointment — 10:45 a.m. Friday, March 5. I left work at 5:30 that morning, so I knew I would lose some sleep, but I can safely say it’s totally worth it.

I arrived at the arena about 30 minutes before my scheduled appointment. (They ask that you arrive 15 minutes early, but I like being an overachiever.) You are greeted at the entrance by a very cheerful person who points you in the right direction. A second person confirms your name and appointment time. The next greeter directs you to an open portal where they ask you for your ID, check your information, ask whether this is your first or second vaccine, and send you to the vaccination center.

I walked to the first open chair where a friendly nurse asked me a few general questions including “Right arm or left arm? I’m set up to do the left, do you mind?”

A sleeve rolled up, a quick swab of alcohol, a pinch of muscle in my upper left arm, a quick stab of the needle, and I was on my way to chill for 15 minutes to make sure I do not have any sort of a reaction.

While waiting with about 50 other folks, we were entertained by a soundtrack of bright, upbeat music, while a student volunteer checked to make sure we were OK while dancing (I am told they hope to have live musicians performing in a couple of weeks).

When my 15 minutes elapsed, I was directed through the exit doors into the bright sunshine of a brisk, late winter morning.

From start to finish, the whole process took about 20 minutes — 20 minutes to feeling safer, for myself, for my wife, her sister and her 90-year-old father and his wife, whom we have not seen in person for over a year. I am also making my friends, my co-workers and my community safer too.

It was so worth losing the sleep!

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