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The Strange Voyeurism of Watching Someone Else Get Vaccinated

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On Dec. 8, an 81-year-old man in Britain named William Shakespeare, who had been hospitalized following a stroke, became one of the first people in the world to receive a clinically authorized and fully tested coronavirus vaccine. For more than a month since then, we have been watching needles enter upper arms. Like many early Covid-19 vaccinations, Shakespeare’s was witnessed by journalists; video of it is on dozens of news sites, each making much of his name in the headline. In the video, he is seated in a wheelchair. One nurse removes a pile of get-well cards from his lap; another rolls up the sleeve of his hospital gown. “Relax, relax,” she says, jiggling the pale flesh of his arm. Then she lifts the needle and plunges it in, eliciting both a slight cringe and a strange satisfaction. Cameras click in the background. Shakespeare barely flinches. The nurse withdraws the needle, swabs his arm gently and rolls his sleeve back down.

All these vaccination videos herald that even if the end of the pandemic is not here, it is at least coming. The videos are also weird: strangely intimate, almost voyeuristic. Even seeing someone’s naked upper arm, so often paler than the rest of the body, can be startling. We are watching an act of caregiving, with all its attendant intimacy and vulnerability. Sometimes the spectacle feels invasive, as when we see images of someone frail wincing in pain. Other times it is jubilant, as when health workers receive shots and break into masked smiles of relief.

Most often it is anticlimactic. There is very little drama in someone getting a shot. On the “Today” show in December, an announcer at the University of Florida Health Center in Jacksonville tried to build excitement before a nurse was vaccinated live. “Are you anxious?” he asked. No, she said. “You’ve been anxious every day working in the Covid ward?” he asked. Yes, she nodded. The network started an on-air stopwatch, which ran for only six seconds. The theatrics of network television fall flat before a medical procedure so routine. After Shakespeare’s shot, the nurse asks him if he felt it, and he says no. After all that, not even a little prick.

Watching a shot go in someone’s arm is largely devoid of drama, but the surrounding choreography and presentation of the moment can be fascinating. Many early vaccinations are being administered in hospitals and nursing homes, and the videos seem designed to provide a kind of narrative closure, an injection of hope into settings that have been battered by the virus. This has also made for shows of what feels like opportunism, as governors and other officials hover proudly by the very places their governments failed to protect, as though a debt has been repaid.

Covid-19 Vaccines ›

Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.

Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.

Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.

No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

Then there are the videos of politicians themselves being vaccinated: Joe Biden, Marco Rubio, Mike Pence, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others, all exposing their arms. The public-health argument for this is straightforward. These images can help persuade individuals across the political spectrum to take a vaccine at a time when public confidence in them can be shaky. Televised vaccinations have been used to inspire confidence since the days of polio: In 1956, Elvis Presley was vaccinated backstage before a live appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Nevertheless, there are those angered by seeing public officials who have minimized the danger of the virus jumping the line, and there are also members of Congress who say they won’t receive the vaccine before higher-risk groups. Nor is the theater of vaccinations always effective. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists seized on a photo of Nancy Pelosi, claiming her vaccination was faked. She dutifully provided even more photo evidence that she had, indeed, received a real shot.

Political figures getting the vaccine are seen in a moment of unique vulnerability, not just physically but also in their self-​presentation. Men can’t wear their shirt-and-tie uniform (the sleeves won’t roll up well), so Biden arrived for his first shot in a mock turtleneck that left him looking unusually boyish. Women have to navigate the risks of appearing vulnerable at all. Ocasio-Cortez posted her entire experience in explanatory segments on Instagram: her walk down the halls of Congress, a photo of the form she filled out, a self-shot video of the needle entering her arm and a selfie with other newly vaccinated members of Congress. Pence’s staging had militaristic overtones, taking place in front of an American flag and monitors displaying “Operation Warp Speed” and “Safe and Effective” slogans. Rubio tweeted a picture from his vaccination, along with what felt like a bid to pre-empt any mockery. “I know I looked away from the needle, and yes, I know I need a tan, but I am so confident that the #Covid19 vaccine is safe and effective that I decided to take it myself,” he wrote, above an image of himself with his eyes squeezed shut.

These videos of vaccinations are yet another of the past year’s constant reminders that people have bodies, that we are susceptible to pain and disease and death. Here again we see skin and muscle and flab, the tender spots of the young, the frailty of the elderly. The images are bound to the realities of the human body, which is part of what makes them so resistant to theatrics. They have no real climax. If all goes well, the body barely appears to react. Afterward, the recipient waits a bit for monitoring, then walks off. They are not even suddenly immune. There is a gulf between what the vaccine promises — the end of a pandemic, the protection of the vulnerable, radically expanded possibilities for everyday life — and what it actually is: a simple shot in the arm.

Even these shots in arms aren’t proving so simple. The vaccine rollout in the U.S., and much of the world, feels thus far like another example of the fecklessness of government responses to the pandemic. State and city officials argue about who should be first in line; many people are refusing vaccinations; sluggishness at nearly every step has meant that doses of our long-awaited vaccines are being, unthinkably, thrown away unused. In the meantime, infections are surging far beyond the levels that caused such horror last spring, and a year’s worth of suffering — unemployment, unpaid rent, business closures — piles further on itself. There is something anticlimactic about these vaccine videos. They come with the realization that these shots do not offer anything like the narrative closure we are looking for, because we are not anywhere close to the ending yet.


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