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COVID: Thoughts on Stigma and the Miracle of Modern Medicine

vaccine development infographic

It took me a while to decide to write this article. I’ve been aware of stigma surrounding COVID-19 for quite some time. I’ve known numerous people who experienced COVID, but often heard about it through the grapevine. Personal cases have seemed a bit too hush-hush. I understand HIPAA laws that protect patient health information but have noted that most people don’t self-disclose.  

When I tested positive for COVID in early June, I was reluctant to talk about it at first. Even now, I wonder how people will react when they hear I had COVID (emphasis on “had”—past tense). But it occurred to me—contracting COVID-19 is not a character flaw!

As of June 23, I was one of 456,572 positive cases in King County. I was also one of 1,841,601 people who had completed a vaccine series. (For today’s numbers, click here.) Vaccination did not prevent me from getting COVID but I know it is highly likely that my case was mild because I am fully vaccinated.

Here’s a broader testament to the power of COVID vaccination: I sing in a vocal ensemble and we rehearsed the night before I had the symptoms that prompted me to test for COVID. We were all vaccinated and boosted, and we rehearsed multiple weeks without masks—a calculated risk we had agreed to take. Surprisingly, no one else in the ensemble or in their immediate families got COVID.

I am aware of only one person at work who may have caught COVID during a meeting with me. Everyone who works for the City of Seattle is vaccinated against COVID-19. That doesn’t mean no one gets sick. It does mean far fewer people get sick, and the severity of the illness is usually relatively mild.

The first day, after an adrenaline rush while I informed every person I was in contact with in the week leading up to my positive test, I crashed and slept for 10 hours. I needed pain relief the first day, but not after I was fully rested. My sore throat subsided by day 2, and by day 3, I had what I normally associate with mild seasonal allergies. I did not lose taste or smell. I didn’t set alarms—just woke up when I was good and ready, and worked as many hours as I could (from home, of course). My husband slept in the guest room and we both wore masks in the house for a week. All things considered, not bad. I didn’t test again until day 8. The test was negative.

That’s not to say that COVID is nothing to be concerned about. I was acquainted with several people who died from the disease, and curse COVID for cheating them and their loved ones out of more time together. I know others who caught it before a vaccine was available. I know people who have chronic conditions that, combined with COVID, could turn deadly, and am thankful that they are fully vaccinated.

A friend’s 10-month-old grandson was hospitalized for a week with COVID not too long ago. Thankfully, everyone aged six months and older is now eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. Public Health—Seattle & King County anticipates that a sufficient supply will be available to vaccinate the youngest age group this month.

While I like to think about COVID-19 vaccination as one of the miracles of modern medicine, in fact, the technology used to develop both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been in development for over 15 years. They have received enormous scrutiny and are considered safe and effective at preventing serious disease or death due to COVID-19. That’s no miracle—that’s science. I’m grateful for it.

I’m also aware that I could contract COVID again. I still wear a KN-95 mask on public transit, in indoor public spaces like stores and theaters, and in any gathering in which I don’t know everyone’s vaccination status. You can read about Reinfection and COVID-19 here. It’s smart to play it safe.

I plan to follow the science and get any future vaccinations to which I am entitled. Shingles? Check. Tetanus? Check. Vaccines to prevent pneumococcal disease? Yes, in a year or so, assuming one or both are recommended by my health care provider.

I get a flu shot every year and won’t be surprised if we have a similar opportunity to control the spread of COVID-19 and its variants in the future. It’s not a perfect science but mild symptoms and two weeks of home isolation sure beat the alternative.

Irene StewartContributor Irene Stewart manages communications for Aging and Disability Services, and is editor of AgeWise King County. She also serves on the Seattle Human Services Department’s Legislative and External Affairs Team.