Abraham Lincoln had been prominently mentioned in the invocation and the opening remarks and the inaugural address at the swearing-in of President Joe Biden earlier in the day down in Washington, D.C.
Now, as night gathered in Brooklyn, I passed along a row of small signs reading “vaccine entrance” affixed to the cast iron fence outside Abraham Lincoln High School at the edge of Coney Island, in a zip code where the COVID-19 positivity test rate was 17.53 percent over the previous week, almost double the city average.
Many people in the neighborhood could tell you that Lincoln High is the alma mater of Arthur Miller and Mel Brooks and Neil Diamond and Joseph Heller and Herbie Mann and Stephon Marbury. But few likely know that it was a particularly appropriate location for one of the city’s community COVID-19 vaccination hubs because Lincoln had fallen ill with another deadly virus on the train back from delivering the Gettysburg Address. The president’s physician had ordered the immediate inoculation of the White House staff for smallpox, but that came too late for Lincoln’s valet, who had pressed a wet towel to the president’s forehead on the train. The valet was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with a tombstone identifying him as “William Johnson, Citizen.”
The Union and Confederate armies both mandated smallpox inoculation, but vaccine was not always available and it was sometimes skipped in the haste to recruit and marshal fresh troops into battle. Thousands contracted smallpox. Thousands more fell ill from infections resulting from infections incurred by self inoculation, cutting the skin with whatever sharp object was handy and slathering the wound with the pus of a comrade with the disease. Illness of all kinds is believed to have been responsible for two thirds of the war’s fatalities.
After decades of vaccination, America was on its way to eliminating smallpox in 1947, when a single case arrived in New York from Mexico. The city health commissioner declared all residents should be immediately inoculated even if they had received the smallpox vaccine in childhood. New York managed to vaccinate 6,350,000 people in less than a month.
“Be Sure. Be Safe. Get Vaccinated!” read posters that went everywhere.
No proven vaccine existed when this new virus hit New York City nearly a year ago. The streets filled with ambulance sirens day and night for weeks even as the president then in the White House sought to minimize COVID-19 as “just the flu” and a Democratic hoax to undermine him. One city EMS supervisor responded to calls involving more than 100 DOAs.
Just up Ocean Parkway from Lincoln High School was Coney Island Hospital, where, the New York Times has reported, more than 40 per cent of the COVID patients died. The death rate in the wealthier hospitals in Manhattan was around 11 percent.
One blessing of being over 65 is that my wife and I became eligible this month to receive our first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. But the online system did not allow couples to sign up together. The slots were going so fast that we had to take appointments for different times and places. And my wife was among the 23,000 whose appointments had been postponed the day before because of what was described as a shipping delay.
“We already were feeling the stress of a shortage of vaccine,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference last week. “Now the situation has been made even worse.”
But by the CDC stats, the problem is not only supply. The CDC says New York state has actually administered only 50.43 percent of the doses it has received. That ranks it 17th in the nation, with West Virginia first at 72.28 percent, followed by North Dakota at 71.521 percent and South Dakota, whose Gov. Krisiti Noem is queen of the anti-maskers, in third at 65.84 percent.
Other than now former president Trump, Noem has done more than any other official to facilitate the virus’ spread. How the hell can one-time pandemic hero Andrew Cuomo be 14 places behind her?
The CDC says New York also lags by a related measure, with 6,189 inoculations per 100,000 people as compared to South Dakota’s 7,985, North Dakota's 8,412 and West Virginia's 10,086.
Cuomo says that New York State has actually administered 75 percent of its doses. Mayor Bill Blasio has said the city comes in around the same number. But even that would mean one out of four doses had not yet been used.
Whatever the actual stats, the country as a whole has been lacking the united sense of urgent purpose it showed back in World War II.
As of early December, the death toll from COVID surpassed the 292,000 combat fatalities the U.S suffered during the fight against Germany and Japan.
Just a month later, our COVID deaths have exceeded the 405,000 we lost in that conflict when illness and accidents are included.
One of the two major distribution points that New York City opened on Jan. 10 had also been a hub of the war effort of the 1940s. The Brooklyn Army Terminal was the departure point for 3.5 million soldiers and more than 37 million tons of materiel. It has now become a “mass vaccination site.” The satellite centers include Lincoln High School.
By chance, I still had a 5:40 p.m. appointment for a first dose of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and it was not transferable. I walked through the blustery cold feeling guilty about getting a chance for a shot before my wife did. I had already been feeling there was something wrong about getting a measure of safety before my two grown daughters.
A police car with flashing lights was parked by the side entrance to the school. A trio of city Health Department workers in yellow vests, masks and face shields were standing out in an icy wind when they could have been seeking shelter in the doorway. They were all animated with a mission, exhibiting the “Can Do” spirit that wins wars as they checked in the arriving lucky ones.
I was early and the email from the city had said not to arrive more than five minutes before the appointed time, so I continued down the next block and further into the zip code that is the city’s hottest hot zone for reasons that do not seem immediately clear. I gazed at the seven 23-story towers of Trump Village, built by the father of the man who had ceased to be president five hours and 25 minutes before.
Donald Trump’s grandfather had died of what was called the Spanish Flu on Memorial Day in 1918, one of the city’s first victims of our previous pandemic. His father, Fred, had gone on to construct this complex and hoped to top it with a grander project a few blocks away by acquiring the grounds of the old Steeplechase Park on the beach a short stroll from where I now walked.
But the city had elected a mayor who thought that zoning was not just an invitation for a bribe. Fred Trump had marked the defeat by sending out engraved invitations to a “V.I.P. Farewell Ceremony.” The father served his guests champagne and passed out bricks. He invited everybody to take turns pitching a brick through the original rendition of the famous Coney Island smiling face that had been painted on plate glass at the shuttered Steeplechase’s entrance.
In his own defeat, Fred’s son Donald had sought to do much the same to the face of democracy itself.
But thoughts of anything Trump fell away as I turned back towards the school and approached hope as personified by the Can Do people at the vaccine check in. One of them stepped up, asked for my appointment number and entered it on an iPad-type tablet.
“Go on in,” he said.
I proceeded into a large open space with maybe a dozen vaccination stations to the right. I was directed along a passageway established by a row of steel barriers set a few feet in from the wall to the left. The set-up could have accommodated a long line, with masking tape on the floor every six feet for social distancing. But only one person was ahead of me, waiting to be called to a vaccinating station.
Another person with a tablet checked me in again, this time using a New York State electronic form. Two more people arrived during the five minutes I waited. Only a few more were already at the stations, which otherwise were idle. I considered that this might have been because closing time was near, but I wondered if I had been doubly fortunate by getting one of the last appointments before the mass cancelation.
“Go to number two,” a supervisor told me after a few minutes.
I looked around and saw a health-care worker in a sterile gown, gloves, mask and face shield holding up a lime green variation on an auction paddle bearing the number 2. I approached past several stations where others sat in sterile gowns. I took a chair set at the end of table number 2.
The health-care worker asked for ID. She checked to confirm that my name matched the one on her tablet and that I reside in New York.
“Left arm or right arm?” she asked.
I had already removed my coat and placed it on the back of the chair in preparation for this moment. I rolled up my right sleeve and watched her gloved hand pick up a small vial with red lettering on a white label.
Below that were smaller words in black. The ones that jumped out were, “Emergency Use Authorization.”
She was inserting a syringe needle into the upraised vial when a supervisor came over.
“Is that two or three?” the supervisor asked.
“Three,” the health-care worker replied.
I understood they must be talking about how many of the vial’s 10 doses were left. I marveled that this tiny glass vessel had already given seven people hope of life-saving immunity—barring some resistant strain even now brewing somewhere—and that the remaining tiny bit of milky, off-white fluid was enough for three more. I thought of fine people I knew whose lives might have been saved if they had only gotten a bit of this stuff. I wished that my wife and daughters were getting it right now, along with my father, brother and the rest of the family.
“Breathe and relax,” the health-care worker said.
The health-care worker pushed down the plunger to inject the prescribed .5 ml. She then removed the needle and applied a Band-Aid. I said the only words that seemed appropriate.
She responded with a slight nod as if it were really nothing and directed me toward an area where single chairs were set at a social distance from each other.
I had read earlier in the week that you were supposed to get an appointment for the second shot when you got the first one. I approached a half-dozen health-care workers standing off to the right.
“We don’t have that capability right now,” one of them said when I inquired about the subsequent appointment.
Another worker said I should go to a city website and handed me a pink piece of paper with the internet address. I continued on to one of the chairs where the newly vaccinated are asked to spend 15 minutes in the event of a bad reaction.
I watched the minutes pass on a standard tissue school wall clock. The red second hand kept on sweeping through moments the dead would never experience while a few more of the living were getting shots that likely will save them.
After 15 sweeps of the red hand, I rose and went out a door that had a hand lettered sign reading “EXIT.” I was returned directly to the blustery dark with no aftereffects beyond relief.
I felt spoiled to be worrying about that second appointment.
I inquired about it the next day and was told that the problem had just been a technical glitch. I got the second appointment and wondered whether the absence of computers had actually assisted the city in so swiftly vaccinating millions in 1947.
My wife had still not gotten her first shot, but her appointment had been rescheduled for next week. I was able to tell her that the city seemed to have worked out a system that runs remarkably as long as there are enough of those little vials actually delivered to the vaccination sites. I just hope the site to which she has been assigned has vaccine when the time comes.
What keeps coming back to me is how little of that milky fluid is needed. How can a country that calls itself great not be able to get that .5 ml to everybody?
And when I think of Lincoln High and vaccine, I also think not just of the president for which it is named, but also of William Johnson, citizen. Maybe we would not have been so surprised and unprepared for the threat a virus can present if every school kid learned about the smallpox that followed the Gettysburg address and the valet who died after pressing a wet towel to ailing Abe’s forehead.