His eyes were empty. His gaze, distant and flat. When I asked how he was doing, he looked away, as those who have spent months in isolation often do.
I patiently waited for him to explain. He had already shown me his meticulous records of blood sugars, blood pressures and heart rate. A retired contractor, the precise columns of data were written with a sharp pencil in a small notebook that fit into his chest pocket. It was a familiar method of documentation.
As a COVID-19 prisoner for almost a year, there was little else to do all day. I moved closer as he described days as empty as his eyes. The N-95 mask pressed tightly over his mouth. I sat next to him and took his hand, emboldened by my vaccine-induced immunity. As he turned to look at me I asked again what else I could do for him.
“Could you just give me a hug?” he asked, and the tears welled up in both our eyes. I gave him a long hug.
Yesterday, one of my 80-year-old patients wrote me asking what she could possibly do to keep her mind sharp. She was talking to friends on the phone, taking ginkgo biloba and doing puzzles, but could tell it wasn’t enough. I told her the only cure is actual human interaction.
After both encounters, the question came up, as it does from my elderly patients all day: “When can I get the vaccine?” Of course they are referring to the COVID-19 vaccine. A ticket to freedom. A possible cure for loneliness.
I am a primary care physician and my office is the place my patients feel safest. They have taken every other vaccine from me for 15 years. Going on the internet and responding to text messages to sign up for a vaccine to be administered a month later in a downtown sports arena is a foreign concept. “Why can’t you just give me the vaccine here,” they ask? “I live so close to here.” Why, indeed?
My practice transformed to accommodate the pandemic. We purchased and renovated a food truck to serve as a testing site and future mobile vaccination site. We even outfitted a bus as a mobile clinic to see sick patients in the parking lot and keep our clinic safe for all our vulnerable patients. We have been providing vaccinations to newborns and octogenarians, hundreds per day, for 20 years. A community-based primary care practice is exactly where the COVID-19 vaccines should be right now.
For two months now, my office manager waded through the arduous application process to administer COVID-19 vaccines. Despite already being approved for the state-run VFC (Vaccines for Children) program, we had to send pictures of our freezers, temperature logs, do hours of online testing and attestations. Now, like everyone else, we are just waiting.
Three weeks ago, our governor made all the hospitals who were rapidly administering vaccine send all doses back to the state. We are now told that the state will allocate us vaccine in the coming months, but we have no control over when and what quantities. How is a health department, often calling my COVID-19-positive patients weeks after their diagnosis to “contract trace” them, better equipped to deliver vaccine to the public than a hospital system or a community physician practice? I know which patients are high risk. I know their ages and medical conditions — and most importantly, I have their trust.
We need COVID-19 vaccine in the hands of primary care physicians and their practices. It may fix more than the pandemic. It may be a cure for loneliness.
Mary Tipton is an internal medicine and pediatric specialist in South Jordan.