Vaccine FOMO Is the Final Stage of Pandemic Loneliness

Is everyone getting vaccinated without me?

Vaccine FOMO
Photo: Jenna Brillhart

Back in January, or maybe February — honestly, what difference does it make — it happened for the first time. I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram when I saw my first ever "vaxxie." For the unfamiliar, that's shorthand for vaccine selfie, the photo you take when you, at long last, finally get the coronavirus vaccine.

It was an acquaintance, someone I know only through the internet. They had just gotten the jab and were, understandably, elated. Even though we're not exactly close, I was elated for them, too. After all, the more people who get vaccinated, the better. More vaccines means we're that much closer to the elusive phenomenon known as herd immunity. And that means a real, tangible end to the pandemic that's forever turned our lives upside down.

So why did my genuine elation for this internet friend immediately morph into pure, heart-panging jealousy?

Well, for starters, it was partly that they were even able to get it in the first place. They live in another state, with different rollout timelines and qualification guidelines. At that point in time, Washington, D.C., where I currently live, was struggling to even keep the registration system functioning — the website frequently froze and crashed as eligibility opened up to people with underlying health conditions. I was envious that other jurisdictions seemed to be effortlessly vaccinating anyone who wanted the shot. Was I jumping to conclusions and making broad generalizations about something I knew relatively little about beyond the occasional headline or network news segment?

Of course I was.

But hey, we're living through a pandemic. Panic and hysteria about literally everything is kind of the plat du jour. Still, as Carrie Bradshaw would posit, I couldn't help but wonder: Was everyone getting vaccinated without me?

Shortly after that initial vaxxie encounter, my social timelines had become vaxxie hotspots — someone gleefully getting jabbed here, another person showing off their "I got my Covid-19 vaccine!" sticker there. Each time, it was the same trajectory of emotions: skyrocketing happiness followed by overwhelming envy. It felt like everyone had been given a secret code to a cool speakeasy that I wasn't privy to, or that they'd created a group chat for the explicit purpose of spreading rumors about me behind my back.

Seeing everyone around me get vaccinated tapped into some of my most deep-seated insecurities about being left out and excluded, which had already been amplified over the course of the last year. Watching folks gather in large groups with people who definitely didn't live in their household or jet set to foreign countries at the height of the pandemic was isolating enough. And it made me feel like they'd gotten a special permission slip that I wasn't also afforded.

In a way, the jealousy was double-edged: How was it that so many people who'd largely ignored the guidelines to begin with — or who even downplayed Covid and called it a hoax — were now the ones who got first dibs on the vaccine? (Yes, I'm talking about Lindsey Graham and also a certain cohort of individuals in my network who still had IRL birthday parties last year.)

As it turns out, vaccine FOMO is just another stage of pandemic-induced loneliness. About this time a year ago, we were still in the throes of lockdown, spiraling headfirst into the unknown, all in the name of flattening the curve. While many of us were physically and figuratively isolated, we were all, more or less, in it together. People were banging pots outside their windows, baking banana bread, and planning happy hours on Zoom.

Then, seemingly overnight, it felt as though the majority had decided to collectively eschew CDC guidelines and prematurely force normality. That was partly the fault of the Trump administration, which failed to establish and implement a national strategy for handling the pandemic from the very beginning. Without consistent messaging at the federal level, states and municipalities, in turn, were left to fend for themselves, creating a disjointed response that differed from city to city.

Some people, like myself, erred on the side of caution and continued to isolate for fear of catching the virus or, perhaps worse, infecting a loved one. We knew it was the right thing to do, but seeing so many others not do the right thing — well, let's just say we'll have to figure out which grudges are worth holding onto.

Now, in this stage of the pandemic, for those who continue to wait their turn for the vaccine, all of the isolation is compounding and multiplying. It means being further ostracized after a year of already feeling impossibly lonely and left out. It also means navigating a new new normal, one that requires decoding varying degrees of risk.

This illustration, for instance, shows the different gathering guidelines for fully vaccinated people and their non-vaccinated counterparts. It underscores one uncomfortable truth that not nearly enough people are talking about: While the vaccine may signal the end, it in and of itself is not the end.

Just this week, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said she has a recurring feeling of "impending doom" as states eliminate mask mandates and ease up on reopening restrictions.

"What we've seen over the last week or so is a steady rise of cases," Walensky said Monday. "I know that travel is up, and I just worry that we will see the surges that we saw over the summer and over the winter again."

That, I think, sums up the most maddening part of this side of the pandemic. We all started this chapter at the same time, but how — and when — we choose to bring this chapter to a close is, for better or worse, mostly up to us as individuals. The more you wait, the more it feels like you're missing out on living the life you swear you once had. And when you've already missed out on so much, who can bear to wait a second longer?

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