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Hope after a pandemic

Following a year of coronavirus lockdowns, illness, and death, Americans rejoice at a vaccine and little steps back to normal living

Hope after a pandemic

Yankee Stadium (shown here) and Citi Field host 24-hour COVID-19 vaccination events. (Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/AP)

At New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, the flights stop each night to allow Queens residents to get some sleep. But in mid-March at Citi Field, the Mets baseball stadium next to LaGuardia, COVID-19 ­vaccine appointments continued all night long.

Outside Citi Field on March 18, police officers patrolled as vaccine-seekers arrived in the wee hours of the morning. Nearby, a parade of Department of Sanitation forklifts brought smashed cars to a junkyard across the street, and subway trains parked at the end of the 7 Line. On the perimeter of the stadium, a steady stream of people poured into a stadium sports bar where health workers were doling out COVID-19 shots.

Despite the early hour, typically grumpy New Yorkers were buoyant after receiving their vaccines. 

“Uncle Steve!” proclaimed Mets fan Ian Brady, a bartender enthusiastic about the Mets’ chances for success under new owner Steve Cohen and his bigger purse strings. Brady, who received his coronavirus shot at 2 a.m., wore a green T-shirt and a cloverleaf mask after getting off his St. Patrick’s Day shift earlier in the evening. He said he signed up for the vaccine “as soon as I could get it.” After what he described as a tough year financially, he was hopeful about getting back to normal—and getting out to a Mets game this season: “We say this every year, but this year, it’s our year.”

Vito Agate and his son Vincent Agate—also Mets fans—got vaccinated at 1:40 a.m. so Vincent could have his April wedding, postponed from October due to the pandemic. 

“It’s been a lot of anxiety and stress,” said Vincent. 

And Krishna Vegaraju, who works at an Indian travel company, hopes his business, which cratered last year, will return with the arrival of vaccines. Vegaraju lives in Flushing but hopes to travel to India in the coming months. He thinks international travel will pick up in the fall. Will you celebrate being fully vaccinated? I asked Vegaraju after he got his vaccine at around 2 a.m. 

“At this point, I will sleep,” he laughed.

People are breathing sighs of relief not just at Citi Field’s 24-hour vaccine site, but across the country. After a year of sitting at home, wearing masks, canceling social events, worrying about catching the virus, and in many cases mourning the loss of loved ones, Americans are optimistic at what appear to be signs of a return to normal.

A majority of Americans ages 65 and older now have received at least one vaccine dose, and by early April more than 17 percent of Americans were fully vaccinated overall. Others have gained natural immunity by catching the virus and recovering. Those rates, along with a steep drop in deaths and new infections since January, suggest the coronavirus’s ability to circulate in the United States has weakened. 

Now Americans are envisioning life in a world without COVID-19 restrictions. For many who are hugging family members in nursing homes again, meeting with friends after 13 months of isolation, or returning to volunteer work, each step toward normalcy brings a taste of joy.

Loneliness was a theme among New Yorkers at Citi Field. Richard Aguilar from Flushing remembered being alone for a month last year, sick with COVID-19. “I felt hopeless,” he said. “There were moments I thought we weren’t going to get back on our feet as quickly as we have.” Now he can imagine seeing friends and family.

Bella Rafailova said the pandemic forced her to return to New York from a study-abroad semester. She completed her last semester of college from her childhood bedroom, which she said was hard. She has since been working in retail, where she frequently has to tell people to put their masks on.

“It just feels nice after a year of this, there’s hope,” she said. “We’re almost through.”

Mary Altaffer/AP

A health care worker screens a person at a COVID-19 vaccination site at Citi Field. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

ROBERT HAYWARD has spent the last year witnessing firsthand what the Bible teaches in its first pages: “It is not good for man to be alone.”

In March 2020, the president of Quarryville Presbyterian Retirement Community in Quarryville, Pa., followed state directives to bar visitors and make plans to care for 435 residents in isolation for the long haul. The retirement community—a mix of independent living, personal care (assisted living), and skilled nursing care—was spared severe outbreaks, but Hayward says the past year was still tough: “We’re designed for relationship, not for isolation.”

The need for safety was clear: COVID-19 proved especially dangerous for elderly populations, and it spread quickly through congregate settings. Nursing home deaths account for nearly a third of U.S. coronavirus fatalities, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of mortality data.

After spending months trying to encourage and motivate his staff, Hayward says a chaplain encouraged him to lament more. Hayward went home and wrote a lament with his wife that he shared with the broader community last June: “Our lives are as we never imagined they would be. … Our loved ones are taken from us. And You, O Lord, seem far away.” He ended with hope: “Our flesh and our hearts may fail. But you, O Lord, are the strength of our hearts and our portion forever.” 

Hayward says, “I actually found the lamenting to be more encouraging to people than my trying to be encouraging to them.”

Last year, officials in some states started loosening visitor restrictions at long-term care facilities in an early effort to reunite lonely residents with their families. In October, after Texas eased restrictions, a Houston news station showed the moving reunion between a couple married for 68 years but separated by the coronavirus. Joyce and Bobby Myers had moved into the same retirement community, but Joyce lives in a memory care unit of the facility. 

When health officials locked down the memory care wing to stop the spread of COVID-19, Bobby couldn’t visit. Finally, in October, new protocols allowed Bobby to visit his wife, and he held her hand for the first time in months: “We’ve been in love since I was 14 years old … and the love never faltered.”

Now, a year after the pandemic began, a dramatic decrease in COVID-19 deaths in facilities across the United States is allowing even more family members to huddle, hug, and hold hands. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services declared in a March memo that care facilities should allow “responsible indoor visits at all times for all residents,” regardless of the vaccination status of the resident or visitor. (The memo included exceptions, such as a resident with an active COVID-19 infection.)

New guidelines still call for screening visitors for symptoms, wearing masks, and basic protocols for social distancing, but they do allow for physical contact between residents and visitors, when a resident is vaccinated.

In mid-March, Robert Hernandez visited his 97-year-old aunt in a Joliet, Ill., nursing home for the first time in a year. Euldalia Asa survived COVID-19 and endured more than a year of window visits with her family. A Chicago news station reported on the reunion: With Asa’s faltering vision, she didn’t recognize her nephew right away. Hernandez said he told her “It’s me. … And she said, ‘I recognize the voice.’”

He told his aunt he was sorry it had been so long since they had visited in person. She smiled: “I’m glad to see you.”

THE VIRUS THAT CAUSES COVID-19 proved most dangerous to people ages 65 and older, and Americans in that age bracket had to be especially cautious about going to public places or meeting with friends and family members. Some have gone months largely isolated in their homes.

That demographic is also vital to U.S. nonprofits, which rely heavily on the volunteer work of retirees. When the pandemic struck, many nonprofits found themselves shorthanded. As of mid-March, several organizations told WORLD they hadn’t yet seen many people in the 65-and-older bracket return to volunteering.

But at least some of those volunteers have returned—and others hope to soon.

Raleigh, N.C., resident Jane Woodward, 72, returned to volunteering at the Raleigh-based Refugee Hope Partners (RHP) just a few weeks ago. She began working with the group in summer 2017, when RHP’s popular “read and swim” program was in full swing: Refugee children could read four days each week to earn a trip to the pool at a local Christian camp. Woodward, a former special needs teacher, remembers sitting at a table where kids could get help reading in English. “Sometimes you’d have kids who can’t read, so I would read to them,” she said. “When it ended I was sad.” She and her husband, Woody, also volunteered with the organization’s homework help program. 

In February 2020, the Woodward family flew to Atlanta for a wedding. That’s where they believe their adult daughter caught COVID-19. “From then on it was seclusion,” said Jane. She had to stop tutoring lessons with a 7-year-old girl through RHP, whom she’d been teaching the colors. “My first thought was, ‘She will never learn purple,’” said Jane. She could no longer lead a Bible study at a local retirement home, and her church small group met exclusively on Zoom. She could not see or hug her five grandchildren, even though they lived nearby. Jane remembers spending lots of time working in the yard, as the year passed in a blur. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘What did I do all last summer?’” she said with a laugh. “We really and truly have not socialized until recently.”

On Feb. 9, 2021, Jane and Woody got their second doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Two or three weeks later, they resumed weekly volunteering with RHP. Now they teach kindergartners and first graders on Thursday afternoons. In the last few weeks, Jane has also returned to church, started working in the nursery again, and hugged her grandchildren.

Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

A pharmacist intern talks with a resident at a senior living community in Anaheim, Calif., after giving the COVID-19 vaccine. (Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

MANY SENIORS ARE STILL in the early stages of returning to pre-pandemic routines. Lorraine O’Shea, a 75-year-old resident of Bay City, Mich., received her first COVID-19 vaccine dose in late February. She had stayed mostly isolated with her husband, Mike, for the past year. The couple only met with family members outside, in garages, or in large open spaces, and Lorraine stopped going to the pool to do water aerobics with her friends. When some of their friends contracted COVID-19, the O’Sheas couldn’t visit them in the hospital. Three of those friends died.

After getting COVID-19 shots, Lorraine and Mike have remained cautious about going out and are still wary of visiting restaurants, but on March 15 Lorraine made her first trip back to the local pool after a year away. When she arrived at the pool at 7 a.m., two of her friends were already there. They were surprised when she emerged from the locker room. “Look at who’s back!” they said. 

“It felt as close to normal as anything has been in this last year,” Lorraine said. “We talked nonstop.”

Talk was about the only way Gwen Wilgus, 84, could keep in contact with her own friends and family for most of the pandemic. Until December, Wilgus, whose husband died in 2018, lived alone in a condo in Hannibal, Mo. With little face-to-face interaction with other people, she left her house only for daily walks around the cul-de-sac and weekly afternoon trips to the grocery store. “But I had a telephone,” she said. “And I made lots of calls to my friends.” The rest of the time, she said, she fed the birds, read, and talked to God. 

Before the pandemic, Wilgus volunteered with the hospital auxiliary. One day a week, she clerked at the hospital gift shop, selling fresh flowers and candy to hospital staff and the family and friends of hospital patients. She also helped in the emergency waiting room once a week, welcoming families, delivering messages from doctors, and keeping the coffee pot going. 

So she was disappointed last year when an email announced the gift shop was closed and that the emergency waiting room would no longer take volunteers. “I wasn’t really scared, but I was very unhappy that I couldn’t get out,” Wilgus said. 

In December, she moved to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to live with her daughter and son-in-law. She hopes to return soon to volunteering someplace near her new home. For now, the former fourth grade teacher is volunteering remotely by making birthday cards for children at her daughter’s church.

The first big thing Wilgus did after getting fully vaccinated around the beginning of March was to travel to Florida with family—a trip originally scheduled for March 2020. There, she enjoyed games with family and walks on the powdery white sand of Anna Maria Island. Speaking by Zoom from the island, Wilgus said she planned to start attending church again after returning to Ohio. 

It will be her first time back to services since last spring: “I’ll feel a little freer about going back and going out somewhere.”

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.

Emily Belz

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

Emily Belz

Leah Hickman

Leah is a reporter for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute and Hillsdale College graduate. Leah resides in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @leahmhickman.

Emily Belz

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and prison reform, including profiling ministries in the annual Hope Awards for Effective Compassion competition. She is also a part of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. Charissa resides with her husband, Josh, in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @CharissaKoh.