A View from the Hill: Vaccination works against cynicism, too

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When I received my first COVID-19 vaccination the other day at Scarborough Downs, I felt a sense of instant immunity.

Not to the disease, of course. That will take a while and another dose.

But the experience left me feeling that I had been inoculated against the deep cynicism that had taken hold over the last four years as I watched America become unhinged.

I read somewhere that tough times breed cynics: “This happens to people, a lot. When life throws them one tragedy after another, it makes sense that they would see the world as a dark place.”

A dark place indeed. Add to my previous complaint the sudden death of a loved one and the tragedy of COVID, and this seems to fit.

So it was with cynicism that I approached the whole vaccine business. This is the only thing that can save us, but they’re going to screw it up, I told myself. They already had screwed it up in a number of states. The cynics who inhabit the comments sections of local news organizations say it’s already a mess in Maine. 

But that’s not my experience nor the experience of anyone I know.

Like so many others, I desperately wanted the vaccine. But I couldn’t get in line because at 69 I was too young and Maine’s priority, sensibly in a state with the oldest population in the nation, was 70.

Since I was just a week shy of turning 70, my goal was to get an appointment a week out.

I had been thoroughly coached by my 70-or-over friends about how to play the vaccine game. Work the phones. Call at exactly 2 p.m. No, call at midnight. Scour online sites constantly. Dial and dial and dial and dial again. 

So I got to work.

One tip led me to the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, operated by Northern Light Health. I spent an entire unsuccessful afternoon pursuing that. 

No, try Martin’s Point someone else said. Or Walgreen’s. Or Walmart.

One portal that I visited at 2 p.m. said I would be in the virtual waiting room for 24 minutes as I waited to speak with someone. A few minutes later it was 38 minutes. Then 88 minutes. Then 60. At 2:15 it changed to 5,655 minutes, about 4 days. At 2:48 the virtual waiting room vanished.

I whined shamelessly to friends and family. Eventually, I got a couple of appointments in Bangor, and I even crabbed to anyone who was still listening about that being too far away. 

My daughter said I was being a baby. I was. 

Then, on March 2, the day before my birthday, I got a call from MaineHealth, the system with which my physician is associated. A very cheerful woman asked a few questions, noted that the next day was my birthday, wished me a happy birthday, and got me an appointment two days hence.

I was ecstatic and grateful.

And I felt like a jerk. My inner cynic had been so sure that this, too, was going to get screwed up. We would never be able to pull off anything as intricate and massive as vaccinating most of the population. 

Yet the system I saw had worked precisely the way MaineHealth had told me it would weeks ago. On March 4 I drove to the MaineHealth mass vaccination site at Scarborough Downs. National Guardsmen were everywhere, welcoming, directing traffic, opening the door. 

Inside the old harness racing grandstand, the 30,000 square-foot space had been transformed. According to MaineHealth, the conversion took 15 days and involved the work of 100 people representing 41 Maine-based companies led by Downs owner Crossroads Holdings.

At full tilt, the clinic can handle 2,000 vaccinations per day. I was awed by the efficiency of it. And I was overwhelmed by the positive energy with which the space buzzed.

Within minutes, I had been vaccinated and sent to the window where we used to place bets on the ponies to schedule my second shot. The clinic was so well staffed that there was never a wait at any station.

As I did my 15 minutes in recovery I overheard a couple near me ask if they could volunteer because they were so impressed by the operation.

I’ve always been something of a cynic. I thought it was a good quality for a journalist, helpful in sniffing out bad behavior and trouble in the making.

I’ve learned my lesson. 

We’re not perfect. But in the train wreck that has been the last few years, something went right. That’s a hopeful start. 

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.