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They've got their COVID-19 vaccine, but they're not quite ready for a return to normal

By RACHEL ETTLINGER | The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y. | Published: March 30, 2021

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MIDDLETOWN, N.Y. (Tribune News Service) — In the coming weeks, the COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be almost as accessible as the average flu shot.

But for many of those who are almost or are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, their vaccinated status doesn't change the way they see their vulnerability or whether they're ready to jump back into the world.

For the first time, the CDC released guidelines on March 8 for those who are two weeks out after their final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. It recommends those who are vaccinated can visit with others who are inoculated, or who are unvaccinated in a low-risk household, indoors without masks or distancing.

In several interviews, many detailed their excitement and instant relief when they received their doses of one of three available COVID-19 vaccines.

But, for them, it won't be an instant return to normalcy.

Melissa Shaw-Smith, 50, of Warwick, got her first dose of the Moderna vaccine in Goshen about two weeks ago. In another two weeks, she'll get her second dose. When she works around the kids at the two nonprofits she is a part of, including Wickham Works and Warwick Valley Community Center, she'll feel more confident and comfortable, she said.

"The sense of relief and optimism it has spurred is extraordinary," Shaw-Smith said of the vaccine.

But she is extra wary, having lost her father to COVID-19 in December 2020. He was 80 years old and living with advanced dementia in a nursing facility in Ireland, from where the Warwick resident hails.

"I can say, just having witnessed my father's death, I see it doesn't take much," she said.

Shaw-Smith hasn't been to a restaurant in a year. When it comes to going to the grocery store or out to dinner to share a meal with friends, Shaw-Smith can see herself relax the protocols her family has adopted over the last year. But her guard isn't completely down, and it won't feel like a return to normal for quite some time, she said.

Bishop James Rollins, 61, of The Tabernacle church in Middletown knows the wrath of COVID-19 firsthand.

Instead of gathering for a Thanksgiving meal, Rollins took an ambulance to Orange Regional Medical Center in the Town of Wallkill because of his shortness of breath. His wife, his daughter and his two granddaughters, who live in his Middletown home, all battled but overcame the virus.

Many Rollins knows weren't so lucky.

"I am a man of faith who is cautiously optimistic," Rollins said of the vaccine.

Typically a private man when it comes to his health, he said he had someone snap a picture of him getting both vaccines so he could show the world he got his, it's time for them to get theirs if they chose.

As a Black pastor, he said he knows the hesitation people of color, and especially the Black community, have to taking the vaccine.

"Prayer is a weapon, but therapy is a strategy," Rollins said.

He hoped by publicly displaying his inoculation, he could show his parishioners they, too, can feel safe receiving the shot. And in return, they all can feel more "cautiously comfortable" coming together for services, something to which Rollins very much looks forward.

Brian Monahan, 52, a father of three and Minisink Valley's school superintendent, has been fully vaccinated since February.

But he sees Orange County's COVID-19 numbers continue to climb. Just because he has less of a chance of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 — due to his inoculation — doesn't mean he is willing to get sick, or bring the virus home to his kids.

"For me, personally, it's going to take time getting comfortable. ... Even though you're vaccinated doesn't mean you can't carry the virus," Monahan said.

As the floodgates open and more people have access to the vaccine, Monahan said he grows more comfortable with the idea of going out into the world. It's part of the reason his district will begin opening school buildings to students four days a week starting April 12.

Although his fear of the virus has quelled some, he still plans to have his groceries delivered or picked up, and he'll keep his hand sanitizer fully stocked. If he has to quickly stop at the grocery store, he will, but for the most part, Monahan he said the vaccine "really hasn't changed much" for him.

Middletown's second ward councilman Jerry Kleiner remembers the story of his mother, who was born in 1910, playing jump rope and singing what was a well-known tune of the time.

"I had a little bird, it's name was Enza; I opened up the window and in flew Enza," he sang.

His mother, Helen, who has long since passed, was about 8 years old at the time of the Spanish Flu outbreak. Kleiner, who is an avid Middletown historian, recalled how that pandemic more than 100 years ago was part of what shaped both his parents to become physicians.

Now, Kleiner and his wife have both been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in a pandemic that experts compare to the one his parents lived through.

He doesn't own many short-sleeved shirts, so the 76-year-old said he cut the sleeve off one of his long-sleeved flannels and wore it to both of his appointments for the Moderna vaccine — his second dose was on March 23.

It's a relief for him, but that's about it. For now.

"I feel like in April I'll be able to consider doing a lot of things I haven't felt comfortable doing," Kleiner said.

He'll feel more comfortable going to and being part of hosting public meetings that aren't mostly virtual at Middletown City Hall. And he'll be happy to return in-person as a volunteer at the Middletown Historical Society's building on East Avenue every Wednesday.

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