I suspect that most of us will have pandemic stories to tell our grandchildren. Here’s mine.
I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, a jurisdiction right outside Washington, DC with more than a million residents. It has tens of thousands of essential workers and a sizeable number of politicians who think they are. It prides itself on its administrative efficiency but, as I recently wrote in a piece for this blog, it has a COVID-19 inoculation rate well below the state average.
Not long ago, Maryland’s governor expanded vaccine eligibility to include seniors. As a 75-year-old, my hopes soared. But after registering on a dozen websites without result, I thought I was condemned to a long wait.
Enter my tech-savvy daughter-in-law, who sat at her computer and pushed “refresh” so often that she finally got me an appointment in Goldsboro, Maryland. Goldsboro is located in Caroline County, which is about as far away from Montgomery County as you can get while still being in Maryland—and as close to Delaware as you can get without being in Delaware.
No matter; I was happy to get an appointment anywhere. I woke up early this morning, patiently chipped the ice from last night’s storm off my car and set off on a two-hour drive past Annapolis and over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge into rural Maryland. Not long past the bridge, my internet gave out, and the map fell silent. But like most people my age, I don’t quite trust information technology and came armed with a paper backup.
After a couple of wrong turns, I arrived at the Goldsboro vaccination center. As I pulled into the driveway, the young man directing traffic (defined locally as three cars in a large lot) asked me a heart-stopping question: “Are you from around here?” I allowed as how I wasn’t. He shook his head sadly and went inside to get a staff member, who informed me in the kindest possible manner that as of last week, the county was no longer vaccinating people outside its jurisdiction. I asked why I hadn’t been notified and received the contemporary equivalent of “the check’s in the mail” reply—to whit, “It must have gone into your spam.”
I pulled over to the side of the parking lot to call my wife. Our carefully timed plan to drive to Chicago and hold our granddaughter for the first time was collapsing, and I had no idea where to turn next. When she picked up her phone, I blurted out the bad news.
At that very moment, I heard a tap on my car window. The same staff member who had to turn me done twenty minutes earlier asked me, are you 75? I nodded. You’re in luck, she said; we have one dose left over. “Get it,” my wife yelled into the phone. I sometimes need a bit of persuasion to follow her advice. Not this time.
When I emerged from the vaccination center a half hour later, I found a message from a television reporter who had read an article on vaccination distribution I had posted yesterday on the Brookings website. I called him back and told him that I would be happy to discuss the article but could now add some texture to my policy discussion. He interviewed me about my experiences for half an hour and then asked me whether I’d serve for a few minutes as his local reporter. I snapped some pictures of the vaccination center, told him about my conversations with several staff members, and went on my way, wiser as well as happier. People in small towns are nicer, I concluded, and community beats bureaucracy.
What’s the moral of the story? Luck? Divine intervention? Who knows? While I will continue to plug away at my job at Brookings trying to understand why government works and why it doesn’t—what I do know is that Caroline County, Maryland (population 33,049) will have a treasured place in my heart forever. My adventure there is a story I will share with my grandchildren as soon as they are old enough to understand it.