'Guarded optimism': Seniors cautiously plan for life after vaccine
Juanita Thomas is a lesson in patience and resilience.
She survived a frightening case of COVID-19 last March. Only now she has another reason to hope.
On Monday, the 93-year-old received her second dose of the coronavirus vaccine. It's a tremendous relief, but Thomas won't suddenly return to life as she knew it -- and the nonagenarian led a very active life at that.
"We're not going to just have all the freedoms that we had before and all the activities," Thomas said. "It's going to take time."
Newly vaccinated seniors who have endured almost a year of painful separation from family and friends are starting to plan for life after the vaccine with cautious optimism. They're left with difficult questions.
While they'll have another layer of protection against the virus, their loved ones could be waiting months for their shots. So when is it safe to get together again? When is it safe to make plans?
"I think these questions are very hard right now because we just don't have enough information, because it's early in the process," said Dr. Jay Liu, an infectious disease physician at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva.
Scientists aren't certain if vaccinated people can still carry and transmit the virus, even if they aren't ill themselves.
Researchers also are studying whether new, more contagious virus variants first identified in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa could make vaccines somewhat less effective. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government's top immunologist, has said drugmakers are working to develop booster shots against variants.
"People need to get vaccinated as soon as they can when they're eligible," said Dr. Sana Ahmed, medical epidemiologist at the Lake County Health Department. "The more people that get vaccinated, the less likely the virus can infect a person and potentially mutate and cause these variants."
With so little of the population immunized, vaccinated seniors should still take precautions while the virus is circulating so widely, experts say. So far, 299,172 people in Illinois have received the two doses required to be fully vaccinated, or 2.35% of the state's population.
The vaccines are not 100% effective. Which is another reason why "guarded optimism is probably the best way" to think about life after vaccines, Liu said.
"It certainly is a step in the right direction," Liu said. "I absolutely applaud the scientific community for really getting on top of this, but right now, I think it's too early to burn our masks."
What does Liu advise for vaccinated seniors who want to reunite with their grandchildren in person?
"Hopefully, the parents of the grandkids are immunized, and the grandkids are in a relatively contained and safe environment, and they've been isolating, and maybe then, I would still see them and social distance as possible."
Liu, who has been vaccinated, said his own comfort level with indoor dining remains "relatively low" because of factors beyond his control. Servers and other patrons who have to remove their masks to eat may not be inoculated.
But Liu said he's taking a conservative viewpoint as a health care professional.
"If you go to hang out with another couple, they've been vaccinated and you're comfortable with each other's home, that may be more of a viable option," he said. "But I would really hesitate to make a hard, fast rule about any of this stuff because a lot of this, of course, is down to individual comfort with risk."
Barbara Gollwitzer, 71, and husband John, 76, aren't planning on dining inside restaurants until maybe the fall, but they're comfortable with outdoor dining when the weather allows it. The Antioch-area couple received first doses of the Pfizer vaccine a week ago.
"Both of us would just feel terrible if we were the reason that someone else contracted this disease," Barbara Gollwitzer said.
Their three adult children have reminded them they're not invincible against the virus. Still, the family is hoping for a get-together in March while wearing masks.
"I'm a very, very social person," Gollwitzer said. "I really miss being able to hug and kiss on my grandchildren."
With COVID-19 behind her, Thomas is feeling more like her normal self. Thomas and her late husband lived in Wheaton before moving to Belmont Village, a senior living community in Carol Stream.
"I had it quite severely, they tell me," Thomas said of her virus ordeal. "I don't remember parts of it, but I have had periods of being very tired afterward. But I think I'm pretty much on top of it after all these months."
After all these months of the pandemic, Thomas misses the simple pleasures. Dinner conversation with friends. Sunday breakfasts with her granddaughter at a Carol Stream pancake house. Bible studies and singing groups.
But she's found ways to adapt. Thomas and other Belmont residents learned how to use Zoom to meet virtually for their book club.
"We had a wonderful program and many activities here, and I think that's what we're all just waiting and looking forward to, but realizing that it's also going to take time," she said. "It didn't take much time to shut it down, but it's going to take time to get back to doing things together."