And that’s where the hornet stung me, and I had a feverish dream.
I imagine most Canadians my age recognize that lyric from The Tragically Hip’s “Ahead by a Century”. A memorable song written by an unforgettable man named Gord Downie. In the 25 years since its release, this tune has found its way everywhere in this country. Family rooms and beerhalls, campfires and pre-school concerts, weddings, memorials. You name it. A good melody and some cryptic introspection combined into a compelling and lasting creation.
I was reminded of that song and that specific line last Thursday when I received my first dose of vaccine last Thursday. Astra Zeneca. Yes, that one. It was a figurative sting to say the least. The pharmacist completed her administrations so efficiently and painlessly that I didn’t feel the injection or even notice her putting a bandaid on my arm. That’s it? I thought. It is strange when something you’ve thought about and anticipated for so long is over in an instant.
I had to linger in the pharmacy for the next ten minutes as a post-jab precaution. Seeking a quiet, unpopulated corner of the store, I ended up in the greeting card alcove. It was oddly appropriate to consider all those salutations and sentiments given the range of emotion surging through me. Congratulations. Yes, hooray me. My Sympathies. On the contrary. Happy Birthday. No, not just yet. With Gratitude. Hell yeah.
Most of all, it just felt good. As much I want the vaccine for everyone, I realized in that moment that I really wanted it for me too. Naturally, I was relieved but I also liked doing something active. Something tangible and responsive. I wasn’t just the raising a shield or playing defense. I was finally pushing back, taking a swing. It was really satisfying. I called my wife. Texted the kids. What do you feel they asked? Low-grade euphoria, I replied.
As for the feverish dream, that came later. The fever part at least. I began feeling a little off about four hours after the shot. This is the experience of some, but not all, of us “vaccinees.” It was unpleasant to have a slight headache and fever for a day after but it was good to know my body’s immune system was following instructions. I didn’t sleep well. It felt like April 2020 all over again. Fitful nights and weird dreams. I wish I could say I dreamt of donning the green jacket at The Masters. That would make for a better story.
Everything about this pandemic is unsettling. The hazards and the safeguards. The problems and the solutions. I thought twice about the Astra Zeneca shot. I thought I wouldn’t but I did. The suggestion that a rare blood-clotting disorder could be triggered by the vaccine captured my attention just like everyone else. It made me a little uneasy. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, also based on an adenovirus delivery system, is also experiencing similar issues. The number of instances are extremely low – 1 case per 250,000 persons vaccinated with AZ. Though an actual causal relationship between the clot disorder and the AZ or J&J vaccine is yet to be clinically substantiated, it seems likely there is a connection. Health Canada acknowledged this today yet continues to endorse the AZ vaccine given the rareness of the side effect versus the threat of serious illness from COVID-19.
We all crave certainty. I like a sure thing as much as anyone. We all want to feel that risk-taking is exclusively a matter of personal choice. It is comforting to perceive that we can exert some control over the unknown. But we aren’t above nature. We are part of it. And the certainty we desire is rare. So we arm ourselves with information, use our judgement to measure risk, and try to make sensible decisions.
I could have waited for access to another vaccine. The potential clotting side effect is not occurring with tens of millions of people who have received the mRNA-based vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. However, I didn’t know how long I would wait. When I considered the relative risks for my age group and the mounting danger of infection in my city, I didn’t feel I had the luxury of waiting. In the past year, there have been 18,198 COVID-19 infections documented amongst the 394,894 people in Toronto between the ages of 50-59. 979 of these people were hospitalized with serious illness and, sadly, 100 died. That equates to a ratio of 63 deaths per 250,000. Yesterday, there were 150 new cases of COVID-19 in my age bracket in Toronto. Even with a discounted risk of infection due to lifestyle, income and workplace, my exposure to the dangers of COVID-19 is monstrous in comparison to the miniscule 1-in-250,000 risk of side-effect from my vaccine. With respect to everyday risks, I am five times more likely to be a Toronto traffic fatality, as a pedestrian or a motorist, than I am to die of vaccine complications.
So, my second thought didn’t take long. I concluded the downside of my jab is simply not material compared with the upside. For me, the sensible choice was to take that step forward and to be safe now. What I know is that two weeks from now, I will have a vastly strengthened immune response that reduces my risk of getting COVID-19 by 75% compared with being unvaccinated. And it virtually eliminates my chances of being seriously ill if I become infected. I don’t know if there will be ill effects of being vaccinated now or ever. Nobody does. To me it appears to be highly unlikely. But at least I now have a much better chance of being alive to find out.
One of the most consistent aspects of this pandemic is its inconsistency and asymmetry. We are all experiencing similar events but at different times and different intensities. Some suffer greatly and others hardly at all. We continue to weather the same COVID-19 storm but we do so in a lot of different boats. A third wave is cresting here in Toronto and all other parts of Canada with the exception of Atlantic Canada. We are experiencing record cases and hospitalizations again, partially due to the surge of variant forms of SARS-CoV2 virus in our communities. As of yesterday, Canada had more new cases per 100,000 people than the United States for the first time ever. 22 per 100,000 versus 21. This is not the contest that anyone wants to lead. Within B&M, we have 11 active COVID-19 cases as of yesterday. We have experienced a modest upswing over the past few weeks and are maintaining our most stringent protocols throughout the company. While it is discouraging that the Canadian vaccine rollout has been markedly inefficient so far, I see the remarkable progress of deployment in the US and the accompanying reduction of virus transmission as cause for great optimism. Thanks to vaccine science, this pandemic is finally a fair fight.
I think Ahead by a Century is about aspiration. Of wanting to be out in front and recognizing you aren’t. A dream of something better. And all the self-doubt, uncertainty, disappointment and low-grade euphoria that come as part of the package. The beauty of the song, and Gordie’s lyrics in general, is that its message is shrouded in the poetry so there is something distinct and resonant there for everyone.
This song was the last one the band played in concert. The final note of a long career as Canada’s house band. There will be always be many people within and beyond our borders who don’t know The Tragically Hip. Oddly, that is just the way the rest of us like it. While Neil Young or The Weeknd ascended to a world stage, The Hip miraculously remained the possession of Canadians. Their last show was broadcast live on public television in August 2016 to millions of us. Gord made no secret that he was gravely ill and that the final tour would be a fond farewell. It was heartbreaking actually. He died a year later at the age of 53.
I believe the band chose Ahead by a Century as their signoff because it is hopeful. An acknowledgement of the possibilities beyond the uncertainty of today. It is also a call to action. An inspiration to step forward. At the end of every one of those last shows, Gord stood at the edge of the stage and seemingly urged us to do just that. He stared out into the audience, locking eyes with as many of us as possible as he slowly sidestepped his way around the perimeter of the stage. He just looked, smiled and nodded appreciatively. “Thanks for pushing me,” he had said during that final show. Now it felt as if he was pushing us. I’ll be gone but you got this he seemed to be saying.
So hang in there everyone. The right-now may be a little disappointing but we just have to keep moving ahead. Take that next step and get the jab. Any one you can get. Do it for yourself. You’ll be amazed how good it feels.