The New York Times Features Chief Innovation Officer, Dr. George James: She’s Vaccinated. He Isn’t. Now What?

March 30, 2021 | Some households are now just partially vaccinated, leaving families split on how to enjoy new freedoms while protecting the safety of those who are still vulnerable.

Burly and well over six feet tall, Andre Duncan takes pride in carrying the groceries for his wife, Michelle, and views himself as her personal bodyguard.

Now, she is his: Ever since she got the coronavirus vaccine in February, Ms. Duncan, who works in hospital management, has insisted she run their errands alone. When she goes shopping, Mr. Duncan, who is unvaccinated, stays home.

Mr. Duncan, 44, said he feels gratitude but also guilt, and that tension has altered the dynamic of their marriage. “She has to take risks and chances on her own, when that’s my partner, that’s my honey.”

As of this week, over 145 million shots have gone into arms since the vaccine began rolling out in the United States last December. But amid supply chain snarls and inconsistent state-by-state eligibility rules, just 16 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. As a result, an untold number of households now find themselves divided, with one partner, spouse, parent or adult child vaccinated and others waiting, sometimes impatiently, for their number to come up.

Now, after a year spent navigating job losses and lockdowns, sickness and fear, some families are experiencing the long-awaited arrival of vaccines with not elation or relief, but a fraught combination of confusion, jealousy or guilt.

“In that moment that I got the vaccine, instead of, ‘I should be so super-happy, I survived this nonsense,’ instead of all that I felt the biggest guilt of my life,” said Lolo Saney, 65, an elementary schoolteacher who lives in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Her mother, who lives abroad, is still waiting.

In New York, people who hold certain jobs and have certain conditions are eligible. And while people age 30 and older were made eligible this week, it will be weeks or even months before any number of partners or spouses of nurses or teachers, or those straddling previous age thresholds, are able to secure coveted vaccine appointments.

Some of the newly vaccinated are finding that the tentative return to normalcy is at least partly on hold as they navigate uncharted new worries: how to coexist with and care for relatives, roommates and partners who are not yet vaccinated.

Although the Biden administration directed states to open up vaccine eligibility to all adults by May 1, at the current pace, the entire population might not be vaccinated until August — and that assumes all pledges of supply are met, and children eventually qualify for vaccines, according to a New York Times analysis.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that even if every adult in a home gets vaccinated, any young children will likely not be for some time; while in New York, people 16 and older will become eligible on April 6, vaccine trials for young children have only just begun.

Until then, some who were the first in their families to be vaccinated are finding that the shots come freighted with new responsibilities: shopping for groceries, going to the laundromat, visiting the sick.

Just-released data shows the available vaccines provide strong protection against infections, easing fears that vaccinated people could pass on the virus to others. But the data is new, and the vaccinated have spent months wondering whether their newfound freedoms, like trips to the movie theater or dinner with friends, could bring the virus home to loved ones.

“These are all layers that just weigh heavy on everybody, and can sometimes cause more anxiety and tension and depression,” said George James, a therapist with the Council for Relationships, a Philadelphia-based mental health center that focuses on couples and families. But one possible plus of the past tumultuous year, he said, was that families may now be better equipped to navigate this new twist.