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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

The Vaccination Selfie Dilemma: To Share Or Not To Share In A City Of Haves And Have Nots

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Michael Kelley shared his selfie, taken outside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, without hesitation. He wanted to give others hope.

One by one, Kansas Citians wind their way through the bewildering maze that is the vaccine rollout. Sharing a selfie is one of the few ways to celebrate the milestone with friends and family. But there's a catch.

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As soon as vaccines offering protection against COVID-19 hit the scene, so did a powerful new artform: the vaccination selfie.

It's an artform with unspoken conventions: the card, the mask, the direct unflinching gaze.

There are variations, too, like the action shot and the Rosie-the-Riveter style bicep curl with bandaid.

When the vaccine was brand new, these selfies — mostly from healthcare workers — flooded my feed, each one conveying unbridled joy. The unvaccinated would leave comments expressing the pure happiness they felt seeing loved ones getting shots. I dreamed of eventually seeing my entire community reach that milestone in that same way.

But as the rollout hiccupped and inequities in distribution and access became apparent, the selfie torrent slowed. People I knew were still getting vaccinated, but they were doing it quietly.

A couple of weeks ago, I began receiving texts alerting me to events where I could probably get a shot. I grappled with my ethical responsibility. Getting vaccinated is something we can do to slow the spread of this virus. But what about getting vaccinated before someone who needs it more, someone without connections, who doesn't have transportation, or can't leave work on a moment's notice?

It was a dizzying conundrum. After 12 months of dizzying conundrums, I didn't have much patience for it. So the selfie became my conscience. I would get vaccinated when I could feel good about celebrating with a selfie.

I became eligible for a shot on March 15 and found myself in a parallel appointment-seeking universe where the register-refresh dance rivaled Dante in its vivid conjuring of purgatory. When I succeeded, I felt like I'd gotten a golden ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or a Cabbage Patch Kid in 1983.

The selfie question wasn't fully resolved, though, because inequity wasn't resolved. What does it mean to share one of these selfies in a city of vaccine haves and have nots?

I asked on Twitter, and got a flurry of emails from people who had kept their vaccinations to themselves.

A millennial felt bad about being more internet savvy than his older coworkers.

A healthy white woman was anguished by "systematic failure" to get the vaccine to Black and brown communities.

One respondent said she hadn't even told her family she was vaccinated. "I felt like I was on a secret mission when I visited the clinic and was honestly grateful for the mask that obscured my face," she wrote.

How did a symbol of hope become a symbol of unfairness, turning that moment of collective joy we'd all been waiting for into yet another thing the pandemic has taken from us?

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Paula Rose, a Kansas City teacher, shared her Rosie-the-Riveter-style vaccination selfie on Twitter.

"The system as it exists is not equitable," explains Brian Houston, a University of Missouri professor of disaster communication. "In our selfie, we could be understood to be evidence of that injustice."

Houston admits to what he calls vaccine envy when he sees these selfies.

"It's easy to be like, 'Huh, why did that person get the shot? That doesn't seem right.'"

But Houston still thinks selfies are worthwhile. They normalize vaccination and encourage people to keep hunting for appointments despite frustrations. The images tell people to keep trying, keep hitting that refresh button. Eventually, they too will have a card in hand.

This would all be easier for individuals, Houston says, if official messaging around vaccines followed basic guidelines for emergency public health communication.

"Get your information out first, make sure it's clear, make sure it's credible, make sure it's empathetic," Houston says, describing best practices.

The communication strategy as it has actually unfolded appears to be the exact opposite of those things.

Eligibility tiers are confusing. The ranking of professions lacks empathy. The rules are inconsistent from state to state and county to county. It's been hard to access clear information about how you should expect to be notified when it's your turn.

This baffles Houston.

"I've always thought, ah, this is a no-brainer, this is like so boring, I mean, duh, of course we're going to do this," he admits, looking exasperated. "And then we have the worst public health emergency in quite a while and the government has failed every single one of those. It's really sort of shocking how ineffective communication has been."

Our selfies are landing in a fractured environment. But honestly, where else could they land?

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Rob Schamberger, a Kansas City artist with a significant following, says: "Yup. I have a platform and therefore a responsibility."

"We've probably all had our COVID secrets all along, right?" he says. "Maybe it's not surprising that there are so many conflicting perspectives on, Should we be doing this? Should we be sharing it? What is expected of me?"

In other words, we're all operating with more vitriol over wrong answers than clarity about right ones. It's a new version of the problem we've faced, unrelentingly, for a year.

But Michael Kelley didn't hesitate to share his first-shot selfie on Tuesday. It was taken outside the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at 18th and Vine.

"My wife, who's pregnant, was able to get a shot because she works for the school district. And my mother-in-law who's been staying with us was also able to get it because she has a health condition," he explains.

Being the only unvaccinated one in the house gave him FOMO, he says — fear of missing out.

"So I was scrolling through Twitter and I saw that this event was coming up," Kelley remembers. "Next thing I know, I'm waiting outside to get it."

Kelley says that for him, as a Black man, sharing his vaccination selfie felt important.

"This disease has done a significantly greater harm to people who look like me. There is still a lot of work that we need to do to make sure that we get rid of this virus. This is one of the small things that really make a big difference," he says.

Kelley urges people not to let guilt about the unevenness of the rollout stop them from sharing selfies.

"If they feel like it's something that can give people hope or encourage others to do it, then heck yeah, please spread the love and share the joy," he says.

Dan Lybarger, a white man from rural Kansas, agrees.

He's lost multiple relatives to COVID-19, and for him, broadcasting that selfie was more than show-and-tell. It was an act of defiance on behalf of his whole family. He got a bystander to take an action shot to commemorate the exact moment he got the jab to honor his aunts, Elie and Stella, who didn't make it to the vaccination moment.

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Dan Lybarger, a Kansas City entertainment writer with a day job in the transportation sector, has lost relatives to COVID-19. He had someone else in line take his picture: "It was my way of showing defiance to the disease."

Elie died in November. Stella died just this week from a long-haul infection. She was in her nineties.

"The last two months of her life were miserable," Lybarger says. "Nobody should have to endure what she did."

It occurs to me, talking to Kelley and Lybarger, that — although fear of exposing privilege is part of what keeps people from sharing their selfies — quiet vaccination might actually be a greater mark of privilege.

Kelley's advice is to get vaccinated, and to be as open about it as we can be. Which includes being open about the privilege that might have contributed to our place in line. He sees that as equally important to document. If you drove four hours on that tank of gas you could afford, he says, consider saying so.

That's good advice, so I'm going to follow it.

I got my first dose of the Moderna vaccine on Thursday. I found an appointment thanks to a huge network of people to turn to for information about how it works and what's happening in my community, as well as a good internet connection and time to keep filling out forms. I am eligible due to a career I could not possess without a college degree. That eligibility comes despite the fact that I am able — for now — to work from home. I know people who haven't secured appointments despite having jobs that force them out into the world, and that doesn't make sense to me. I am a white woman and this virus has not killed anyone I know, though I hate that it's taken so much from so many.

Here's my selfie.

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The mural outside the KC Care Health Center was the perfect backdrop for a photo capturing gratitude for those who help in times of public health crises.

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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