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Getting the Covid vaccine brought me relief. But it doesn't mean I can go back to normal life.

To go about things like I did before Covid-19 while others don't have the same freedom would stain every moment of joy with guilt.
Image: Photo illustration shows Tonya Russell getting the Covid vaccine with syringes repeated behind her.
Tonya Russell receives a coronavirus vaccination shot.NBC News; Courtesy of Tonya Russell

I'm a part of the less than 6 percent of Americans who have received both rounds of coronavirus vaccination shots. When I received my second dose on Feb. 5, I headed to my car feeling a sense of relief that is almost a year overdue.

Diving immediately back into my busy lifestyle would be quite the lonely party, for a wedding or anything else. It also would be unwise.

I volunteer with the homeless and have a weekly assignment with a food pantry, so I was categorized as essential by the state of New Jersey, where I live. During my one-hour wait in line, I thought of big, warm biscuits topped with vegetarian sausage gravy from my favorite brunch spot, Honey's — a hole-in-the-wall so tightly packed that you and your neighbor touch elbows. I thought about screaming to a mixologist over music at a crowded bar to order a $14 cocktail made with herbs. I thought about standing in line for overpriced vegan hot dogs and beer at a Phillies game. I thought about the dream I had had the night before of sled-pushing at the local gym.

But emerging into the fresh air, my arm a little sore, I didn't act on any of those thoughts. I didn't consider booking the cheapest flight out of town. And I didn't rush to plan my long-overdue wedding. The one I'd long dreamed of, with a 250-person guest list, a cocktail hour and a massive, gratuitous dessert table. We originally scheduled the event for last September, but before we could send out the invites, we'd become acquainted with the word "superspreader."

Instead, I thought about how the vast majority around me haven't been this fortunate yet. And diving immediately back into my busy lifestyle would be quite the lonely party, for a wedding or anything else. It also would be unwise. The rollout of vaccinations in the U.S. has been a lot slower than anticipated, and it could take toward the end of the year for everyone to have their shots. To achieve herd immunity, 70 percent to 90 percent of the population could need to be vaccinated.

Until then, we're all still playing a game of chance with the lives of vulnerable loved ones — particularly those whose immune systems are too compromised for them to ever be vaccinated. Even if we've gotten both doses, we don't have definitive evidence that we can't still spread the virus. And with the new variants spreading, we still might be able to catch the coronavirus ourselves. All of which means we still need to stay masked up and socially distanced.

But beyond the cold numbers, there's another reason I can't act as though my duty to prevent the spread ends with getting vaccinated. To go about life like I did before Covid-19 while others don't have the same freedom would stain every moment of joy with guilt.

Each of us who's been vaccinated and is capable must use our good fortune to help others — I suggest making a goal of aiding at least three others in getting inoculated. The barriers to reaching herd immunity are tremendous, and we can expedite the process only by paying it forward.

Some of these obstacles are logistical. You may need to push elderly or disabled loved ones in wheelchairs so they don't have to stand in long lines. Or drive someone in need of transportation to the nearest mega-site. Or, with all of your newfound immunity, babysit for someone who can't take a child along.

There's also a huge technology gap preventing folks — especially the elderly — from being able to schedule the quickly snatched-up appointments. Only 73 percent of people over 65 are regular internet users, and the percentage drops to 59 percent for low-income seniors. Just slightly more than half of people over 65 have smartphones.

Even in states with functioning online scheduling systems, some residents may not have reliable internet access or the ability to visit the websites at the time of day needed to grab slots. If you are comfortable with technology and have a flexible schedule, you can help secure their appointments for them.

But there's another imperative. With so many leery about getting inoculated, telling others about your experience is valuable. This is particularly crucial with Black people, who are 41 percent less likely to trust the vaccines even though they are more than 4.6 times more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19.

As a person of color, you have a duty to fight back against the disinformation that's spreading just as quickly as the virus. Many suspicious sites focus on rare adverse reactions instead of how the vast majority of us have dealt with only a little pain at the site of the injection followed by malaise. Ease others' concerns by telling everyone you can how you felt the first few days after your shot — even if that means interrupting a conversation in a line at Target.

If you're not comfortable translating scientific jargon, consider enlisting the help of fact-based resources with easy-to-digest vaccination information. Podcasts, infographics and social media pages can help combat unscientific, fear-based vaccination coverage.

Two weeks ago, my own social media account, on Facebook, reminded me that three years ago I got engaged in front of a few dozen of my closest friends and family, in a candlelit wine cellar, while two white-haired men played the accordion.

Image: Tonya Russell and her fiance
Tonya Russell and her fiancé.Courtesy of Tonya Russell

The promise of a vaccine briefly made me consider planning a big spring wedding, taking over the local horticulture center with a band and a hundred people whom we love dearly. But while I'm in a rush to legalize my commitment, I'm not in a rush to potentially expose my vulnerable loved ones to the virus during a night of booze and dancing. First, the promise of the vaccines needs to be fully realized by everyone receiving them.

Instead, I'll plan a small, scaled-back outdoor celebration, and until then, I'll do what I can to make sure that those around me feel the relief that I do now by being vaccinating. The "Cupid Shuffle" and an open bar can wait. Right now, herd immunity takes priority.