From the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, US cities, states, and even villages made up their own rules and called it freedom. That approach to combating coronavirus arguably led to many thousands of unnecessary deaths, as localities chose their own idiosyncratic path. For the past few weeks, cities, counties and even local vaccination clinics have been making their own rules for who could get vaccinated too. But that is starting to look less like the chaos that kills — and more like the kind of flexibility that has given the US’s devolved democracy an edge in the vaccination race.
In my state of Illinois, big local variations in vaccine policy have sent thousands of people traveling hundreds of miles from largely Democratic urban and suburban areas to largely Republican rural areas with higher levels of vaccine hesitancy, to score coronavirus shots they couldn’t get closer to home. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s head of public health, said last week Chicago residents should feel free to leave the city to get shots “where vaccine demand is softer”. “I just want people vaccinated, that’s the most important thing,” she said.
My family became part of that great migration. That’s how we found ourselves beating a path through the cornfields of central Illinois at dawn on Good Friday. I’d scoured Facebook for tips on how legally to score jabs for my college-aged kids, who were not then eligible for doses closer to Chicago because they were not 65, medically fragile, or essential workers. But they did qualify for jabs elsewhere in Illinois — or in neighboring Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana.
The Illinois government was encouraging counties to give spare doses to all comers, so it was up to us to decide how far we were willing to go for the privilege. And make no mistake: it is a privilege to travel just for a shot in the arm. Of course it would make more sense for jabs to come to Chicago, than for Chicago to go to jabs — especially since many of the city’s minority residents don’t have the luxury of vaccine road trips. But it still makes more sense for young healthy adults to get a spare dose, than for spoiled vaccine to be dumped. We considered a 600-mile trip to the picturesque Mississippi River town of Quincy. I was keen, since the town’s pubs and coffee shops got good reviews from earlier vaccine pilgrims. Quincy’s mayor, Kyle Moore, says his town of
40,000 is getting about 2,000 out-of-town visitors every weekend, and calls it a “win-win for the state”, not to mention local businesses.