Feeling guilty, anxious about your COVID-19 vaccine search? You're not alone

While many are relieved, others feel guilty, anxious about getting a COVID-19 vaccine

A needle goes into an arm.
A COVID-19 vaccine is put into a patient's arm at a clinic in St. Paul in the middle of March.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Early in the morning the day after Gov. Tim Walz announced that all Minnesotans 16 and older would be eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine, Michael Parent Jr. hopped online to look for appointments — one for him, one for his wife.

He figured there would be a mad rush of people looking to get vaccinated. But, to his surprise, he was able to make two appointments at Walgreens, for the first day they would be eligible.

"That was, to me the biggest moment of relief,” he recalled.

Sitting in front of his computer, in his basement in Golden Valley, he said he was hit by a wave of emotion.

“The whole cliche of the weight lifted off my chest for a moment,” he said — as the realization that “OK, we're not stuck in our house forever," hit him full-force.

But then, as the appointment time drew nearer, Parent started to feel this nagging sense of guilt. “Like: Do I deserve to get the vaccine right now?” he said.

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Parent is 32, and healthy. He's been able to work from home throughout the pandemic. He wanted the vaccine. He wanted life to return to normal. But he couldn't shake the feeling that he didn't really need the vaccine yet — that other people who are more vulnerable to a serious case of COVID-19 should get it first.

Back and forth in his mind, he kept wondering, “Did I just steal this from someone else in line?"

Vaccines, broadly distributed, offer a way out of the pandemic. But they can also lead to guilt and anxiety.

Parent is one of the nearly 2 million Minnesotans who have now received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. For many, including Parent, those shots provide a huge sense of relief. But other more conflicting emotions are also commonplace: anxiety, if people haven't gotten vaccinated yet — or even guilt, if they were able to secure an appointment.

"I've talked to a number of people who feel, ‘Gosh, did I really deserve to get it? I don't have that many health problems, or I only have this one. And I would hate to take it away from someone who needs it more than I do,’” said Dr. Sophia Albott, a psychiatrist with the University of Minnesota Medical School.

A woman in a lab coat stands with her arms crossed
Dr. Sophia Albott is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a psychiatrist at University of Minnesota Physicians St. Louis Park Clinic.
Courtesy of University of Minnesota Physicians

Albott has heard a lot of similar sentiments from health care providers, in particular — this feeling of guilt over whether, by being vaccinated, they’re taking a shot from someone who might need it more.

“The way that I generally recommend people deal with that is to reframe it, in the sense that getting the vaccine is also doing our part to fight the pandemic,” she said.

“So it's not really about taking a resource, it's also about preventing the virus from infecting us,” and also hopefully slowing the spread of the virus to others.

On the other side of vaccine guilt, Albott said, can be feelings of anxiety, as you wait your turn to get vaccinated.

That’s what Karen Chermak, 53, has been feeling. She had a stroke seven years ago, and can't leave her Dakota County house. She's frustrated she hasn't been able to find someone who can vaccinate her at home.

Chermak lost her dad to COVID-19 in January. And now she worries: What if one of the personal care attendants who visits her house to help her has chosen not to get vaccinated? What if they inadvertently expose her to COVID-19?

"That's the part of the anxiety that bothers me,” she said. “If people don't want to take the shot, which is their decision, that leaves me at risk. Because I'm here, and I don't have a shot, and I don't want to get sick."

People experience anxiety when we're fearful of something we can’t predict, Albott explains. And for so many of us, that's happened many, many times over the past year-plus.

"So there's things like, ‘When am I going to get the vaccine?’ that can generate anxiety,” she said. But so can the prospect of life returning to “normal”— by creating the feeling that, “oh my gosh, now I'm gonna have to pivot yet again, and figure out what life is going to look like on the other side of this."

Albott says that some of the best experiences of our lives, paradoxically — like getting married, or having a baby — are also the most stressful. And as much as so many of us are yearning for a return to life as we knew it, that transition will likely bring new stresses.

But she believes that as we approach the other side of this pandemic, that people will recognize that while so many of us have experienced loss and grief, we've also survived a really difficult period.

“And my hope is that recognizing what we've done is going to help people feel some sense of strength, some sense of being able to master really difficult things in their life,” she said. “And that's ultimately what we hope comes from this, this sense of growth, that we’re bigger people, having lived through this.”

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.