Life

Judy Blume’s Strange Tale of How She Got the COVID Vaccine in Florida

“Now I’m feeling guilty. She didn’t get a call. I got a call.”

Beloved author Judy Bloom surrounded by heart and vaccine needle doodles like the cover of one of her books.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Aaron Davidson/Getty Images.

The name Judy Blume is almost synonymous with milestones. We tend to think of the adolescent ones—first period, first kiss—but when I saw that Blume got her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine earlier this month, I knew there was no one I’d rather hear from about what it was like to experience humanity’s newest rite of passage. Once the Benadryl wore off, the 82-year-old author of such classics as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Forever… was happy to oblige over the phone. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

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Heather Schwedel: How have you been holding up during the pandemic?

Judy Blume: We’re living in Key West. March 14 was our last day working at our bookstore, Books and Books Key West. [Blume and her husband, George Cooper, opened the store in 2016.] Our grown kids called that night to tell us they were concerned. We knew they were right. George and I have been extremely careful. We have been isolated since last March, except for some time over the summer when we got to spend time with my daughter and her teeny-weeny little bubble. But other than that, we haven’t done anything. We don’t see anyone. We don’t go anywhere except for our morning walk.

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I used to say I could write through the worst times in my life. Not this time. And I don’t have kids at home. I regret not having written during these months of isolation. But thanks to my daughter’s expertise, I am baking cupcakes. And eating them.

Can you tell me about your experience signing up for the vaccine?

I always planned to get it as soon as I could, for me and for my husband. We both think we’re 30. We’re not. We’re 82 and 83. He’s two and a half years post-treatment for pancreatic cancer, and he’s fine, but I knew that this was an underlying condition we didn’t want to mess around with.

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I guess it was the last week—I’m not sure how we found out. Somebody texted me a number. She said, “You can call and put your name here on this list.” So we called, and over and over and over and over, it was busy, busy, busy. But you have to keep at it. Eventually, we got some kind of message that said, “Leave your name and your number and we’ll get back to you.” We never expected to hear back.

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Now this is where the Conch Telegraph [a local newsletter] comes in. We joke in Key West, it’s a small community. I’m sure it was long before I moved here, people talked about the Conch. I’m sure every small community or island community has something like that. We were having lunch, and I got an email from a Conch Telegraph writer who knows everything, everything. Her email list is huge, and it said, “Go sign up here.” It was a building in town called the Gato Building. “If you come to the Gato Building right away, in person, you can sign up for your COVID vaccine.”

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We left everything on the table. We drove down like three minutes away, like everything is in Key West. There was already a long line of people signing up. Of course we knew most of the people on that line. They had also gotten this news from the Conch Telegraph. Everyone was masked, but they weren’t social distancing. And I’m pulling way back, away from them. Eventually, we got to the head of the line and gave our names and ages. I think we had to show our driver’s licenses, and it was like, “We’ll get back to you.” And then you go home, and it was like, “We’re never going to get called.”

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I think the next day we were called and given appointments. It was like, “Wow!” So then you start calling your friends, emailing, texting your friends who were there. “Did you get the call?” And no, they didn’t get the call. And one of them—a very vibrant person and a very, very good friend of mine who just had her 89th birthday—she did not get a call. Now I’m feeling guilty. She didn’t get a call. I got a call. I thought, “This is terrible. What do I do?” But not so guilty that I wasn’t going to go to get the shots.

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Was actually getting the vaccine less crazy than trying to sign up for it?

It wasn’t chaotic at the place where they were actually giving the vaccine. It was very well-organized there. But I’m a little crazy and anxious. When people talk a lot about bad allergic reactions, I’m a very allergic person. But I’ve never been allergic to a vaccine or a flu shot. I had talked to some doctors about this in advance: “What do I do? What do I do?” They said, “What you do is you go and you get the shot.” I’m not supposed to ever have epinephrin, so I’m not supposed to use the EpiPen because I have some weird heart thing. So I was nervous. I took two Benadryl.

There were only two people being called into a room at the same time. In this case, it was George and me, and we were on separate ends of a very long room. And there were two nurses there. The head nurse heard me talking about allergies. She said, “You know, two Pepcid are really good for that.” I said, “Really, Pepcid? I take Pepcid.” So then I took out two Pepcid and I took them, and then I got my shot. She was very nice. She came over and said, “How are you doing?” At one point I said, “Oh, I’m feeling really weird.” I was loopy. I sat there for not 30 minutes, but 40 minutes to be sure.

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I was very anxious to have some kind of side effects, so that I knew that it was real and that we had gotten it, but we had very little. We were a little bit tired the next day, but maybe we were just a little bit tired the next day. Really my arm hurt less than this year’s flu shot.

When you were getting the vaccine, were you able to find out anything else about why you were able to get appointments and some others weren’t?

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There were people there who we knew there, so we asked, what did they do? Why were they called? And nobody knew. One woman that we know said, “I’m 68, and I got the call, and my husband is 75, and he didn’t get the call.” She tried to switch so that he could have the vaccine, and they said no. So she said, “Well, I guess I just had to get it.” Then we found out that they were never supposed to be registering people at the Gato Building, where the Conch Telegraph said to go. And then the newspaper is saying all of those people who were down there should never have been down, there and they’re tearing up the list with their names on it. So now all my friends are like, “Oh my God, we’re not going to be on the list.” None of it made any sense. I can only say to you, this is Florida. And this is Key West. Who knows what’s going to happen?

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What has the COVID situation been like in Key West?

There’s never been a lot of people who are COVID patients at the hospital here. There are three today. That’s a lot. But what we have in Key West is tourists, and the tourists are coming down and most of them are not wearing masks. It’s like, “Oh, isn’t this a cute little place? Nothing bad could possibly happen here.” They are passing it around. Restaurants are open. And so the local workers are the people who are really at risk. Not that I think we’re not at risk. I think we are, but we’re so careful.

It sounds like there’s just a lot of kinks having to be ironed out, and in the meantime, we just have to watch.

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My daughter is going to be 60 on her next birthday, which is coming up in February. She lives in the Boston area. And I said to her, “What would you like for this birthday?” She said, “I’ll tell you what I’d like. I’d like a vaccine.” And that was so sad. She has asthma, and it’s just so sad that I can’t do anything to help her get that.

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Why did you decide to tweet that you’d gotten the vaccine?

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I’m just another person, another senior. I put it out there on Twitter because I keep reading about people, even friends, who are saying, “Well, it’s too soon. I don’t want to get it yet because I don’t know what it’s going to be like.” And I wanted to say, “For God’s sake, go and get this vaccine.” Just like I said, “Wear your masks, dammit.” How hard is that? So yes, get your vaccine if it’s offered to you, if you’re so lucky, get it. Help other people.

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It isn’t easy to try to vaccinate a whole country. I have a friend in New York, who happens to have been my publisher, and she just has spent hours and hours and hours on the phone getting signed up once the message came in that she could. You just can’t give up. You just have to sit there and dial and dial and dial.

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You said that you’ve gotten a ton of shots over the years, but do you remember any of the other important vaccines, like Polio, if you’re the right age for that one?

Yes, of course I am. I’m 82. The first one I think was a shot. Hang on a second. [Calling to her husband] “George, do you remember our first polio, before we had the little LSD things? Was it one shot or multiple?” We don’t remember. Those little LSD things, but you call them something else. You put it on your tongue or under your tongue.

But with that, there was nothing contagious. So that was with my kids, I had little kids then, so you went into a school gym. There were just hundreds of people there, hundreds of people, which they can’t really do that way this time without separating everyone. You opened your mouth and they put this little thing in, I don’t know what they’re called. George is saying they put a little bit of stuff on a sugar cube. We were in different places. Anyway. When I was a kid and was going to summer camp, I had to get three typhoid shots. And there was something about yellow fever. That was just something that we all got.

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What was your mood like right after you’d gotten the COVID vaccine?

There were two things going on. The thrill and excitement of “I am getting this shot!” with the anxiety about the whole thing. Will I be anxious for my second shot? I would guess yes. I will take my Benadryl again. And the Pepcid.

Did you and your husband do anything after getting the vaccine to celebrate?

Well, we’re in isolation. By the time we got home, it was probably 3 o’clock. You know what we did? That we never, ever do? I was tired from the Benadryl, but I guess I was more anxious than tired and still hoping that I wouldn’t have any allergic reaction. I never could go to sleep. I said, “Let’s watch—” Now I can’t remember what series we were bingeing through. “Let’s watch one of those episodes right now in the afternoon.” What a crazy thing to do. And we did. I can’t remember which series.

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I was looking at your Twitter, and you mentioned Ted Lasso. Was it that one?

No, I had already finished that. I loved Ted Lasso, loved it. Have you seen it? It made me feel good. I loved Bridgerton too. But no, I can’t remember which one it was. Maybe George can. [Calling to George] “Do you remember when we came home from our vaccines and for a special treat, we watched an episode of something? What was it? Were we watching Spiral?” He’s laughing. We were watching a French mystery series called Spiral, but I don’t know if we were watching that day.

So you’re all set and signed up for the second dose?

Yes, I’m glad that we got that first dose and we have a card toward the second dose. It’s supposed to be in February. Will it? I hope so.

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I hope it works out.

I so miss being at the store. My hope is that after our second dose we can go back. And you know, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret is going to be filmed in April and May as a movie in North Carolina. I so want to be able to visit the set, and this may make it possible for us to get there and visit the set. I hope so if we actually get them in February.

It sounds like a real possibility.

I think everything depends upon, is there going to be a vaccine for these second doses? They’re talking about—and I can’t say I blame them—using everything they have for first doses. So we’ll see, we’ll see. I hope you get yours.

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