I drove through the night rain, my 8-year-old son in the back seat, guided by the hope that this one small mission would help put COVID-19 behind us.
When we arrived at the Mall of America for a state vaccination clinic last week, it dawned on me that my kid hadn't set foot in a shopping mall since the pandemic began. We found our way to a line filled with other masked families and were directed to a festive booth with a mermaid balloon. My kid scrunched up his sleeve and looked the other way as the nurse pricked him in the arm. Later he posed for my phone camera, flaunting his Band-Aid and bicep like Rosie the Riveter as if to proclaim, "We can do it!"
With that, we were done. But not done with the pandemic.
Earlier that morning, I was telling his school's speech therapist that somehow our family had escaped the worst of COVID. With delta raging, I've known plenty of kids who've been infected or had to be quarantined because a classmate tested positive. Fortunately, we had dodged those bullets, and I was riding high knowing that later in the day my son would get his first shot.
My penance for speaking too soon came just an hour later, when the school nurse called to say my son was a close contact of another student who had been infected. I would need to pick him up, have him tested and keep him home for 10 days.
COVID doesn't care that we are over it, or that we have managed to sidestep the virus for the past 20 months. It has humbled us all — even as many of us head into this next hopeful chapter of inoculating our elementary-school kids.
"We were ready to go, and then it hit our family," said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan.
Flanagan's story has haunted me in recent weeks because she and her family had been so careful, and so close to having every member vaccinated. (Her husband, Tom Weber, is a friend of mine going back to our reporting days at MPR News.)
Flanagan's 8-year-old daughter Siobhan, who has asthma, wanted to be first in line to get her COVID vaccine as soon as the shot became eligible for her age group. And that was no small wish, given that Siobhan detests needles and freaked out over a flu shot two years ago — so much that she ended up kicking the nurse.
But in late October, less than two weeks before the COVID shots became available for 5- to 11-year-olds, Siobhan complained of a headache and sore throat. Multiple tests confirmed she had COVID.
"I mustered all the calm mom vibes that I could," Flanagan recalled. "I said something like, 'Hey, kiddo, this test is positive, but it's going to be OK. I don't want you to worry, we're going to take good care of you, and it's going to be fine.' In many ways I was saying that as much for me as I was saying it for her."
Flanagan knew that Siobhan, like most kids, would most likely beat the virus. But Flanagan couldn't compartmentalize the fact that the disease had robbed her sibling, Ron, of his life.
"I haven't been able to look at this issue through any other lens," she told me. "I see this entire pandemic through the eyes of a sister who lost her brother."
And just as Siobhan started to perk up and recover after a few days, Flanagan came down with COVID. And then so did her husband. The couple were fully vaccinated, and both were hit hard. The lieutenant governor dealt with body aches, headaches, fatigue and the worst congestion she's ever had. Because of underlying conditions, she and Weber were able to receive monoclonal antibodies that quickly put them on the mend, Flanagan said.
You might not agree with the Walz administration's coronavirus response, whether it has done too little or too much to protect Minnesotans, their health and their livelihood. But Flanagan speaks for every parent when she says she hoped we'd be done with COVID-19 by now.
"I am upset. I want to get on the other side of this," she said. "My daughter is in third grade. The only school year she has had that hasn't been touched by COVID is kindergarten."
Our kids have stepped up through this entire pandemic. Removed from classrooms and routines, they've endured long stretches of isolation and disruptions to their learning. Now back in school, many continue to mask up at their desks and in stuffy gyms because a lot of grown-ups still aren't pulling their weight. They are refusing to mask, refusing to vaccinate and storming school board meetings to cry about their lost freedoms when they should be putting children first.
Flanagan acknowledges she is among the lucky, supported by a job that offers sick time and by loved ones dropping matzo ball soup on her doorstep. She finds hope scrolling through the photos that parents have been sharing lately, the ones of our kids flexing, triumphant.
"Nothing brings me more joy than seeing these pictures of kiddos with their Band-Aids, smiling after they got a shot," she said. "It's so emotional. I'm going to try to cling to that."
Around this time last year, I bought a webcam for my parents so we could gather via Zoom for the holidays. Looking back on our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, I have to say that like much of 2020, they were weird. This year I reject that. I want my kids to be able to create memories with their grandparents — who are vaccinated and boosted — and make the most of our time together.
We need everyone who can to get vaccinated so our kids, and everyone who loves them, can have a shot toward normalcy. If you are a caregiver of a 5- to 11-year-old, check out the state's website, mn.gov/vaxforkids, to find a vaccine or answer any questions you may have.
At long last, Siobhan got her shot Monday. Flanagan hopes her daughter will gain what some researchers are calling super-immunity from both the vaccine and a past infection — and what her mom is calling "unicorn blood."
"Now that they are eligible," Flanagan said, "we literally have the power to stop this thing."