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Letter from Athens: Greece's COVID-19 Vaccine Heroes Care About Everyone

Αssociated Press

A medical staff prepares a dose of Moderna vaccine as the sign reads in Greek "Vaccine" at Promitheas vaccination mega center in Athens, Friday, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

If there's no atheists in foxholes there may be plenty of them in laboratories where COVID-19 vaccines were developed at the speed of light, the way this is measured scientifically in trying to combat a super-virus.

That's because, as of now, there's been no divine intervention to slow or stop the pandemic, only the hands of men and women researching, testing, striving to find an answer to an invisible enemy 76 years after the atom was split using slide rulers, pens and pencils, and paper.

People who don't believe in science shouldn't be allowed to try to boil water because they don't think it reaches that point at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, or 100 degrees Celsius.

Nor be allowed to see what goes on in Greece's vaccination centers where doctors and nurses and staff work shifts day and night to save lives.

Hamstrung by the Eunuch Union, which requires consensus about where its leaders can have free lunches, and by 27 member states about delivering vaccines far behind schedule, Greece has inoculated only about 7 percent of its population of 10.7 million people.

Health experts said at least 70 percent – 10 times more, or some 7.49 million people – need to get both shots of the available vaccines or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson that's been paused over worries about blood clots.

That same fear has also hampered use of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the United Kingdom, especially after the death of two Greek women in their 60's who sadly perished not from COVID-19 but a vaccine meant to save them.

Statistically speaking, say doctors and scientists, the risk is miniscule and the benefits far outweigh the risks. Unless, of course, you're the one who dies from a reaction to the vaccine or someone you know or love does. Then it means something.

Unless you have underlying or multiple health conditions, it's a risk worth taking, and doctors who work in hospital Intensive Care Units (ICUs) said all you need to do is take a look at someone on a ventilator hoping it's not their last breath being a lot worse than the chance of  a side effect from the vaccines.

The images on TV here show people in critical care in those wards, the caregivers dressed like astronauts or hazmat workers hoping to avoid being infected by whatever is in the air, which can be a whiff of illness or death.

Like most people, I was wary over how fast vaccines were developed, but read the scientific evidence and, wanting to see my daughter and grandchildren in New York after being away from them for 1 ½ years, was eager to get mine.

The chance came with a scheduled shot of Pfizer-BioNTech at a clinic in the Athens neighborhood where I live, Greece's scheme of registering for shots super-efficient and fast, notifications by cell phone and email and reminders.

On arriving at a vaccination spot, it's an uneasy and almost unnerving feeling seeing people seated safe social distances apart, masked up, but, for some, the worry and fear is visible in eyes not covered by a mask.

There are now mega-centers in Athens and one in my neighborhood and another coming to the third-largest city of Patra on the west coast, which can handle thousands of people as the New Democracy government is speeding the slow-rolling program that has seen only 1.5 million people getting at least one shot.

This, though, was a clinic, for a regional state health care facility and, while well-staffed, not a hospital equipped to deal with serious side effects and despite seeing hundreds of people, the staff measure each one as if they are the only one.

Entering a room for a review of medical history, I was greeted by an elderly doctor with white hair who looked like he knew more about medicine than professors at a medical school and had an easy, unrushed manner.

Dr. Nikos Sias – later he would smile and say “You know, like C-I-A” – went through my medical history carefully, seeing treatment for an embolism in 2005 at the noted Evangelismos Hospital and medications being taken.

“Do you have any allergies?” he asked calmly.

Yes, I said, for the anti-nausea drug compazine. My partner Yianna had been careful to note that in a print-out form she prepared that listed the allergy in red lettering to make sure it was understood.

He asked what happened and, anxious to get to see my daughter and grandchildren, I downplayed it foolishly but he saw through that. “Did you have trouble breathing,” from that drug's side effect, he asked.

“A little,” I said, but the truth was it was a severe reaction and she told him it was, in one of those ubiquitous Greek words in English for medical terms, an anaphylactic shock that was life threatening.

There would be no vaccine this day. He said I would have to reschedule for a hospital in case it happened again because, otherwise, I could not be saved.

To make sure I understood the gravity, he said he wouldn't take what he said was a one-in-a-million chance of a shock, raising his right hand to say if I did it there, that “it's bye-bye.” Forever.

Thanks for caring about me, I told him and he said, like a real hero: “We care about everyone.”