LAWRENCE — Back in mid-December, Maria Vargas had a tough decision to make.

As an employee of Lawrence General Hospital, she was being offered a chance to receive the COVID-19 vaccine well before the general public. All she had to do was fill out a survey card and the vaccine would be made available to her, she said.

The only trouble? Vargas, 51, an employee in the hospital’s quality and patient safety department, wasn’t quite ready. So she checked the box labeled “undecided” and told her boss she’d discuss options for a vaccine with her doctor at a later date.

“That was a big mistake, because believe it or not, a couple of days later I ended up getting COVID,” Vargas said.

Vargas had been doing everything right, she said, as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the Merrimack Valley — and gripped extra tight on her Lawrence hometown. She worked from home and was sure to follow social distancing guidelines, yet she still became infected with the virus. Her husband, an accountant, did, too. The couple does not know where they became exposed.

While her husband’s bout with the illness lasted a short time, Vargas said she struggled much longer. Seriously ill for four and a half weeks, Vargas still deals with symptoms of COVID-19 that classify her as a “long hauler,” she said.

Vargas said things went from bad to worse quickly. Attempting to work from home, she fainted during a work Zoom meeting. The next thing she knew, she was hospitalized with symptoms including heart palpitations and chest pains. That was in addition to her existing symptoms of a 105-degree fever, loss of smell and taste, headaches and body aches, she said.

“I looked like a 90-year-old lady all crumbled in my bed,” Vargas said. “I’m only 51.”

A five-day hospital stay over New Year’s gave Vargas a new perspective on the disease, she said.

“People think you get COVID and get better, but that’s not always the case,” Vargas said. “The post-COVID effects are affecting me so badly. I’m a walker and a runner — I can walk an hour and a half daily — and I get exhausted from standing up. Every day is getting better, but the fatigue is still there.”

As she deals with lingering symptoms, Vargas only recently went back to work, she said.

After receiving her first Pfizer vaccine shot a few weeks ago, Vargas decided to turn her mess into a message: Inspiring others to get the vaccine that could have spared her from becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.

“I’ve been hosting virtual coffee hours with families and our friends to promote the vaccine and convince them, answering questions they might have,” Vargas said. “I’m also working with the hospital to go on Spanish radio stations.”

According to numbers released by the state Department of Public Health last week, Lawrence came out of the red, high-risk zone for coronavirus transmission for the first time since the color coded system was developed. Now there is just one town in the red zone: Tisbury, a small town on Martha's Vineyard. More than 20,220 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 in Lawrence and 250 have died.

About 58% of Lawrence residents have not yet received their vaccine, statistics from Mayor Kendrys Vasquez’s office show. Dr. Eduardo Haddad, president of the hospital’s medical staff and the physicians’ representative on the Board of Trustees, believes that that number is high because those people believe the illness may not strike them as hard as it did Vargas.

“The problem with that thinking is that this has been studied and with COVID — and with people who have had the disease, particularly if it hasn’t been severe — people don’t carry antibodies for very long — usually 3 months,” Haddad said.

People who have had COVID develop a natural immunity lasting six months, whereas those who are fully vaccinated with Moderna or Pfizer are protected for more than a year, according to Haddad. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine data is similar in terms of longevity, but has a slightly lower degree of protection, Haddad said.

As guidelines surrounding the pandemic shift and vaccination numbers increase, Haddad encourages local people to use common sense.

“Avoid close contact with people who are sick, wash your hands, and when you know you’re in a high-risk environment like public transportation or a crowd, protect yourself,” Haddad said. “The number of people who are truly vaccinated is not enough for you to be comfortable if you have not been vaccinated. If you have been vaccinated, you’re not going to get sick enough to go to the hospital. That would probably be a very rare event. If you’ve been vaccinated and you have a normal immune system to begin with, you’re truly protected.”

Booster shots may be necessary in the coming years, according to Haddad, though guidance has not yet been made official.

The way Haddad explains it, patients who had a tough time with vaccination side effects this time around need not worry that the booster dose will have a repeat effect.

According to Haddad, the body will be familiar with the vaccine’s ingredients and it will be similar to seeing a friend after they’ve undergone cosmetic surgery: The brain will make the connection that it’s someone you’ve seen before, but it has to comprehend a new physical feature visually.

“The booster shot is like an enhancement of something you already have. The major immune response has already happened,” he said. “It’s like you know that individual already, but now they have a different nose. You have an antibody that already recognizes that person’s shape, their silhouette and how they look, but there’s a change in their face. You’re not dealing with such a big change, it’s more of a fine-tuning of the immune response.”

Haddad said he believes children will also be included in the group having to receive booster shots, much in the way people receive flu shots annually.

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