A New Normal
Robert Miller was anxious as he answered the phone. It was not that he was expecting bad news. No, he was worried about what might happen when news of his decision got out.
It was March of 2025, and Robert was now, for the first time ever, overdue for his COVID vaccine booster. As Bob (he preferred to go by Bob) reflected on this, he shook his head. If anyone had told him a few months ago that he would one day go overdue for his COVID vaccine, he would have laughed in that person’s face.
But things had changed since then. Bob had changed, or at least had changed his mind. It began when he had gotten sick, really sick, around Christmas of 2024. At first he thought he had the flu, which would not have surprised him. Yet when he tested negative for influenza and positive for COVID, he was completely caught off guard.
“But I’m current on all my vaccines,” he weakly told Dr. Mendas from his hospital bed. Although the doctor spoke to him from behind a mask, Bob could hear what seemed like sympathy in his voice.
“I know, Bob, but it looks like you have the Kansas variant, which is fairly new.”
“Sure…but shouldn’t I have some immunity to it? Why…am I getting so sick?” It took all of his strength to get those two sentences out.
“Bob, these vaccines are not one hundred percent effective, especially with the newest variants.” Dr. Mendas paused before continuing, “But we can treat COVID better now, so don’t worry. We will get you back on your feet in no time.”
No time turned into about three weeks after all was said and done. Bob had even overheard the nurses talking about how odd it was that he was taking so long to recover.
During those weeks, Bob had plenty of time to think and to scroll through the internet on his phone, especially when he began to regain energy. No one was allowed to visit him, so he just kept up with his friends and family either through social media or video chat.
On the days that he was particularly bored, he checked out various posts and websites that his more conspiracy-theorist-minded friends were talking about. Although Bob was not particularly impressed with what he found, he did take interest in what some were saying about the various COVID vaccines.
For instance, one article suggested that, “despite no conclusive evidence on the matter, antibody-dependent enhancement is one possible consequence of repeated COVID vaccinations and boosters.” This grabbed Bob’s attention, for the theory behind it did seem to fit what he was experiencing. Despite all of the COVID vaccines and boosters that he had received over the past four years, his body seemed less effective now at fighting COVID than what should be expected based on the available science. And that was what the article seemed to be saying. As people’s bodies became more and more dependent on COVID vaccines for defense, their immune systems became lazy and actually less effective at fighting new COVID variants.
There were other articles that Bob found interesting, particularly regarding the effectiveness of wearing masks. Masks had not really bothered him very much over the years, although he did find it weird that — despite doing everything that science suggested — he still had to wear a mask everywhere he went, even when outside. These articles made Bob think, not only about the effectiveness of masks but also of their real purpose. Was it really all about safety? Or was it about something else?
On the day that Bob was to be discharged, he asked Dr. Mendas about antibody-dependent enhancement. But as soon as the phrase came out of his mouth, Dr. Mendas gave him a stern look and said, “That is just a conspiracy theory completely ungrounded in science.”
The doctor then smiled at him, although it was not a warm smile. “Mr. Miller, while I admit that what happened to you was unexpected, it was certainly not impossible. Some of these variants are stronger and less predictable than previous strains. But that is exactly why you need to keep up with your vaccines and boosters. It is the only way we will stay ahead of everything.”
Bob responded as humbly and respectfully as he could, “But what if all of these vaccines and boosters are having a negative long-term effect on some people? What if it is not so much that the variants are stronger but that our immune systems are getting weaker?”
Dr. Mendas paused for a moment, as if in thought, and then shook his head. “Trust me, Bob, that is absolutely not possible. We have been at this for almost five years now, so I think we can trust the science.”
Before Bob could say anything else, Dr. Mendas moved to leave. “I’ll finish up the paperwork so that we can get you out of here. It will just be a few minutes or so.”
Dr. Mendas opened the door. “Oh, Mr. Miller, be sure to make an appointment at the front desk to come in to update your vaccinations against the new strains. It should be available for you next month. Have a good day!” Bob watched as the door shut in front of him, still unsure of how to respond.
For the next month or so, Bob went about his normal life as a husband, father, and real-estate agent. He listed houses, met clients, and showed properties — all while wearing a mask, of course. Yet his research into antibody-dependent enhancement, as well as his last conversation with Dr. Mendas, constantly ate at him.
He knew that COVID was real and that it wasn’t a hoax. But he just wasn’t sure if the scientists were as infallible as they made themselves out to be. What if they had overlooked something? What if they had made an accidental mistake?
Ironically, before COVID, Bob had been an all-natural, organic, grass-fed, non-GMO kind of guy. His lifestyle had been all about exercise, vitamins, and healthy eating. Yet when COVID first hit and the lockdowns began, Bob stopped going to the gym. With a lot more free time on his hands, especially before the first vaccines were released and people went back to work, Bob simply stayed home with his wife and kids. They baked sweets, watched movies, played games, and ordered takeout. As a result, Bob had gained a few pounds and found himself even forgetting to take his vitamins.
But today, Bob decided that things were going to change. He didn’t care if he was wrong and Dr. Mendas was right. He trusted in natural, God-given ways of being healthy before, and he planned to do it again. He would run his own experiment. He now knew what getting infected with a “new” variant of COVID was like after trusting in the man-made protection of vaccines and boosters. Now he was going to find out what getting COVID would be like using the all-natural method of diet, exercise, and vitamins. Bob smiled at the thought.
It was about a month after his hospitalization and subsequent decision to go all-natural that Bob received the dreaded phone call from the hospital. The nurse in charge of vaccine tracking and scheduling had called to inform him that he was now overdue on his vaccines.
“Mr. Miller,” she said, with urgency in her voice, “we need to schedule you right away to come in to get your shot. Or, if you prefer not to come to the hospital, we can have a member of one of our in-home vaccination teams stop by. And don’t worry, they’re very professional and will wear all of the appropriate PPE.”
“No, that’s not necessary,” Bob had replied. “But thank you.”
“OK then,” the nurse continued, “we can get you in tomorrow if you want to come in person. Would you prefer morning or afternoon?”
Bob paused before answering nervously. “No, I mean, I’m not interested in getting a shot right now.” He closed his eyes as he waited for her response.
“Oh…did you get your shot at a different location already?” The worry in her voice was unmistakable. “Just go ahead and have them forward their documentation to us and we can update your...”
Bob, now a little impatient, cut her off, “No, I didn’t get the shot anywhere. I’m just going to take a break for a bit. But thank you again for your concern.” He tried to sound genuinely grateful.
“Mr. Miller,” the nurse replied frantically, “I don’t think you understand…”
Bob hung up the phone. He did not feel like trying to explain himself to her for the next fifteen minutes. He had made his decision and now he needed to figure out how to live with it. Thankfully, the hospital did not try calling him back…yet.
As he reflected on his decision, Bob felt free, as if an oppressive weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. At the same time, his mind flooded with scenarios that he knew he would have to navigate and decisions that he would have to make. He did not know how to live as a nat. “Nat” was the slang term used these days to refer to those who wanted to be “natural” and not get vaccinated. Of course, nats were not against all vaccines, just the endless stream of COVID vaccinations and boosters. Opposite the nats were the vacs.
“Vac” was the name given to those who went along with all of the COVID vaccines requirements. Bob’s children had once told him that they were a family of vacs. He had not thought much of it at the time, although he had found it odd when he kids described playing a game at school called “vacs versus nats.” Although he had no idea what the game was about, he could not help feeling strange knowing that, today, he had just switched from being a vac to a nat with a single phone call. Now, he had to figure out how to tell his wife and kids.
Bob looked at his watch. “Damn, I’m late!” he said as he grabbed his coat, mask, and keys.
As he opened the door to the garage he shouted, “Bye hun! Bye kids! I gotta run to a showing! Be back later!” Before waiting for a reply he closed the door.
For the next hour or so, Bob completely forgot about his expired vaccinations. He hated being late to showings, because it showed a complete lack of professionalism. Thankfully, his clients were late too, so he was able to get into the house and make sure it was ready for them.
The showing went well, and Bob thought there was a good chance his clients would put in an offer within the next day or two. After they left, he checked his phone and saw that his wife had texted him, asking if he could stop by the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for one of the kids. He replied, “Sure,” before getting into the car.
As he pulled out of the driveway he realized that, in his rush to the showing, he had forgotten to get gas and was running close to empty.
“Of course,” he muttered to himself, pulling out his phone. As he began searching for the closest gas station he realized that he could not just use any gas station. Reality was beginning to get real.
You see, some of the newer COVID variants were allegedly able to survive on surfaces for a longer period of time than previous versions of COVID. This meant that, in order to use most gas stations, you had to be updated on your vaccines. For Bob to be able to unlock and access the pumps at most gas stations he would have to swipe his vaccine card first to prove that he was clean and clear.
Now that he was a nat, Bob had to search for gas stations that did not require current vaccinations. When he updated his Google Search filter accordingly, the results were depressing. The closest gas station that serviced nats was about thirty minutes away and not anywhere near either the pharmacy or Bob’s house.
Bob cursed under his breath. The car displayed that he had about eight miles left on his range. “Screw it,” he said, as he put the car in drive. He wasn’t driving thirty minutes out of his way because he was one day overdue on his vaccine.
About five minutes later, Bob pulled into a gas station and up to a vacant pump. He tried swiping his vaccine card to unlock it. Not surprisingly, the screen on the pump displayed the words, “Access Denied.”
Looking around, he saw an older gentleman at the pump next to him. Bob waved at him. “Sir, can you help me? My card is not working for some reason and I need to get gas. I’m almost empty.”
The man stared at Bob for a moment, not answering. Bob wasn’t sure if the guy was suspicious of him or not. Panicking, Bob spoke again, making sure to be as convincing as possible.
“Don’t worry, I’m vaccinated. It’s just that this card has been giving me trouble at certain pumps. I plan to get a new one this week.”
This seemed to work, as the guy came over. Bob stepped back in order to give the guy at least six feet of distance. Without saying a word, the man swiped his card and unlocked the pump for Bob.
“Thank you!” Bob said emphatically, breathing a sigh of relief.
“Umm-hmm,” the guy replied, walking back to his car.
Bob filled up his tank in awkward silence, trying not to look at the man he had just deceived. He felt guilty for what he did but immediately tried to justify himself. He wasn’t a particularly reflective person and almost always kept his mind busy in order to avoid thinking about things like guilt. But for the first time in a while, he thought about God and whether or not he was real. He did not know why he felt so bad about deceiving a stranger. Typically, Bob would have celebrated his own genius and his ability to get something to go his way. That’s how he had become so good at selling houses.
The stopping of the pump snapped Bob’s mind back to the moment. He quickly put the pump away and got into his car. As he drove off he glanced back at the man who had helped him. He was staring at Bob. For a moment, Bob was worried that the man knew the truth and that, perhaps, he was getting Bob’s license plate number. But when the man waved goodbye, Bob breathed a sigh of relief.
Although he had solved the problem of getting gas, he knew that the next problem of picking up a prescription would be harder. His wife did not know that he was overdue on his vaccination. He had not had the courage to tell her before today, because he was afraid of how much she would berate him for his stupidity and attempt to change his mind.
Bob knew that he would have to tell her right away. He had planned to do that tonight after the kids were in bed, but then he had forgotten about the house showing. And now she needed him to pickup a prescription. If he did not do it she would not be in a very good mood, especially not when he had to explain the reason for his failure.
He wondered if perhaps the pharmacy would deliver the prescription out to his car. That would enable him to avoid getting his vaccine card scanned. It seemed like it could work.
When Bob arrived at the pharmacy he pulled into the curbside pickup spot and dialed the number to the desk.
After providing all of the necessary information, the pharmacist informed him that someone would be out shortly to deliver the prescription. Bob was relieved.
A few minutes later, a masked individual wearing a pharmacist’s outfit and holding both a bag and a scanner, approached Bob’s car. Bob quickly put his mask back on and rolled down his window.
“Good afternoon, sir,” said the young man. “I need to see your ID and vaccine card.” He sounded as if he said this dozens of times each day.
Bob panicked. Trying to act normal, he handed his driver’s license to the man, who scanned it and handed it back. Bob hoped the man would forget about the vaccine card.
“Vaccine card, please, sir,” the young man said with a bit of annoyance in his voice.
Bob pulled out his card but did not hand it over. He waved it around as if it were a piece of garbage, “Oh, I’m sorry but my card has been giving me trouble today. I need to get a new one. So there is no point in scanning it.”
“Sir, store policy is that customers show proof of vaccination prior to purchase.” The young man now clearly was frustrated.
“Even for curbside pickup?” Bob sounded surprised (and he really was). “But I’m not even getting out of my car.”
“Sir, our store serves only vaccinated customers, whether it is in-store or curbside. That is the policy.”
Bob now was getting frustrated himself. “So it’s OK if I hand you my driver’s license and you hand it back to me, but it’s not OK for you to hand me a paper bag?”
For a moment the young man stood there blinking, seemingly unsure of how to respond. Bob decided to try taking advantage of the man’s confusion.
“So if you please would kindly hand me the bag, I would greatly appreciate it. It’s for my daughter.”
The man shook his head. “I’m sorry sir, but if you refuse to let me scan your vaccine card, I cannot serve you. If you want, we can schedule a time for a team-member to do a no-contact delivery at your home.”
Now Bob was angry. “Well why don’t you just put the bag on the ground, step six feet away from it, and then I will come grab it. That way, it will be no contact!”
Again, the young man just stood there, confused. But before Bob could say anything else, the man shook his head. “I’m sorry sir, that is not store policy. If you do not leave or show proof of vaccination, I will have to contact security.”
“Why don’t you just think for one second!” Bob shouted, instinctively pulling down his mask. He opened the car door and got out. Immediately, the young man ran inside the store. Bob could here him yelling, “Help! Security!”
While part of him wanted to stay, Bob knew that things would only get worse if he lingered. There was no way he was going to be able to get the prescription now. So he got back into his car and quickly drove off. As he was pulling out, he noticed the security guard appear in his rear view mirror.
“Damn it!” Bob muttered to himself. He had no doubt that the guard would try to get his license plate number. Of course, that didn’t matter anyway, since the young man had scanned Bob’s ID and knew his name and address.
“Oh well,” Bob said. “The worst they can do is fine me.” As he drove away from the store his thoughts turned toward how he was going to explain himself to his wife. He dreaded having that conversation.
But before he could work out all of the details, his phone rang through the car’s Bluetooth system. Bob saw that it was Jeff Sanders, his boss. He answered the phone.
“Hello?” Bob asked, trying not to sound nervous.
“Bob! It’s Jeff, How are ya?”
“Umm, I’m OK I guess,” Bob replied. “Just got done showing a property. It went well.”
“Great. Glad to hear.” Jeff’s tone turned more serious. “Listen, I’m calling because I recently was notified by the health department that you went overdue today on your vaccine. Is that true?”
Bob was shocked. How had they communicated that so quickly without his permission? What about all of the privacy laws?
“Well, yeah,” Bob replied, continuing to sound unalarmed. “But I don’t see how it’s their business to go around telling everyone. How do they even know I work for you?”
“I was surprised by that as well,” Jeff answered. “But apparently the health department tracks all of those who are up on their vaccines. If someone drops out of the system or goes out of date, they are mandated to report that to all employers and insurance carriers. And since your healthcare falls under the company health insurance policy, they notified us.”
“I see,” Bob said, annoyed.
“Bob, you know I enjoy having you on the team. And whether you get the vaccine or not is your business. But the company insurance policy is based on everyone being current on their vaccinations. It’s also what allows us to operate at full capacity with minimal restrictions.”
Jeff sighed before continuing. “Quite frankly, Bob, if you do not get your vaccine in two weeks, my business will be shutdown unless we recategorize ourselves as a non-vaccinated entity. And in the meantime, you cannot come to the office, show properties, or interact face-to-face with any of our clients.” He let out a nervous laugh, “Our clients expect to be working with vaccinated agents.”
“What the hell, Jeff!?” Bob shouted. “After all I have done for the company? I have been a good and loyal agent with you for over ten years! You can’t do this to me now!”
“Bob, I know this sucks, but my hands are tied. I don’t have a choice.”
“Yes you do!” Bob replied. “You can choose not to join the health department in bullying me! I’m not a freaking health risk. I mean…what the hell am I supposed to do?”
Jeff pleaded with him. “Why don’t you just get the shot, Bob? I mean, is it really worth the hassle? Once you do that, everything will go back to normal.”
“No, it’s not normal, Jeff!” Bob allowed all of his frustration and desperation to come out in his voice. “Four years of this is enough. And after keeping up with all of the shots and boosters, I still end up in the hospital with COVID. I don’t feel healthier…I feel weaker. And I just want to be left alone for a bit to make my own health decisions without getting fired!”
There was silence for a moment before Jeff replied. “I understand, man. But that’s just not the world we live in any more. This is the new normal now.”
Bob cut him off. “Screw the new normal. The new normal sucks the life out of people until they are nothing but caged animals wearing muzzles, getting swabbed, and standing in line for their next round of boosters. So if you want to go on living like a domesticated animal, go right ahead. But I’m tired of it.” Bob was surprised to hear himself say these things, as if they had been bottled up inside for years. But it felt good to let them out.
Bob continued, “And if you don’t want me as part of the team anymore, that’s fine. I will take my two weeks and be out of your hair after that, so you don’t have to worry about missing another government stimulus check.” Bob hung up the phone before Jeff could respond.
Despite the fact that he was soon going to be jobless, Bob actually felt pretty good. It felt good to speak his mind after almost five years of keeping his mouth shut. He laughed as he thought about the upcoming conversation with his wife and kids.
“What a day,” Bob said to himself, smiling and shaking his head.
As Bob pulled onto his street and approached his house, his smile slowly faded. Parked in front of his house were two vehicles, a police car and vehicle marked with the letters P. R. T.
“Oh no,” Bob said to himself. The PRTs, often mockingly called “parrots,” were the Pandemic Response Team. Each county had their own team that was organized and supervised by the state health departments. Their job was to work with law enforcement to ensure that the pandemic was contained whenever there was an outbreak or a violation of health regulations. In short, they were the hands and feet of the health department.
As Bob pulled up to the entrance of his driveway, two police officers waved for him to stop the car. At the same time, two parrots, wearing their state-issued PPE, exited their vehicle and turned to look at Bob.
Bob stopped his car and rolled down his window. “Can I help you officer?” he asked.
“Sir,” the first officer replied sternly, “I need you to put your mask on and step out of the vehicle.” Bob noticed that the second officer, who was a bit younger, had his hand on his taser.
“May I ask what this is about?” Bob replied.
“You are under arrest for making a terroristic threat against a healthcare worker.”
“What? The kid at the pharmacy? What did I do to him?”
The older officer reached his hand towards his taser. “As an unvaccinated individual you exited your vehicle without a mask and attempted to violate social distancing boundaries.”
The older officer didn’t wait for Bob to reply, “Now put your mask on and exit the vehicle now with your hands on your head!”
Bob decided that it was not worth arguing further. But he wasn’t going to give in completely. Holding his mask in his hands, he opened the door and stepped out with his hands raised.
“Sir, put on the mask!” the first officer shouted. Both officers stepped back as they drew their tasers and aimed them at Bob.
A moment of calm came upon Bob as he saw his wife and children come out of the front door of the house. He looked at them, smiled, and then turned back toward the officer.
“No,” Bob replied. And he dropped the mask onto the ground.
Immediately Bob felt a surge of electricity throughout his body. He collapsed to the ground, his muscles twitching uncontrollably.
As Bob tried to fight through the pain, he saw the officers and the parrots approach him. As the surge of electricity subsided, the younger officer pulled Bob’s hands behind his back and cuffed him. Then, one of the parrots kneeled down and forcibly put a mask over Bob’s face.
“There, he’s secure,” the parrot said to the officers.
“Alright, let’s get him to the car,” said the older officer. And they pulled Bob up off the ground.
As Bob tried to avoid stumbling, he heard the second parrot speak. “Another nat gone crazy. If they don’t want to get the vaccine, fine, but why put others at risk? It’s stupid. Just follow the rules and everyone will be safer. Right?”
The first parrot shrugged his shoulders and sighed, “Some people can’t be reasoned with. This is the new normal.”