For Sara Queen Brown, who’s only left her house twice since the COVID pandemic began, there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel.

Brown, 98, joyously rolled up her sleeve Tuesday as the first member of the general public in Haywood County to receive a vaccine — a celebratory turning point that the darkest days are behind us and hope is on the horizon at last.

“It is wonderful,” Brown said. “This is the greatest thing that could happen.”

Brown has witnessed plenty of historical moments in her 98 years, from the end of World War II to putting a man on the moon. But the lifting of the pandemic is one milestone she’s been determined to see through.

“I know my days are numbered because of my age, but I try to keep an upbeat attitude and enjoy life,” she said.

While hundreds of vaccines have been administered to healthcare workers, nursing home residents and first responders in Haywood County since late December, this week marked the beginning of vaccinations for the public at large, starting with seniors over 75.

The health department will systematically work its way down the waiting list. More than 3,000 Haywood County seniors 75 and over were pre-registered as of Tuesday, a number that grows by the day.

The health department has the capacity to vaccinate as many as 800 people a week, but hitting that number depends on vaccine availability. Those on the waiting list will be contacted for an appointment slot as their turn rolls around.

As Brown rose from getting her vaccine Tuesday, the socially-distanced crowd of media, family and public health workers clapped ceremoniously.

“It’s another step in a robust people’s reaction to incredible challenges across the whole world. Who would have thought we would have a vaccine one year after the outbreak started?” said Frank Queen, who had driven his Aunt Sara to the vaccine day.

Queen said one of his aunt’s secrets to a long life is her optimism.

“Optimism keeps you alive as well as a stout immune system,” Queen said. Optimism had been hard to come by over the past year, but has at last arrived in tangible form with a vaccine.

Next up was Norman Long, an 80-year-old Bethel man.

Long, a former teacher at Pisgah High, was a regular substitute up until the pandemic hit. Not a week goes by that he doesn’t get a substitute call, and it’s been heart-wrenching to stay away.

“I just have to tell them I don’t want to get mixed up in the virus right now,” Long said. “I have missed being with those kids. When I go to the grocery store, some of them run to me and start talking. I have to back off and say ‘Let’s stay five or six feet.’”

With the vaccines finally here, he’s looking forward to reunions with former students that he’s kept up with all these years.

“They say ‘When this thing is over I am going to be your house just as soon as I can,’” Long said.

Long has passed the time since March as best as he could.

“I’ve just piddled around. I picked up some little old projects around the house that needed to get done,” Long said. “The last two or three years I had let the garden go, but I started that back up.”

He is particularly eager to resume his role putting out the weekly church bulletin.

“People didn’t want to pick up a bulletin because they thought they could catch some germs on it,” he said.

It’s been sorely missed, however, with church members unable to stay abreast of each other’s lives — one of the many ties that bind the community that’s been robbed by COVID.

Brown, who still lives independently, would often find herself gazing longingly at Clyde Methodist Church across the street from her house. She hopes it’s one of the things she can get back now that a vaccine is here.

“I miss church. There are good sermons on the television but that’s not like having your own church,” she said.

As Brown faced the prospect of spending Christmas alone for the first time in her life, her daily trips to the mailbox became a bright spot.

“I got such pretty Christmas cards from my family and even their pets,” she said.

Brown hopes to be a role model by encouraging others to step forward and get the vaccine.

“It bothers me some people have doubts about the vaccine. They should not be afraid,” Brown said. “I believe in following science.”

The mantra early on in the pandemic “We’re all in this together” has never been more true. A return to the life we once loved now hinges on the success of mass vaccinations.

“I don’t know how long it will take to get back to normal — and I don’t know what normal is going to be,” Brown said. “To get things back to what they once were, it is going to take some doings.”

Long is also eagerly awaiting the day when life starts to feel normal again, and hopes the things that fell by the wayside over the past year — like the annual Kiwanis Club spelling bee he always took part in — will not be forgotten.

“Haywood County is known to be loyal and dedicated to their interests. I think life will eventually come back, but it will take some time,” he said.

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