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For a musician in New York City, not being fully vaccinated comes at a cost

Beata Moon sits on the balcony of her Queens, New York, apartment on December 9, 2021. Because she is not fully vaccinated, much of New York City is off limits to her.
Andrea Hsu
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NPR
Beata Moon sits on the balcony of her Queens, New York, apartment on December 9, 2021. Because she is not fully vaccinated, much of New York City is off limits to her.

New York City's strict vaccine requirements get even stricter as of Monday. Everyone 12 years old and up now has to show proof of full vaccination to dine in at restaurants, go to the movies, work out in gyms, or attend any kind of indoor performance.

For Beata Moon, a composer, pianist and teaching artist in Queens, that means she will not be able to perform a recital in February at Musica Reginae, a community concert space.

She cannot attend a March concert at Carnegie Hall, where a piece she composed, setting the words of people experiencing homelessness to music, will be performed.

That's because Moon, 52, is only partially vaccinated, with one shot of Moderna last March, making her an outlier in New York City, where 4 out of 5 adults are fully vaccinated.

Now, amid a stunning spread of the omicron variant in the U.S., there's a renewed campaign to get first, second and third doses in as many arms as possible. Public health officials, medical doctors and scientists agree that vaccines remain the most powerful tool we have against severe illness and hospitalization.

"I — honest to God — believe it's your patriotic duty" to get vaccinated, President Biden said in a speech addressing omicron last week.

Yet Moon says her mind is made up. She will not get a second dose.

Excitement over the vaccine gave way to fear

Like many people, Moon was excited about the arrival of the vaccines early in 2021.

"Both my husband and I couldn't wait to get it," she says.

She got a first dose of Moderna in late March. But a couple of weeks later, she began feeling ill — as if she might black out. She wondered if it might be Zoom fatigue. Her professional life had moved online. She'd been teaching workshops and performing piano recitals in front of an iPad for months.

In New York City, where 4 out of 5 adults are fully vaccinated, vaccines are offered from a city bus parked outside a school.
Andrea Hsu / NPR
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NPR
In New York City, where 4 out of 5 adults are fully vaccinated, vaccines are offered from a city bus parked outside a school.

But after awakening one night feeling so dizzy and nauseated she feared she would fall down, she went to urgent care, where she tested positive for the coronavirus. She went home to quarantine.

For the first time in her life, she started experiencing ear ringing, or tinnitus. Slowly, she got better. And then, over the summer, her symptoms came back. The ear ringing was more pronounced: a high-pitched, ringing sound, sometimes with variation in volume.

Tinnitus, a common condition in normal times, has been widely reported after COVID-19

Tinnitus is a common condition. Every year, about 10% of adults in the U.S. experience at least an episode of it.

In the CDC's Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, there were about 13,000 cases of tinnitus as of Dec. 17 — self-reported cases from patients and health care providers.

People who have gotten sick with COVID-19 have also complained of ear ringing. In the U.K., the National Health Service lists tinnitus as a common side effect of long COVID-19. And a review of scientific literature published in the International Journal of Audiology found tinnitus to be a commonly documented symptom among COVID-19 patients with an estimated 14.8% experiencing it. The authors did note a dearth of high-quality scientific studies on the topic.

Moon has some friends and family members who believe that her tinnitus came from her bout with COVID-19, not from the vaccine. But she has come to a different conclusion after hearing from an online community of people who share accounts of severe reactions to the vaccines.

"Because so many others have similar issues — or even worse issues — after the vaccine, when they were healthy," she says.

240 million people have been vaccinated in the U.S., the vast majority without severe side effects

Her stance has been met with skepticism — and hostility. And in some ways, she understands why.

More than 240 million people in the U.S. have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. The vast majority have been just fine.

"To be honest, if I hadn't experienced this, I don't know if I would have believed when people say, 'Oh, I'm really suffering these side effects,'" says Moon.

If it's not happening to you, she says, it's easy to label someone an anti-vaxxer or a conspiracy theorist.

In the pandemic, Moon has been teaching workshops and performing recitals in front of an iPad. She hopes the virtual work will continue for awhile.
/ David Jacoby
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David Jacoby
In the pandemic, Moon has been teaching workshops and performing recitals in front of an iPad. She hopes the virtual work will continue for a while.

In New York City, virtually everyone she knows is fully vaccinated. Some of her family members don't understand her decision. Still, for her, it's settled.

She is afraid the vaccine could make her ear ringing worse, so she will not get a second dose.

"I just can't take that risk," she says. "As a musician, my ears are my life."

She avoids crowded indoor spaces and large gatherings. She wears a mask whenever she's inside with others.

Vaccine requirements may only get stiffer amid omicron

The irony is that the very thing Moon is trying to protect — her career as a musician — is what's being held back by her decision not to get a second shot.

Even before today, New York City had some of the strictest vaccine requirements in the country. As a freelance musician, Moon works with many organizations across the city, including as a teaching artist at both Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. She's watched as one by one, they've imposed vaccine mandates — for employees and also for audiences.

Beata Moon is not looking for sympathy.

"Fortunately, I've had some virtual work, and not a lot has been going on in-person," she says.

But she wants people to stop judging her — to stop making assumptions. She hopes people will replace judgment with curiosity.

She also hopes there will be more research into natural immunity — what protection a prior COVID-19 infection may provide.

And she wants a rethinking of the mandates, especially now that scientists say this coronavirus may never go away.

"It's something that we have to learn to live with and deal with, and so we need a lot more nuance and flexibility," she says.

It's a tough time to be making such an argument as new cases have hit record highs and more than 800,000 people in the U.S. alone have died from COVID-19. It also appears that things are headed in the other direction.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has said she intends to introduce legislation to change the definition of "fully vaccinated" to include boosters. With data showing that boosters dramatically increase protection from the omicron variant, it's an idea that's swiftly gaining traction nationwide.

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