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

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With COVID cases rising as the omicron variant spreads, there's another push to get Americans vaccinated and boosted. But there are those who just don't want to get the shots, no matter how high the stakes. And for some, it might not be for the reasons that you're thinking of. NPR's Andrea Hsu has this profile.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEATA MOON'S "RHAPSODY")

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: This piece of music is called "Rhapsody." It was written by Beata Moon, a composer, pianist and teaching artist in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEATA MOON'S "RHAPSODY")

HSU: Her piano is just inside the door of her apartment in Queens. For more than a year and a half, this is where she's been performing and teaching - in front of an iPad. Here she is running a workshop for Lincoln Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEATA MOON: I want you to listen and copy back a few short rhythmic patterns that I'm going to clap. (Clapping).

HSU: Beata Moon considers herself lucky. While her orchestra friends were out of work, she was able to carry on connecting with students.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOON: So one, two, three, four, five.

HSU: But this fall, things started changing fast.

MOON: My friends are back playing in the orchestra. You know, there's concerts going on. The teaching artist work is coming back. All of that is happening in person.

HSU: Without her, because she is not fully vaccinated. Let's go back to spring. Like so many people, Moon was excited about the arrival of the vaccines. She got a first dose of Moderna in late March. But a couple weeks later, she began feeling like she was going to black out. On a trip to urgent care, she tested positive for COVID. Her symptoms lingered.

MOON: It was mostly fatigue, dizziness and some ear ringing.

HSU: Tinnitus - something she had never experienced before. Slowly, she got better. And then over the summer, the symptoms came back. The ear ringing was more pronounced.

MOON: For me, it's like a high-pitched ringing kind of sound. And sometimes, you know, I can hear a difference in volume. I mean, I'm pretty aware of what I hear.

HSU: In a CDC database of adverse reactions reported after COVID vaccination, there are close to 13,000 cases of tinnitus. Now, Tinnitus is a common condition. Every year, about 10% of adults in the U.S. experience an episode of it. People who have gotten COVID have also complained of ear ringing. In the U.K., the National Health Service lists tinnitus as a side effect of long COVID. Scientists are trying to figure out what's going on, but Moon believes her condition is from the vaccine.

MOON: Because so many others have similar issues or even worse issues after the vaccine when they were healthy.

HSU: She's heard their stories. She's part of an online community of people who share their accounts. Now, more than 240 million people in the U.S. have gotten a COVID vaccine. The vast majority have been just fine. And that's part of why Moon is struggling.

MOON: To be honest, like, 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.

HSU: It's easy, she says, to label people as anti-vaxxers or conspiracy theorists. In New York City, virtually everyone she knows is fully vaccinated. Still, for her, it's settled.

MOON: I am afraid to get the second shot.

HSU: Afraid the ear ringing could get worse.

MOON: I just can't take that risk because, you know, as a musician, like, my ears are my life. And I just - you know, my symptoms still haven't gone away. And, you know, this is eight, nine months later.

HSU: So she is dealing with the consequences - both professional and personal.

MOON: I've had some family, who I know love me, but don't understand.

HSU: The irony is that the very thing she's trying to protect - her career as a musician - is also what's being held back by her decision not to get a second shot. New York City has some of the strictest vaccine requirements in the country. Everyone has to be fully vaccinated to enter Lincoln Center, where Moon works as a teaching artist. Same thing at Carnegie Hall, where one of her compositions will be performed in the spring.

MOON: I can't go because I'm not doubly vaccinated, and I can't perform a recital for Musica Reginae because I'm not fully vaccinated.

HSU: That's a concert space in Queens. In a week, all indoor venues in New York City - theaters, sports arenas, restaurants - will require full vaccinations. Beata Moon does not want sympathy. She feels fortunate to have had work in the pandemic. But she wants people to replace judgment with curiosity.

MOON: Not everything is black and white.

HSU: She also wants a rethinking of the mandates, especially now that scientists say this coronavirus may never completely go away.

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

HSU: It's an argument that will no doubt anger a lot of people, as omicron is surging and more than 800,000 people in the U.S. alone have died from COVID. And anyway, things may be headed the other direction. There's talk in New York and nationwide about changing the definition of fully vaccinated to include boosters. Now, with some venues closing again due to COVID, Beata Moon will likely have work she could do from home for a while, like her next performance - a virtual recital for health care workers.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.