SALISBURY, England — On a recent Saturday afternoon, Margaret Drabble, 83, sat beneath the soaring arches of Salisbury Cathedral, swinging her legs back and forth under her chair like a schoolgirl.
Minutes earlier, in a booth near the cathedral’s entrance, she had received her first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against the coronavirus. But that wasn’t why she was looking so happy, she said. Instead, it was from the elaborate organ music gently reverberating in the cathedral’s interior.
“Oh, I just love the organ,” said Drabble, a former schoolteacher. “It’s so beautiful, it almost makes me cry every time I hear it.”
“I’ve always wanted to play it,” she said, wistfully. Then, she looked toward the organ’s 4,000 pipes at the front of the cathedral and sat up straight to listen. She had been told to stay put for 15 minutes, to make sure she did not develop an allergic reaction.
Britain is in the middle of a mass vaccination drive, racing to outrun the spread of the virus as a new variant discovered in the country surges. So far, some 6.3 million people have received a first dose, just under 10 percent of the population.
England’s National Health Service has signed contracts with dozens of large venues that will operate as vaccination centers. On Monday, it announced 33 new locations, including a soccer stadium in Oxford, several sports centers and a concert arena.
Patients have been getting the vaccine at Salisbury Cathedral since Jan. 16, and it hosts the inoculation sessions twice a week for around 1,200 people a day. Sessions last about 12 hours, and, for most of that time, David Halls and John Challenger, the cathedral’s organists, provide a musical backing, ranging from well-known hymns to fairground tunes and euphoric classical works.
That makes the cathedral one of the few places in the country one can hear live music right now. With much of Britain under lockdown restrictions for the third time, theaters, museums and concert halls have been forced to shut. But in recent weeks, the British government’s race to vaccinate its population has provided some cultural venues with a surprising lease on life.
Some — like the Thackray Museum of Medicine in Leeds, in northern England, and the Hertford Theater, just north of London — have become vaccination centers, taking advantage of their large, well ventilated spaces and experience with managing crowds. Visitors now line up to receive shots, instead of to look at display cases or sing along to musicals.
At least one well-known London attraction, the Science Museum, is being considered, according to local officials, and even circus operators have offered their big tops.
Salisbury Cathedral is, of course, more of a religious venue than a cultural one. But beyond the organ accompaniment, anyone inoculated in the 13th-century Gothic building in southwestern England can also marvel at its architecture and contemplate several artworks throughout its grounds, including a huge reclining figure by the sculptor Henry Moore and a tapestry by the contemporary British artist Grayson Perry.
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Answers to Your Vaccine Questions
If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine?
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated?
Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask?
Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
Will it hurt? What are the side effects?
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
Will mRNA vaccines change my genes?
No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
On Saturday, few visitors were looking at those, but several were listening attentively to the music.
“I live locally, and we’ve all been saying, ‘Have you been to the organ recital yet?’” said Pam Scoop, 86. “We don’t say, ‘Have you been for a jab?’” she added, using a British term for a shot. She then closed her eyes to listen to Halls play the uplifting Bach chorale “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”
Nicholas Papadopulos, the cathedral’s dean, said he had offered the building as a vaccine hub as soon as he heard that a successful shot had been developed. “Our thought was a lot of elderly, vulnerable people who hadn’t been out of their homes very much in the last year, if at all, would be coming,” he said, adding that the team wanted to “create an environment that is welcoming and reassuring and soothing.”
“The obvious solution was to make music,” he said.
David Halls, the cathedral’s music director, said he had started by playing famous classical pieces from the likes of Bach, Mozart and Handel. He said he then decided to branch out, playing show tunes like “Old Man River” and English music-hall hits like “I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside,” hoping they would stir happy memories among older listeners.
“The phrase ‘smooth classics’ was what came to mind,” Halls said. “We didn’t want anything too spiky or unpleasant or anything too fast.”
John Challenger, the cathedral’s assistant music director, said that some local residents had started emailing requests. Someone had suggested a work by the Australian organist and composer George Thalben-Ball, he said; on Saturday, someone else emailed to ask for a piece by Olivier Messiaen, including the time they would like the work played.
“It’s weird what people want, isn’t it?” Challenger said.
Dan Henderson, one of the doctors overseeing the center, said the cathedral was a perfect space for vaccinations, as its large, drafty space lowers the risk of catching the virus. The music was a bonus, he added, but it did have a medical benefit because it lowered people’s anxiety. “It’s changing this from a medical intervention to an event,” he said, “and that really makes patients at ease.”
There was only one, occasional, downside, he added. “We’ve had patients sit in the observation area for half-an-hour listening to the music, when they’re only meant to be there for 15 minutes. So sometimes it is actually impeding the flow of patients,” Henderson said. “But I think that’s quite a lovely problem to have.”
Many visitors on that recent Saturday seemed to have that urge to stick around and enjoy the music. Sue Phillips, 77, was sitting in the waiting area with her husband, William, after getting a shot. The organists were taking a break, and she seemed disappointed by the silence.
“It’d be lovely if the organ were playing,” Phillips said. “All these old people, including us, have had a year deprived of culture, music and beauty, then we get a chance to get our jab to organ music.”
But shortly after, the organ surged into life and the familiar notes of Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem,” a patriotic English hymn, filled the space.
Phillips’s eyes brightened above her mask. “Oh, wonderful!” she said. “This is magical.”
Looking at her husband, she said: “I think we’ll stay for another 10 minutes.”