A 104-year-old Council Bluffs woman received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Saturday, more than a century after she survived one of the deadliest global pandemics in recent history.
Velma McElderry was given the Pfizer vaccine at the Mid-America Center. Pottawattamie County Public Health hosts vaccination clinics at the venue as part of the state’s plan to prioritize different populations, with a goal of vaccinating every Iowan as quickly as possible.
McElderry was 2-years-old at the time of the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, an H1N1 virus that spread to an estimated 50 million people globally, including 675,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Entire families were wiped out in many parts of the world.
At the time of the Spanish Flu pandemic, McElderry and her family were living in Olmitz, a mining town south of Des Moines that ceased to exist once coal began to be replaced by oil, natural gas, and electricity. Olmitz was rural and small, with only about 500 people. Because of that, McElderry — then known as Velma Stodgel — felt more protected from exposure to the virus than residents in more populated areas across the state, said her daughter Sue Peters of Council Bluffs.
The current pandemic is a different story. While fewer people have to date died of COVID-19 than the Spanish Flu, McElderry is considered high risk now because of her age. She also lives at her home in eastern Council Bluffs instead of in a small town. McElderry and her husband, Lyle, moved from Des Moines to the Bluffs in 1950. Lyle McElderry, known as “Mac” among his friends and family, died in 2003, Peters said.
McElderry, who reads the newspaper every day, had been following the pandemic’s progression, Peters said, paying particular attention to the number of cases and deaths in Iowa and elsewhere as the numbers climbed.
To date, there have been 10,085 cases of COVID-19 reported in Pottawattamie County, including 149 deaths. There have been 345,000 cases statewide, including 5,673 deaths.
“She reads a lot about the pandemic,” Peters said. “She talks about what is going on, how many people are getting the vaccine, and how many people have died. She’s been very interested in it since it began. She has been wanting to get the vaccine.”
COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu share some similarities. Both are considered “novel,” meaning they had not been seen before. Those affected experienced influenza symptoms that varied in their severity. Both viruses spread through respiratory droplets and aerosols, and people wore masks to protect themselves at the urging of health authorities.
As medicine was more primitive, a vaccine was not available at the time of the earlier pandemic. The Spanish Flu never disappeared, but it had greatly dissipated by 1920, according to historical reports.
Saturday’s clinic was open to residents 65 and older, as well as people in the state’s phase 1A and phase 1B populations and residents 18 to 64 with medical conditions. Phase 1A includes health care, first responders and long-term care facility workers, while 1B includes law enforcement, school employees, child care workers, essential workers in food, agriculture, distribution and manufacturing, staff and individuals in congregate settings, government officials, health, life and safety inspectors and correctional facility staff.
McElderry said getting the vaccine “didn’t hurt”, and she was excited about receiving it, according to Peters. McElderry is scheduled to receive a second Pfizer dose April 10.
“While waiting, she made a comment about how tiny a little baby was,” said Peters.
While McElderry has spent the last year at home, the threat of COVID-19 has been a concern for her adult children. In March 2020, as the current pandemic and widespread quarantine orders effectively shut down the country, McElderry had to stop volunteering at Methodist Jennie Edmundson Hospital. She had been a longtime friendly face at the hospital gift shop, even celebrating her 100th birthday there among her coworkers and friends.
McElderry cooks her own breakfast every day and moves around her house with the help of a walker. Peters and her two brothers step in to help their mother throughout the day.
She is looking forward to returning to her volunteer work and her great-grandchildren again.
“She’d love to go back to the hospital, but I’m not sure she will,” Peters said. “For now, Mom is happy she’ll be able to see her family.”