Letter to the editor: My COVID-19 vaccine story

Flu season
A healthcare worker administers a vaccination — photo by Lance McCord via Flickr Creative Commons

By Katelyn Meyer, Coralville

I received my first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 17. As an ICU nurse who has worked frequently with COVID-positive patients at UIHC, I was among the first several hundred employees vaccinated in the state of Iowa.

I had worked the night before, so I finished giving report and headed to the employee health clinic, where I would receive the vaccine. The process was streamlined already and went quickly. I received a vaccine card with the manufacturer, lot number and location of administration of my vaccine, with open space for the second dose. The vaccinator asked me some general questions about whether or not I have had any symptoms of an active COVID infection recently, about my general health, and if I had any questions about the information packet I had received when I took my pre-vaccination survey.

The vaccination itself was the least painful vaccine I’ve ever received; it only hurt slightly from the needle. When the vaccinator said she was done, I couldn’t believe her because it was such a smooth and painless injection. It is recommended after any vaccine to stay close by for at least 15 minutes post-injection, as this is the most common timeframe that serious adverse reactions, like severe allergic reactions, might occur.

As I was walking back to my car after those 15 minutes elapsed, I felt slightly warm and tingly in my face (similar to a niacin reaction, if anyone has had one of those). I also had a slight headache, though it is difficult for me to say if that had anything to do with the vaccine versus just a side effect from working overnights. I showered as soon as I got home, and noticed the facial flushing and tingling were both gone, then went to sleep. I felt well when I woke up aside from feeling some injection site pain, which felt better almost instantly when I would move my arm around.

The pain was completely gone around 36 hours post-vaccination. No matter how quickly it appeared and then disappeared, this pain did *not* impact my daily life.

I am now nearly a week out from my vaccine, and the arm pain was the worst part of getting it. While sharing this information, I would be remiss to not mention the mental impact of receiving this vaccine.

We first heard about a type of viral pneumonia spreading in the Wuhan province of China back in December of 2019. At the time, it was not well understood and unclear if it could spread between people. Obviously, a year later, we know from experience that this novel coronavirus strain (and its subsequent sudden acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS) does indeed spread person to person, and its consequences have devastated any plans for 2020 we could have made. This means that healthcare workers have spent 2020 in the shadow of the pandemic, uncertain of so many aspects in our lives, just as the public has. The sense of hope that we had in that room, even on day four of vaccinations, was undeniable. People were full of nervous excitement, their voices hushed, almost like we were on the verge of getting caught elbow-deep in the cookie jar. It feels finally like there is a light at the end of a very dark tunnel, one that even just a month ago felt like it was unending.

To be clear, it’s not currently a bright light. While the vaccine is highly effective, we do not know for how long the protection against COVID-19 lasts. We will still need to wear masks and practice social distancing, even when vaccinated. In addition to this, there’s a large segment of the public that do not trust a vaccine developed so quickly. Some are concerned about unknown long-term effects of the vaccine, while others are feeding into conspiracy theories—and many of them exist in every corner of the Internet—about microchips, 5G networks, mind control, etc.

I certainly can appreciate concerns about the safety of the vaccine. I was at first unsure if I would receive the vaccine, should it become available, as the first rumors of emergency authorization started to surface. I decided I would read as much information as I could about the studies, especially once it became clear that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would be the first one offered. I understand that my choice is just that, my own choice, and that we are adults who face many choices daily. After reading as many articles as I could, discussing with my coworkers who were enrolled in the studies about their side effects, and thinking about my own personal risk versus benefit list, I decided to get the vaccine as soon as it was available to me.

On Dec. 17, 2020, at 7:30 in the morning, I said for the first time all year that it was a good day to be a healthcare worker. It felt like we finally had the first tool in our arsenal to defeat this insidious enemy. And if I need to get a booster shot every year (like the flu shot), then I will, to protect my patients, my family and myself.

I encourage everyone to do the same thing I did: research the possible side effects (not including your Facebook friends’ conspiracy theories), research the possible long-term effects of experiencing a COVID-19 infection, and determine which is the right option for you and your family. But please do read, and make an educated decision when the time is right and the vaccine is made available to you, and if you choose to receive the vaccine, make sure to get your second dose 21 days after your first.

I anticipate I will feel more effects after the second dose, and I will follow the asked protocol to report any side effects of the vaccine online. For me, choosing the vaccine felt like the first step back to the life we used to know. I cannot say if there will come a time in the future that we will not need to wear masks and eye protection with each patient encounter we have, but maybe we will see fewer critically ill COVID-19 patients, or even just fewer hospitalized COVID patients overall if the vaccine becomes the popular choice. All I am offering is that this holiday season has a touch more hope and sense of renewal this year than I’ve noticed before, but it is a fragile hope, much like a small flame from kindling. It will need to be fanned and protected carefully so that it can be shared by everyone, not just healthcare workers.

A shorter version of this letter was originally published in Little Village issue 290.

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