s vaccines start rolling out in our community, there's finally a light at the end of the tunnel of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a primary care physician who frequently has close contact with patients with COVID-19, I was fortunate enough to get my vaccine this past month.
In case you didn't read my previous article, I am a huge proponent of the COVID-19 vaccine. It is incredibly safe, effective, and is the only way to put an end to the pandemic in this country without losing millions of American lives.
However, I know many people are uncertain, or even scared of this vaccine. There's also a ton of misinformation floating around, so I wanted to share my honest experience in getting vaccinated, and the experiences of my colleagues who have also received the vaccine.
If you're a follower of my twitter account you'll know that I was, and still am, fighting hard for equitable distribution of the vaccine. In the very early days, hospital systems were vaccinating all of their staff, regardless of level of risk or exposure, and not making the vaccine publicly available to those who needed it. This not only made it hard for independent healthcare workers to get vaccinated, but it made me worried that these inequities would only get worse when the vaccine was released to the public.
I want to give a huge thank you to National Jewish Health who was the first hospital in the Denver Metro area to recognize and fix the inequities in vaccine distribution, and they have been leading the way in getting healthcare workers and patients over 70 vaccinated.
Last week, the Colorado Department of Public Health finally caught on and ordered all hospital systems to open up scheduling outside their walls, and so going forward I am hopeful that the vaccine will be available to all who need it.
The First Vaccine
I received my first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine last month, with a big smile on my face:
The process was quick, easy, and virtually painless. About 3 hours after the vaccine my arm (left deltoid muscle) started to become sore, and it was pretty uncomfortable for about 2 days. This is a very typical response for me when I have received vaccines in the past.
And that's it... I had no other side effects, no fatigue, no fever, nothing out of the ordinary. This has overwhelmingly been the experience of my colleagues and patients who have received the vaccine as well, and also fits with the data presented in Pfizer's study.
Now this isn't to say that reactions are impossible, they're just incredibly rare. People having immediate allergic reactions to this vaccine is all over the news. But, it's important to note that as of the time of this article, over 17 million people in the US have received their first vaccine dose. CDC data indicates that the rate of anaphylaxis is approximately 1 in 91,000 people, and many of them had a history of anaphylaxis and were prepared with an epipen on hand. None of those patients died. I'll go into more depth on safety statistics at the end of this article, but I will still advise my patients with a history of anaphylaxis to get the vaccine, albeit with an epipen in a hospital setting.
The Second Vaccine
When I was due for my second vaccine, a number of my colleagues had gotten theirs already, and so I knew what to expect. But, I still got the vaccine with an even bigger smile on my face:
Again, my arm was sore that night, and I was feeling a bit tired after dinner. I blocked my schedule the next day in anticipation of feeling sick, and honestly, I didn't feel great the next day. I had a bad headache, was tired, and my muscles ached. I was still able to work though, I had a few virtual visits with patients, had some chats via phone and text message with them, and was feeling well enough by lunch to go to the park with my son.
That night I went to bed a little early, and woke up the next day feeling back to 100% with no ill effects whatsoever.
My experience is pretty typical, although a decent number of my colleagues had fevers the day after their vaccine that lasted about 24 hours.
These side effects are completely normal and predictable, and this is exactly how your body creates an immune response, to both vaccines and viruses themselves. We see similar effects after many pediatric vaccines, the shingles vaccine, and sometimes for the flu vaccine. Again, the fatigue, muscle aches, fever is all part of the normal immune response. In fact, during the clinical trials for these vaccines, people reported being excited when they felt ill after getting a shot, because they knew they received a vaccine instead of a placebo (trial participants had a 50% chance of receiving a placebo injection, and a 50% chance of receiving a vaccine).
About Side Effects
There's a saying I heard recently, "Everyone has a choice - get the COVID-19 vaccine, or get COVID-19." While that is putting it bluntly, it's true, and it helps us when thinking about side effects and each of our individual decisions on whether to get the vaccine or not. Everything in medicine (and in life) has risks, and vaccines are no different. If someone tells you vaccines are 100% safe, they are lying. But, if they tell you vaccines are 99.999% safe, that is probably true.
If you do a search for how many people get side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine, you'll see many articles saying "15% (or more) of people have significant side effects from the vaccine". That sounds scary, until you realize that significant side effects overwhelmingly means fever, muscle aches, etc - in other words - "significantly noticeable side effects".
Severe, long term, or fatal side effects are incredibly rare, see my previous article for all the details. However, a physician in Florida recently died from idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP) shortly after receiving the vaccine. This is a condition where the immune system suddenly attacks your platelets, which can lead to internal bleeding. This physician had such a severe case of it that he had a hemorrhagic stroke (brain bleed) and died.
A link to the vaccine is under investigation. Current evidence points to the physician having ITP as a pre-existing underlying condition which was exacerbated by the vaccine. Anything that stimulates your immune system can cause your immune system to overreact and start attacking your body, be it a vaccine or a virus. This physician's death is awful, and my heart goes out to his family. And if you're reading this, I expect that you're now terrified of this vaccine, but here's the thing: COVID-19 causes ITP in one-third of people infected by it. Most of those cases are mild or subclinical, but some are severe.
So when you are concerned about vaccine side effects, compare those side effects to the side effects from COVID-19. Because the bottom line is this: if the COVID-19 vaccine can cause a side effect, in virtually all cases COVID-19 itself causes it more often, and more severely.
One other argument I have heard is from people who are young and healthy and are more concerned about the vaccine than COVID-19 itself. But even among healthy 18-34 year olds diagnosed with COVID-19, 1 in 5 of them still had significant symptoms 3 weeks after diagnosis, and there are serious concerns about lasting effects to the heart, lungs, and brain. Heart failure, lung failure, depression, and cognitive impairment have already been seen in patients who had COVID-19. You can read more about this from the WHO.
TLDR - The COVID-19 vaccine is exponentially safer than getting COVID-19, even if you are young and healthy.
To Sum it All Up
I'm so grateful I was able to get the vaccine, and could do my part to stop the spread of COVID-19. I am recommending this vaccine to every single one of my patients. In fact, I have been proactive in helping my patients and am proud to say that every patient in my practice who is eligible for the vaccine and wants it has already been vaccinated (or is scheduled to get vaccinated within the next week)!
[Stepping on my soapbox here] Getting vaccinated is about more than just weighing your personal risk. It is about everyone in society doing their part to stop the pandemic, and to prevent spreading COVID-19 to the people who are most vulnerable. We will need close to 90% of the population vaccinated in order to end the pandemic, that means everyone doing their part. There's a lot of misinformation and conspiracies floating around about this vaccine. If you've decided not to get the vaccine because of something you read on social media, I'd recommend reading what the experts are saying instead. Or perhaps find a trusted professional like your family doctor who has dedicated their life to keeping you healthy, and have a discussion with them. [Stepping off soap box]
I hope that hearing about my experience, the experience of my medical colleagues, and having an honest discussion on risks and side effects has helped you feel more comfortable about this vaccine. Let's all do our part and put this pandemic behind us!
*DISCLAIMER: The information in this article is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice and is not a substitute for professional medical care. If you or someone you know has a medical concern, please contact your physician or healthcare provider. Do not delay care because of something you may have read on this website. If you think you are having a medical emergency, call 911 right away.