As of today, nearly 40 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. The reason to specify “one dose,” is, of course, that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine—which the FDA recently recommended pausing due to several recipients developing blood clots after receiving it—only requires one. While experts try to comfort the public by telling them that six people developing blood clots out of millions who received the shot without issue is nothing to worry about, people are, naturally, still panicking a bit. Or a lot – my mother got the Johnson & Johnson shot weeks ago, feels fine, but visited her doctor today simply because she heard the news about the recall, and was concerned.
Vaccines aren’t reaching people overnight. Yes, forty percent have at least one shot, but that’s less than half of Americans and many of those are only half vaccinated. It doesn’t help that many Americans are actively avoiding the vaccine. Anti-vaxxers have come out in hoards during this pandemic, and they’ve even had some highly educated minds on their side. How educated? Well, one ex-vice president of Pfizer was behind one report claiming the COVID-19 vaccine can cause fertility issues (this has since been debunked). There are a lot of feelings, opinions, fears, and hopes around this vaccine. After my husband and I received our second shot recently, I wanted to share our experience with getting fully vaccinated.
Judgment from high horses
Up until recently, vaccines in our area were only available to a select few groups of individuals, such as those over the age of 65, frontline workers, essential workers, healthcare workers, and those with compromised immune systems. My husband and I do not meet any of that criteria, but we found a way in the side door (to be covered in the next slide) to get our vaccines. And some of our family judged us. One particular member of my family accused me of stealing a vaccine from someone who might have desperately needed it – of even possibly being responsible for someone’s death because I took the vaccine. He’s deeply wrong, but would not hear me out. The vaccine has become another form of politics, in that it can tear families apart. I’m not ready to speak to that family member yet.
How we got ours
Once a pharmacy or medical institution gets its hands on a vaccine, it can only be safely stored for up to five days. When that five-day expiration date is approaching, there is a use-it-or-lose-it mentality. My partner and I walked to our local pharmacy and asked what our options were for the vaccine. They said they could put us on a waitlist, and if individuals from priority groups (65 and older, healthcare workers, etc.) failed to show up for their appointments, we may be able to get their vaccine. The call came two days later: “We have vaccines for you. How soon can you be here? Like, can you make 20 minutes work?” They had vaccines to spare that were expiring within hours. They were either going in our arms, or in the trash can. So, again, to my stubborn and judgmental family member: we didn’t steal anything from anybody. And might I add, the more vaccines in more arms, the better.
How we felt
Neither my husband nor I had any adverse side effects beyond moderate pain at the site of injection, starting about six hours after getting the vaccine, and lasting for about 24 hours. Other than that, we didn’t get nauseous, sweaty, shaky, feverish, or anything like that. It is worth noting that my husband and I both had COVID-19 back in January. Interestingly, studies have shown that those who were previously infected with the COVID-19 virus were significantly more likely to develop side effects in response to the vaccine – something about the body already being primed to respond to it. We were fortunate that this was not the case for us.
Newly socially acceptable
Even though you need both doses of the vaccine to get the maximum protection, you do receive significant defenses against symptomatic infection after your first dose – a fact that some people are relying too heavily on. After getting our first dose, we’d start receiving invites from friends for indoor gatherings. “Everyone who will be there has had at least one of the shots, so we should be safe.” Uhhh…that’s a pretty big leap. Before our first shots, most of our friends took 110 percent precautions, only meeting outdoors, sitting far apart, and even wearing masks outdoors. Suddenly with 60-ish percent protection they’re being 110 percent unsafe.
What had happened was…
I noticed a lot of guilt and trepidation around people admitting they got the vaccine. Few people simply say, “I’m vaccinated.” Most add a reason – an explanation. “My husband is immunocompromised and I’m his caretaker. It would be so unsafe for him if I brought the virus home…” “My work became re-categorized as essential work because people need to have their documents notarized, even during a pandemic.” I sit there and go, “I’m not judging. I do not question anyone’s desire to protect themselves and their loved ones.” It’s been interesting that the vaccine has created this subtext that’s become this odd discussion of: who is most entitled to protect their lives?
After one, you’re locked in
My husband and I just jumped at the chance to get our vaccine. We felt like we’d hacked life. How could we say no? A vaccine could mean we could return to our normal lives. We didn’t hesitate and had needles in our arms within 30 minutes of getting the call. And then, stories started to come out about problems. One friend developed a respiratory infection in response to the vaccine that lasted a month and put him in the hospital. He’s okay now. One friend fainted. We understand these stories are rare, but we also hadn’t heard any of them until, conveniently, after getting our first shot. This isn’t to say that if we’d heard them before, we wouldn’t have taken the vaccine. But it was this “There’s no going back now…” feeling. I did get a little worried. The shot was in my system now. And, in theory, I was going in for a second one. If any fears about side effects hit you after your first dose, you do feel a bit trapped because you’re already in this thing.
We were fine, but a 2nd shot wasn’t guaranteed
Fast forward to three weeks after our first dose, and my husband and I never experienced a side effect. We went on about our lives, feeling hopeful. When we got our first shot, the pharmacy simply told us to call them three weeks later to schedule an appointment for the second one. So we did just that, and they told us “Oh, sorry, the waitlist is really long…might be a couple of weeks.” Keep in mind you must get your second shot within six weeks of the first, and as early as three weeks. “What if you can’t get me one within the six-week mark?” I asked. “Uh…good question…” the pharmacist said, offering nothing else. I guess I thought having that vaccine card showing your first dose was the golden ticket for the second one. And I guess I was wrong.
We finally got it
My husband and I waited another 10 days or so and heard nothing from the pharmacy. Then we started to worry. There were drive-up locations in our city we were told would give us the second dose, but we were also told there were multi-hour waits for those – that tripled on weekends. We finally just walked back over to the pharmacy, checked in in person, and low and behold again, they had vaccines expiring without hours. So we got our second dose. We’re still unsure why the alleged wait list we were on played no role in this, but we also understand these are crazy times, and pharmacies are overwhelmed with how to handle this. But if you take away anything from this, it should be this: advocate for yourself. Don’t wait for someone to call you, because many medical institutions are underwater and getting new orders from the CDC about priority groups every day. It’s nuts out there.
We’re 48 hours beyond our second dose and both feel fine. The day after I did feel very sleepy in the middle of the day, and took a long, deep nap. I don’t know if that was related, but other than that, I feel amazing. My sister got her second dose yesterday and woke up in the middle of last night with chills, a fever, sweats, and nausea. She was never infected with COVID-19. Again, there isn’t necessarily a correlation there – this is just information. My father became very ill for about six hours, the day after getting his second shot. My sister is young and has no preexisting conditions; my father is 76 and has several preexisting conditions. They experienced nearly identical side effects, of similar severity.
I’m going to visit and stay with my mom for Mother’s Day because we’re both vaccinated. I can’t believe I even get to say that sentence! I understand that no vaccine is perfect, and nothing is a guarantee. But we’ve done all that is within our power to minimize the risks. That’s all we can do. COVID-19 exists now. It’s a part of our world. I doubt, even if every person on the planet were vaccinated, that we’d hear the last of COVID-19 cases. But life does have to go on. In the same way we diligently get our flu shots every fall and then spend the holidays in close proximity to elderly (i.e. at risk) family members, hoping the shot did its jobs, we can really only treat this the same way—and hope that the government keeps doing its job, implementing policies that protect all citizens.