Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued emergency use authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines in early December, DOs have been among the first in line to receive their highly-anticipated shots.
Contingent on more vaccine approvals and an optimized supply chain, many state and local public health departments currently project that COVID-19 vaccines will be widely available to the general public in late spring or early summer. With that increased availability will come questions from patients about what to expect and the safety of the vaccines.
The DO spoke to three osteopathic emergency physicians who were all vaccinated within a week of the FDA’s EUA. In this edited Q&A, they share their personal vaccine experiences and give advice on encouraging patients, friends and family to get the vaccine when it is their turn to do so.
What were your first impressions when you found out you were going to get the vaccine?
“Initially, I was honestly pretty hesitant about the vaccine, given the very short timeline from conception to production. But after reviewing the available data, I received the vaccine as soon as it was available at the hospital. I considered the traumatic carnage caused by the pandemic, and the benefit and protection conferred by vaccines, which I think clearly outweigh any risks. The daily threat of COVID exposure, especially when you’re literally performing aerosol-generating procedures like intubation, is very real, whereas the vaccine risk is all potential and theoretical.
“There really were no reported serious adverse effects, and a much lower number of patients in the trial ended up with COVID. But of those who did get COVID, none of them ended up on ventilators or died. That was enough for me to change my tune.” — Bradley Chappell, DO, MHA, emergency physician in Torrance, California
What side effects did you feel, if any?
“I had a sore arm and a headache, but it was certainly tolerable. I was still able to continue working that day, and then work the next day. That next day, my arm soreness was at its peak, but the headache was gone. And then in the ensuing 48 hours or so I had occasional chills. But I had no documented fever and really nothing that was debilitating or prevented me from going to work.
“Getting those side effects was really reassuring, just because you feel like, ‘hey, maybe my immune system is working.’ This is a step in the right direction to end the tragedy of this pandemic.” — Alexis Cates, DO, fellow in medical toxicology and emergency medicine physician in Philadelphia
Dr. Chappell: “After the first shot, my arm was just a little bit sore, just like any other time you get an injection. After the second one, I thought I had gotten by without any issues. Then right at the 24-hour point, I felt like I had a typical flu. I had body aches and was feeling tired. But that lasted 12, maybe 24 hours, and then I was back to normal.”
What would you tell, patients, friends or family who might feel uncertain about the vaccine?
“What I share with folks is that this is our opportunity to protect those around us: our family, friends, and certainly our patients. It’s an opportunity to give back to your community while also protecting yourself.” — Sonbol Shahid-Salles, DO, emergency physician in Rome, Georgia
Dr. Cates: “Anyone seeking to learn more about this vaccine is in the right. It’s good that people are seeking out advice to make a decision. So I’d just share my own experiences and the symptoms I experienced, and what I know, and hope that’s helpful for them to determine that it’s appropriate to get this vaccine. Of course, symptoms from the vaccine can be different for anyone receiving it. You can’t predict what side effects someone’s going to experience, other than what the data shows. But I think the fact that I went through with minimal symptoms is reassuring to anyone who asks.”
Dr. Chappell: “I have always unequivocally been in favor of vaccination, though I do get the concern that FDA approval was an EUA. But I don’t think, in general, skipping vaccines is a smart choice. And I’d say we have a duty to do everything we can to minimize the spread of this horrific pandemic. I treat my patients the same as I would treat myself or my own family, so that’s what I’d tell them.”
Does it feel liberating to know you’re protected from COVID-19?
Dr. Chappell: “Yes and no. We still don’t know how effective this vaccine is going to be with the variants that are being reported. But we’ve been dealing with this for years with the flu shot, and you know, you’re generally happy when that falls in the 50-60% range of efficacy. And both Pfizer and Moderna are in the high 90s. So yes, I do feel a little better.”
Dr. Shahid-Salles: “It does feel liberating, but I’m not putting my guard down or changing my level of PPE usage. As an emergency physician, I encounter COVID too many times each day. Certainly, the vaccine will protect you from the severity of illness, but it doesn’t protect you entirely from having COVID. For me, after seeing a wide range of COVID illness—from minor symptoms to imminent death, it provides a sense of relief, but I’m not going to stop following protocols.”
Dr. Cates: “I wish it was more liberating than it is. We still have masks and everything, and we will until we have more data on whether we can still transmit the virus despite being vaccinated. But it makes me feel like we are moving forward, and I’m very grateful to have been offered the vaccine through my hospital. I have faith in the science and faith that eventually we’ll be able to breathe that sigh of relief once and for all.”