The COVID-19 Vaccine: Two Personal Experiences
Our Parish Nurse, Judy Newberger, shares her experience taking part in the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine trial and helpful research on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Her daughter, Julia Johnson, is a Respiratory Therapist at one of our local hospitals who shares her journey caring for the acutely ill patients suffering the effects of COVID-19 and her feelings of hope as she and other healthcare workers are among the first to receive the vaccine.
by Judy Newberger, RN
A few weeks ago, my daughter, a respiratory therapist at a local hospital, received her first dose of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine to fight COVID. Julia has been working with sick and dying COVID patients since the beginning of the pandemic. As a healthcare worker working with the sickest of the sick, she was among the first to receive the vaccine in York County, but she was not the first in our family to receive the vaccine.
Her mom (me!) has been a participant in the Moderna COVE Study at University of Maryland Department of Vaccine Development since August. This is the fourth vaccine clinical trial I have participated in. I have experience in clinical trials, trust the process and signed up as soon as I was aware of the need, especially for volunteers 65 and older.
All vaccine studies have a multi-page informed consent that details what is in the vaccine, what is in the placebo, and what happened in the earlier trials. The COVE study was in the third phase, meaning there had already been two earlier phases of the studies with smaller numbers of volunteers to assess dosage, general safety and general effectiveness. Phase 3 clinical trials assess safety in a much larger group of people, determine rare side effects and ascertain more accurate efficacy. I researched the vaccine online and was excited to learn of the new mRNA technology which uses no embryonic or fetal cells in the vaccine*. It uses no dead or weakened live virus but uses messenger RNA and part of the coronavirus spike of the virus to trigger a novel process to develop SARS CoV 2 antibodies.
Phase 3 clinical trials are double-blind studies, meaning neither the person giving the vaccine nor the person receiving it knows if they receive the real vaccine or a placebo. In the COVE study, the placebo was sterile saline, i.e. salt water. We all get a number matching us with what we receive.
On August 31, 2020, I received my first shot in the Moderna mRNA** vaccine trial, but not before a detailed history, physical, nasal swab, testing for COVID plus several tubes of blood to check for antibodies against the virus. I would have been ineligible for the vaccine if I had not come into contact with enough people several times during the week. As soon as I told them I was working census and greeted at St. John’s, they accepted me. That first shot was easier than a flu shot. I left with an app on my iPhone for reporting, a thermometer to monitor my temperature and phone and in-person follow-up appointments.
It was 24 hours later that the arm that I had received the shot in hurt at all and then, just minimally. The first few days after, I felt more tired than usual, but the fatigue could have been for many reasons. Because I checked off fatigue in my app, I had extra app and phone appointments for a couple weeks.
Four weeks after the first injection, September 28, 2020, I returned for my second visit. Again, I received a COVID nasal swab test and several tubes of blood, testing for antibodies as well as an interim history before receiving the second shot. After telling the study doctor about the fatigue, he told me there would be more fatigue after the second injection. I was concerned that sharing that information might have caused my mind to play tricks. In the end it did not matter.
I received the shot 12:30 pm, again at University of Maryland Center for Vaccine Development in downtown Baltimore. Driving home, my left arm started to ache, not just the area of the shot, but my whole upper arm. The pain started at 2:15 pm.
The rest of the day, the muscles in my left “shot arm” continued to ache, but I had no other symptoms when I went to bed. Temperature was 98 degrees. I was concerned the pain in my arm would keep me from getting comfortable enough to sleep. I was right. No matter which way I lay, I could not get comfortable. I could not sleep, and the aches were in both arms and, eventually, my entire body. At 4 am, I took my temperature because of my muscles ached all over. It was 100.3. Acetaminophen helped the body aches somewhat, but I still couldn’t sleep. 5:30 am, my temperature was 100.5 degrees. That was a little more than an hour after taking 2 extra strength acetaminophen. When I called the study doctor at 6:30 am, and asked if this could be COVID, she reminded me of the COVID test of the day before that would not be ready yet. Without respiratory symptoms, loss of smell, etc., she doubted it was COVID. She told me this was an expected side effect of the vaccine, (pregnant pause) or placebo. I told her if I had received the placebo, it was pretty potent sterile saline!
I skipped going to work at church the next day. I still had a fever and was exhausted from getting no sleep. Even after more doses of acetaminophen, my fever still rose to 101.1 before it came down. I slept much of October 1st, but never lost my appetite or skipped a meal. By 8 pm that night, my temperature was 98 and there have been no other side effects, not even the extended fatigue I had felt after my first shot.
Because of my experience, I believe I received the vaccine and not the placebo. When the news came out that its efficacy was almost 95%, I was ecstatic!
Would I receive an mRNA vaccine knowing ahead of time I would have these side effects? Emphatically, YES! This disease has the potential to be deadly, especially in my age group and in those with underlying health problems but even, unpredictably, in the healthiest of the younger of us. On a personal level, I would rather put up with one day of feeling yucky, like a mild flu, than being months in a hospital bed, in an ICU or even at home with unknown long-term complications. On a public health level, if we ever want to reach herd protection and return close to 2019 normalcy, the majority of us need to receive an effective COVID vaccine. No viral disease has reached herd immunity without an effective vaccine. The vaccine, for many, has immediate short-term side effects like I had. There have been only a small number of serious allergic reactions in those with a history of severe allergies to other vaccines.
Many unanswered questions remain about Moderna and other vaccines against this virus:
Does immunity last?
Will we need “booster” shots or annual immunization like with the flu?
Are there any rare side effects of the vaccine that may only affect one in hundreds of thousands?
On the other hand, there are many partially or unanswered questions about SARS-CoV 2:
Does natural immunity last? Not for everybody. Some have had more than one infection. Who has lasting natural immunity and who does not and for how long?
Are there any rare side effects from the disease that have been found after huge numbers have been infected? That answer is yes, as many months later some symptoms continue and new complications have been discovered in others.
Do individuals who have been infected need the vaccine? Yes, but how long after having the infection?
As I am writing this, healthcare workers, residents of nursing homes and their staff, and first responders are receiving the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines authorized for emergency use. Soon, essential workers and high risk persons due to age or medical risk will be offered the vaccine. After that, it will be made available for others. Soon, there may be other vaccines available.
Next week, Julia and other healthcare workers around the country will be receiving the second dose of an mRNA vaccine. Within the next couple weeks after that, the numbers of those protected will keep rising. Eventually, the numbers we are hearing on the news every day should decrease. Meanwhile, we need to continue the “3 W’s” – Wash your hands, Watch your distance and Wear a mask.
My recommendation, based on research and personal experience, is if there are no contraindications, strongly consider getting the vaccine when it is available for your risk category. If you are uncertain, discuss with your primary healthcare provider and specialists. Avoid Facebook and other social media posts that have so much false information and opinions stated as fact.
The mRNA vaccine technology is not as new as you might think. The technology was developed 30 years ago and using mRNA for vaccines has been studied for nearly 20 years. For detailed but easily-understood information about the mRNA vaccines, please view “Pfizer vs Moderna Vaccines: What’s the Difference?” by Amanda Howell MPH** (used with permission).
Not everybody has the side effects I had, but they were positive signs the vaccine was working to trigger the immune response necessary for me to form antibodies against the COVID-19 virus. Just in case you will have a reaction like mine, consider receiving your second injection a day before nothing important is scheduled.
* Bishops’ Memo on Pfizer and Moderna vaccines -https://www.archbalt.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Vaccines-for-Covid-19.pdf
** “Pfizer vs Moderna Vaccine: What’s the Difference?” Amanda Howell MPH
by Julia Johnson, RRT
I have never been so excited to get a vaccine in my life. As a child and young adult, I got vaccines because it was just something I had to do to go to school or to start a new job. I never really gave it a whole lot of thought. This one is different though. To me, this vaccine brings hope. I'm a respiratory therapist who has been working on the front line of this pandemic since we received the very first COVID-19 cases earlier in 2020. I have seen the numbers wax and wane throughout the summer and early fall. These patients we have been seeing are the sickest of the sick, like nothing we have ever seen before. Occasionally, we have a bad pneumonia patient and, no matter what we do, it's a struggle to keep their oxygen levels up. In some bad winters, especially peak flu season, we might even have a few patients with this same issue, but COVID-19 is different.
We have never had an entire ICU dedicated to patients like this. Some time in November, the COVID-19 numbers spiked very fast. We went from somewhere in the low 20s to close to 200 cases in a period of a few weeks. We ran out of ICU beds in our COVID unit so we quickly had to dedicate a second ICU to COVID patients, then a third.
Every day, I go to work wondering if this is the day they are going to announce that we just don't have resources to take care of all of our patients. I am at the point that when I am asked how I am doing, I just say I'm fine because I am so exhausted physically and emotionally that I don't even want to discuss it with people in my life who haven't seen this and can't possibly fully understand it.
This vaccine gives me hope that this will put an end to all of these feelings of exhaustion that my colleagues and I have been up against. I understand that I am fairly young and mostly healthy, so if I get this virus I will most likely be ok, but I worry about my aging parents and the other people I know and love who may not be so fortunate to have a strong immune system. I am sick of seeing people I know from the community in hospital beds fighting for their lives, and many not able to win that fight.
I understand that everyone must make an informed decision for themselves about whether to get the vaccine based on their own medical history, but I hope people understand why so many of us have been pushing for this vaccine.
After receiving my first dose of the vaccine, other than a little bit of soreness - not even as bad as the flu shot - I have had absolutely no side effects. A few of my colleagues have said they had a mild headache or just felt a little more tired than normal. I understand that there may be more pronounced side effects after the second dose, but compared to getting the disease itself and risking spreading it to someone who may not be strong enough to fight it, I will take my chances.