“HOPE ARRIVED in a plain white box. It weighed 40 pounds and bore the label ‘heavy.’” So began Boston Globe health writer Felice Freyer’s account of the arrival of the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Boston Medical Center on Monday.
Hope was a word used frequently throughout this week as media accounts were replete with feel-good stories about frontline health workers getting vaccinated.
“I didn’t even feel it,” was how a registered nurse at North Shore Medical Center Salem Hospital described the shot to The Salem News. “It didn’t hurt,” a clinical manager in the respiratory care department at UMass Memorial Medical Center told the Telegram & Gazette.
Of course, the problem with these stories is they don’t ask the health care workers how they are feeling hours after the shot, when side effects typically show up. Common side effects of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, and a similar vaccine created by Moderna that appears to be on its way to FDA approval for emergency use, are things like pain around the injection site, fatigue, headache, and muscle pain. Side effects are generally worse after the second dose.
Experts are quick to note that these side effects tend not to be serious and are relatively short-lived – they last for maybe a day. And, public health experts say, it’s far better than getting or spreading the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus.
One doctor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center who participated in Moderna’s clinical trial and spoke to the Globe said he felt “lousy” after the second shot, but, “Had I got infected with COVID, I imagine I’d feel much worse and possibly dying.”
It is also important to note that the arrival of the first vaccine doses does not mean the pandemic is over. Experts have long been saying that months of mask-wearing and social distancing still remain before enough of the public is vaccinated to reach herd immunity, which is the point at which enough people are immune to the virus that it can no longer spread.
Public health experts would do well to be honest about the shots, including their side effects, as they try to convince the public to accept them, which will be necessary to reach herd immunity. One recent Western New England Polling Group poll found that, among Massachusetts residents who are hesitant about taking a vaccine, the most common reason given was lack of trust in the approval process (29 percent), followed by concerns about side effects (26 percent).
A recent poll by the MassINC Polling Group did not ask specifically about side effects but found similarly that residents had real concerns about whether the vaccine has been thoroughly tested and whether it is safe.
One thing that may reassure some people is the reaction of the medical community, those first in line to get the vaccine. These workers are also those who have seen the effects of COVID-19 most closely.
This viral TikTok video of Boston Medical Center staff dancing on the sidewalk in front of the hospital about sums it up. So does the Boston Globe’s story about the online system set up by Mass General Brigham through which health care workers could make appointments to get a vaccine. It crashed due to high traffic.
To further reassure Americans, Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Second Lady Karen Pence, got vaccinated publicly Friday morning.