On December 18th, 2020, I received my first dose of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. On January 9th, 2021, I received my second. I am now a CDC-card-carrying, fully vaccinated person.
The build-up to the first dose was momentous. I was scheduled for the first dose of the morning. Our vaccine clinic was abuzz with excitement and hope, and some media folks were there to capture the moment. A couple of fellow emergency physicians were in the same cohort of recipients as I; we exchanged virtual high-fives and took a picture of socially distanced hugs. It was, after all, the closest thing we'd had to a celebration in months.
I walked in the vaccine administration room with anticipation – it was tough to believe this moment was truly, finally here. I got a little video of my getting the shot, took my obligate vaccine selfie, waited in the observation area for 15 minutes to ensure I didn't have a reaction, and then proudly joined 1000s of fellow healthcare workers across the country in posting #ThisIsMyShot on social media. "Here we go, America!"
The first shot, though, didn't actually do all that much for me. It hurt less than a flu shot (which, by the way, doesn't hurt much). I had virtually no side effects. I also knew that it did not yet protect me. The Pfizer (and Moderna) data show very clearly that although the immune response starts to grow 10-12 days after the first shot, one doesn't reach full protection against COVID-19 until much later.
So when, two days after my first shot, I headed back to work in the emergency department, I kept wondering "Will this be the day that I get sick? Wouldn't that be ironic!" Although I never go without an N95 during patient care, it just takes one slip – scratching one's eyes, eating lunch in a break room that an infected colleague had just been in – to get ill. Ten months into this pandemic, it is so easy to get fatigued, to make a small error just one time.
Indeed, I had a few colleagues fall ill in between their first and second shots; one was hospitalized. This was not surprising, but still sad, given how close they had come to escaping infection.
Scientifically speaking, one doesn't need to feel bad to develop an immune response. Emotionally, though, I welcomed the symptoms as proof positive that I would be protected.
This time period felt a little like we had our learner's permit for driving: we were on our way to being safe, but not quite there yet.
I also watched, with dismay, our failures as a nation at timely distribution of the vaccine. On December 18th, despite the logistical snafus that many of us had started to highlight, it was still somewhat believable that we would at least distribute (if not actually administer) 20 million doses by the New Year. But by December 31, my worst fears about the feds' lack of planning had been realized. Only 14 million doses had gone to states, and fewer than 3 million had been administered. Within the public health and medical community, we began to debate how to handle the shortages and slow vaccination rates: should we change prioritization schemes? Get rid of the second dose, in contradiction to what our FDA had approved?
Let me be clear: I really, really, really wanted my second dose. It is what is supported by the data. After living this long at risk, it felt frankly unfair that I might not get fully protected. I waited with trepidation, afraid that policies would shift before I got it in my arm.
At last, my date for my second shot arrived.
This shot was a little less momentous on the outside. The vaccine clinic was much more crowded, as we were now administering first doses to more people, as well as providing the second dose to many. There were no high fives, no media, and I took no selfies. I finished my observation period without trouble (as did everyone else vaccinated the same day, as is typical for these vaccines). I walked out the door planning to spend a nice afternoon outdoors with my kids.
Within 15 minutes, though, the very common side effects – reported by 80% of people my age after the second dose – began to appear. First I got a headache (like 52% of people my age), then body aches (37%), fatigue (59%), and chills (35%). I felt "foggy", like I was fighting something. Like 45% of trial participants who had received the actual vaccine, I took acetaminophen and ibuprofen to stave off the symptoms. There is some minimal evidence from other vaccines that pre-treatment with these anti-inflammatories may reduce antibodies, but given that half of trial participants took these medications, there's no reason to make yourself suffer if you develop side effects. Forty-eight hours later, just in time for my next shift, the side effects magically cleared. Scientifically speaking, one doesn't need to feel bad to develop an immune response. Emotionally, though, I welcomed the symptoms as proof positive that I would be protected.
My reaction was truly typical. Although the media hype focuses on major negative reactions, they are – statistically speaking – tremendously rare: fewer than 11/million people who received the Pfizer vaccine, and 3/million who received the Moderna vaccine, developed anaphylaxis; of these, all were treated, and all are fine. Compare this with the fact that approximately 1200/million Americans have died of this virus. I'll choose the minor, temporary, utterly treatable side effects any day.
Now, more than 14 days after my second dose, the data says that my chance of getting really sick is, truly, infinitesimally low. I don't have to worry that each shift will put me into the hospital. I feel emotionally lighter, and a little bit like I have a secret super-power.
But I also know that we are not yet home free.
I may have my personal equivalent of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak – but we don't yet know whether it protects those around me, at all. As Dr. Fauci himself has written, while community spread is high, there is still a chance that I could be a carrier of infection to others. So I still wear my N95 at work, I still mask in public, and I still shower as soon as I get home from a shift and put my scrubs right in the washing machine to protect my husband and children. I also won't see my parents indoors until they, too, have been vaccinated.
At the end of the day, these vaccines are both amazing and life-changing, and not. My colleagues are getting sick less often, now that many of us are a week or more out from our second dose. I can do things (albeit still masked) that would simply not have been safe a month ago. These are small miracles, for which I am thankful. But like so many things in life, they would be better if shared with others. Only when my community is mostly vaccinated, will I breathe easy again.
My deepest hope is that we all have – and take - the chance to get our shots, soon. Because although the symbolism and effect of the vaccine is high, the experience itself was … not that big a deal.
[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to several experts: "Under what circumstances would you send a child back to school, given that the virus is not going away anytime soon?"]
It is August. The start date of school is quickly approaching. Decisions must be made about whether to send our children back. As a physician, a public health researcher, and the mother of two school-aged children, I have few clear answers.
To add insult to injury, a spate of recent new data suggests that - as many of us suspected all along - kids are susceptible to COVID-19, they transmit COVID-19, and they can get really sick from COVID-19.
Let me start with the obvious. My kids, and all kids, deserve a safe, in-person school year. We know the data on the adverse effects of school closure on kids, particularly for those who are already vulnerable. I also know, on a personal level, that distance learning is no substitute for in-person schooling. Homeschooling may be great for those with the privilege to do it, but I - like many Americans - am unable to quit my job, and children need more than a screen to learn.
Moreover, safe school reopening should not be an impossible dream. I and many other physicians, teachers, and scientists have described the bare minimum that we need to safely reopen schools: a stable, low rate of COVID-19 in the community; funding and mandates for basic public health precautions (like universal masking and small, stable classes) in the schools; and easy access to testing for kids and teachers. This has been achieved, successfully, in other countries.
Unfortunately, the United States has squandered its opportunity to do right by families. Across our country, rates of COVID-19 are rising. Few states have been able to sustain a test positivity rate of less than 5 percent - the maximum that most of us, in the public health world, would tolerate. Delays in testing are rampant. Systemic under-funding of public schools means that many schools simply can't afford to put basic public health measures in place. Worst, science denialism (and the spread of quack conspiracy theories online) means that many communities are fighting even the most basic of safety precautions.
To add insult to injury, a spate of recent new data suggests that - as many of us suspected all along - kids are susceptible to COVID-19, they transmit COVID-19, and they can get really sick from COVID-19. This data increases the risk calculus. Our kids are not immune, and neither are we.
Given that the necessary societal interventions simply have not happened, most American families are therefore left making an individual choice: do I send my kid to school? Or not? There are five key questions for parents to ponder when making the difficult choice about what to do.
First, we must look at our community. Knowing that testing is difficult to obtain, a true estimate of community prevalence of COVID-19 is nearly impossible. But with a test positivity rate of more than 5 percent, it's safe to assume that in a school of 500 people, at least 1 will be positive for COVID-19. That is too high for safety. Whether or not the local government does the right thing, I would not send my child to in-person school if my community had these high rates of test positivity.
Second, we must look at our school district's policies. Will the school mandate masks? Are they cohorting students and teachers in small, stable groups? Do they have contact tracing and isolation policies in place for when a student or teacher inevitably tests positive? Do they have procedures to protect vulnerable teachers and staff? If not, I would not send my child to school. If the district is doing all of the above, I would consider it.
Third, we must look at the health profile of our own kids and families. If my child had chronic medical issues, or if I lived with my elderly parents or were myself at high risk of severe disease, I would not send my child to in-person school.
It is therefore unlikely that schools anywhere in the U.S. will be open by October.
Fourth, we must do the difficult, ethical weighing of the non-zero risk of infection (even in the safest communities) with the needs of our children. Even in low-prevalence states, there will be infections in the school setting. That said, the small risk of a severe infection may be outweighed by the social, emotional, and financial risk of keeping a child home. This decision must be made on a family-by-family basis. I know my answer; but I cannot provide this answer for others.
Finally, we must call attention to the fact that many kids and families have no options. There are far too many American children who literally depend on their school system for physical, nutritional, emotional, and academic safety. There are too many parents who have no way to earn an income and keep their kids safe without in-person learning. If anyone deserves to be prioritized for in-person schooling, it should be them. (And yes, we should also work to fix the social safety net that leaves these children high and dry.)
As I write this on August 2nd, 2020, I am planning to send my two children back to our public schools for in-person education. We have low rates of infection in our community, we have masking and stable cohorts in place, and my family is relatively healthy. We also depend on the schools to keep my children safe and engaged while I'm working in the ER! I will not hesitate, however, to pull my children out of school should any of these considerations change, if local test positivity rates go up, or if my children report that masking is not the norm in the classroom.
And sadly, I expect that this discussion will soon be a moot point. We continue to fail as a nation at basic public health policies. It is therefore unlikely that schools anywhere in the U.S. will be open by October. Our country has not shown the willpower to control the virus, leaving us all with, literally, no choice to make.
[Editor's Note: Here's the other essay in the Back to School series: Masks and Distancing Won't Be Enough to Prevent School Outbreaks, Latest Science Suggests.]