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Alaska health care worker has severe allergic reaction to COVID-19 vaccine

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Posted at 5:17 PM, Dec 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-16 21:36:02-05

JUNEAU, Alaska — Health officials in Alaska reported a health care worker had a severe allergic reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine within 10 minutes of receiving a shot.

U.S. health authorities warned doctors to be on the lookout for rare allergic reactions when they rolled out the first vaccine, made by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech. Britain had reported a few similar allergic reactions a week earlier.

The Juneau health worker began feeling flushed and short of breath on Tuesday, says Dr. Lindy Jones, the emergency room medical director at Bartlett Regional Hospital. She was treated with epinephrine and other medicines for what officials ultimately determined was anaphylaxis, a severe allergic reaction. She was kept overnight but has recovered.

Unlike the British cases, the Alaska woman has no history of allergic reactions.

In the U.S., vaccine recipients are supposed to hang around after the injection in case signs of an allergy appear and they need immediate treatment — exactly what happened when the health worker in Juneau.

The CDC said it is aware of the incident.

"Anaphylaxis is a rare event following vaccination and CDC is evaluating the case," the CDC said in a statement. "CDC and public health experts prepared for a side effect like this after reports of anaphylaxis were made in England. Appropriate medical treatment for severe allergic reactions must be immediately available in the event of an anaphylactic reaction occurs.

"Public health experts and CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System quickly detected the case, demonstrating that the vaccine safety monitoring program is working as planned, with the ability to rapidly detect and evaluate adverse events."

Allergies are always a question with a new medical product, but monitoring COVID-19 vaccines for any other, unexpected side effects is a bigger challenge than usual.

It’s not just because so many people need to be vaccinated over the next year. Never before have so many vaccines made in different ways converged at the same time — and it’s possible that one shot option will come with different side effects than another.

Getting either the Pfizer-BioNTech shot or the Moderna version can cause some temporary discomfort, just like many vaccines do.

In addition to a sore arm, people can experience a fever and some flu-like symptoms — fatigue, aches, chills, headache. They last about a day, sometimes bad enough that recipients miss work, and are more common after the second dose and in younger people.

These reactions are a sign that the immune system is revving up. COVID-19 vaccines tend to cause more of those reactions than a flu shot, about what people experience with shingles vaccinations.

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Data from The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.