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Doctors: Severe side effects from 2nd dose of COVID vaccine possible but shouldn't be deterrent

Vigorous immune response likeliest in young people
vaccine
Posted at 11:01 PM, Feb 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-13 08:08:11-05

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — As a health care worker, Brittany Graves catches plenty of bugs.

“I’ve had pneumonia four or five times,” said Graves, 26, who is a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) technician at a psychiatric clinic for those with major depressive disorder.

She even caught COVID-19 this past December.

“I was a little tired, some fever, but it was pretty mild,” Graves said.

So when the clinic she works in started offering the vaccine, she jumped in line for her first dose.

“I had a little arm soreness,” she said. “Nothing that wasn’t manageable.”

Her clinic sent technicians to Safeway to get vaccinated.

Then, came a dose of reality.

“The second dose, they said, ‘You’ll be a little sick.’ And a little sick was an understatement. It was horrible," Graves said.

Her aunt, Sarah Ross, who’s a certified nursing assistant (CNA) herself, says it was scary at times.

“I kept going in and checking her temperature,” Ross said. “I kept trying to make sure she had a lot of fluids in her.”

“I was in bed for three days,” Graves said. “I could barely open my eyes. I couldn’t walk to the bathroom.”

Experts say Graves' symptoms are very common.

“In many ways, this is just Immune System 101,” said Dr. James Neid, chair of infection prevention at The Medical Center of Aurora. “Muscle aches, joint aches, fever, headache, fatigue. These are known in the studies to occur 50% and sometimes in up to 80% of the subjects within the younger age groups. They really are happening.”

“Your body is like, 'Eww. What is this? This is irritating and I don’t like it.’” said Dr. Michelle Barron, senior medical director of infection prevention at UCHealth in Colorado. “We know, certainly from clinical trials, that people can have side effects. Younger people seem to have more side effects than older people. The good news is most side effects will resolve within 48 hours.”

In Graves case, it was about 72 hours.

“On the third night, my fever finally broke,” Graves said. “I thought my husband was going to either have to carry me to the ER or call an ambulance.”

Both Barron and Neid say while side effects are common, that isn’t really telling about the vaccine’s effectiveness.

“That’s a question I get often,” Barron said. “’Does having a side effect mean it’s working better? Am I more protected?’ And the answer is no. There’s no correlation between that.’”

“It may be one thing with one patient and another thing with another patient,” Neid said.

Barron said she and a colleague got their shots on the same day.

“A couple hours apart,” Barron said. “And she’s younger than I am. She had nothing. Nothing at all. Barely had a sore arm. And I got the second dose and I felt terrible for about six hours. It was very bizarre. I was aching and I was tired. I felt terrible.”

Despite that, Barron says it’s clear the vaccine is effective. And, she says, even if you’ve already had COVID, like Graves, it’s still recommended you get the vaccine.

“The vaccine still protects you,” Barron said. “And that’s why the recommendation is to move forward and get the vaccine even if you’ve had it.”

Barron says Colorado is also starting to move the needle in terms of distribution.

“I think we’ve knocked that out of the park,” Barron said. “We just need to keep working on those that are at higher risk and get them the vaccine. Just based on the number who have received it, it’s clearly safe and it works.”

Graves isn’t trying to discourage anyone from getting the vaccine, she’s simply advocating for more education on the side effects.

“The people who give the vaccine need to be telling people, ‘You’re going to be very sick from this. Potentially,’” Graves said. “I kind of felt misled.”

Both Graves and Ross say better communication could help families and even employers prepare for what’s to come.

“Employers need to be understanding and, fortunately, mine is,” Ross said. “They’re incredible.”

“I think that’s a reasonable message,” Neid said. “It really can limit someone’s ability to work, depending on the person.”

“Warning your employer ahead of time is probably a reasonable thing to do,” Barron said. “You might miss some work.”

Both Barron and Neid say the end game is getting to a place of normalcy.

“The sooner we get a large public health control on the vaccine, the sooner that we start to open up and get back to life as we sort of desire it,” Neid said.

“The key is – it’s worth it. I want to make sure everybody knows that,” Barron said. “Even if you have to take a couple days off work, the fact that you’re protected and adding to the level of protection in society is huge. You know the saying, ‘No pain, no gain.’ And so, hopefully there’s not too much pain, but the gain is definitely there.”

This article was written by Russell Haythorn for KMGH.

Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering