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Local medical workers welcome availability of COVID-19 vaccine

Corrected and updated Jan. 14, 2021

Harvard residents who recently received a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine reported that the process was efficient, side effects were mild, and they hope to get it to their children and family members as soon as possible.

Suzie Allen, a pediatric nurse practitioner at UMass Children’s Medical Center, got her first dose of the vaccine on Jan. 6. “It was super quick and super easy,” she said. “The whole thing probably took less than 20 minutes.”

When the vaccine first became available, Allen had questions about its safety, given the rapid rollout process. Before UMass employees could receive a dose of the vaccine, though, they were given a fact sheet explaining the ingredients and risks, and linking to further resources.

According to the fact sheet, the vaccine consists of three main components. One part, mRNA, replicates part of the spike protein of the coronavirus; this is the ingredient that teaches the body to build an immune response and will break down naturally inside the body after a few days. Then there are lipid bubbles that protect the mRNA. Finally, both the mRNA and lipid bubbles are immersed in a saline solution that replicates the body’s natural state to minimize discomfort when it is administered.

Knowing this, Allen felt comfortable being one of the first in line. “It’s less ingredients than most people get in grocery store bread,” she explained.

Now, her only regret is that more people aren’t able to get vaccinated sooner. She is worried about her parents and people in high-risk populations. “It just makes me sad that it couldn’t also roll out to more people all at once. … As soon as you see how valuable and safe it is you just want everybody to have it.”

Dana Oliver, a pediatric nurse practitioner at an outpatient practice in Fitchburg, had a similar experience. She got her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 20 and the second on Jan. 13. She said the process was smooth each time and that she and her colleagues had been looking forward to getting it for a while. “It was a completely positive experience. We were excited it was available, easy to schedule, easy to get, none of my colleagues have had any problems with it and [it] really left us with a sense of optimism.”

Her only symptom following the injection was a sore arm, which she said was milder than the soreness she experienced after getting a flu shot.

Her confidence in the safety of the vaccine stems from trust in the system that produced and approved it. Despite an expedited testing process, she believes that the steps taken to ensure the safety of the vaccine were properly rigorous and that the risk of getting COVID-19 looms greater than any associated with vaccination.

She too is left wishing only that her mother could also get vaccinated at this stage, and said she feels hopeful for the first time in a while. “It’s been such a grind and so hard for so long. It was really nice to have that little sparkle of what turning the corner might look like.”

Hugh Silk, medical director of a primary care center in Leominster and a professor at both UMass Medical School and Harvard School of Dental Medicine, got his first dose on Jan. 8. He had recently gotten a shingles vaccine that made him feel sick for a day or so afterward, so he wondered if he would have a similar reaction to the COVID-19 vaccination.

Risk low, alternative scarier

Regardless, Silk was confident that the risk was low, noting that the alternative felt much scarier. “You see 30- and 40-year-olds dying [from COVID-19] at times. I certainly didn’t want to chance that versus the small, small risks of [getting] the vaccine.”

Like Allen and Oliver, Silk ended up having no side effects from his first dose beside a mildly sore arm.

After getting vaccinated, people are given a QR code that invites them to sign up for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s post-vaccine health check program, v-safe. The service is voluntary, but those who sign up receive surveys and check-ins via text message to help them report symptoms or a lack thereof. It also reminds people when to get their second shot, which everyone who spoke with the Press said they scheduled before receiving their first dose.

Allen signed up for v-safe and said she appreciates what the service represents. “It seems to indicate that they are really tracking how people are feeling on a very wide basis,” she explained. “The study of the effects of the vaccine didn’t end when the Pfizer and Moderna trials ended. They are still following people and finding out how people are doing.”

Allen and Silk both said that they plan to get their children vaccinated once the vaccine becomes available to a wider audience.

All three medical professionals said they aren’t alone in their trust of the vaccine’s safety. Silk hasn’t heard of any of his colleagues declining their doses, and he often has patients ask him when they will be able to get theirs. “I get a lot of people who say they don’t want the flu shot every year. I get very few people who turn down the tetanus shot. I haven’t talked to a patient yet who said they don’t want this shot.”

Fernando Catalina, a pediatrics specialist who practices in Leominster and received a dose of the vaccine in late December, said he knows a few nurses who declined their dose due to safety concerns, but disagrees with their hesitancy. “People who are worried about the safety of the vaccine need to be more concerned about the health risks of getting COVID-19,” he wrote in an email to the Press.

Catalina pointed to research published by the CDC that warns of long-term damage that even mild cases of the coronavirus can leave behind. “Anyone infected by COVID-19, even patients who are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic are at increased risk for heart, lung, and brain problems in the future,” he wrote.

Silk says getting vaccinated is worth any risk it may pose since each individual’s decision has an impact on others in their community. “We have to think really strongly about any reservations we have about the vaccine. What about our fellow neighbor who is completely isolated or who has lost their job? If we all take the slight risk of a vaccine, to offset this extreme life we’re living, to me that seems worth it.”

“I hope people will really embrace this,” he added. “I hear the backlash in the community about long-term safety, but I think the alternative is very, very concerning.”

Editor's note: This article has been corrected and updated. The original article stated that Allen’s son was participating in a trial at the UMass Medical School. That was incorrect and we have removed that information.

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