Tears streamed down my face as my mom and a nurse held me down on the examination table at my doctor’s office. My 9-year-old self was visibly shaking in fear when my mom told me it was time for my yearly flu shot. I feared any type of pain or anything foreign going into my body. As I squirmed around on that table, I felt as though I was in a life or death situation.
Despite my doctor’s best efforts and countless explanations that the vaccine wouldn’t hurt me, he couldn’t get past my most significant barrier — fear. All of the science and reason couldn’t take away from how looking at that needle and knowing it would be stuck into my body made me feel.
Thankfully, I grew out of my fear of needles. I found a million other things to channel that energy into as someone who’s had severe generalized anxiety disorder my entire life. But my own anxiety disorder aside, that response to the flu vaccine (as dramatic as it was) actually makes sense. We’re programmed not to let foreign objects or organisms into our bodies, which is why so many kids act like I did when they’re told it’s time for a vaccine.
And I say that as someone who has spent the majority of the last five months desperately trying to convince some of the people closest to me to get the COVID-19 vaccine. As a biology nerd, I’d spent months learning about the science and technology of the mRNA Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. I’m not normally a woman of many spoken words, yet whenever any of them brought up not getting the vaccine, I lectured them like a tenured professor.
But despite my best efforts and countless explanations that the vaccine wouldn’t hurt them, I couldn’t get past the most significant barrier for them either — fear.
The Flu Vaccine vs. the COVID-19 Vaccine
As you’ve all probably heard, there was an influenza pandemic from 1918-1919. But I actually can’t compare how the public reacted to influenza vaccines during that pandemic. That’s because they didn’t exist yet.
Technically, scientists created the first influenza vaccine in 1938 for U.S. soldiers during World War II, according to the National Vaccine Information Center. But it didn’t work. Early flu vaccines contained only inactivated influenza virus type A. By 1942, there was a bivalent vaccine containing both influenza type A and influenza type B. Again, it still wasn’t effective.
Thirty years later, in 1976, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed two cases of H1N1, also known as swine flu, in the U.S. (No, you’re not having deja vu — 1976 did swine flu way before 2009). Naturally, influenza vaccine production soared, and the swine flu vaccination program started in October 1976. Within two weeks, the public became concerned when three senior citizens died after receiving the vaccine at the same clinic. By December that year, reports of people becoming paralyzed from Guillain-Barre Syndrome appeared. They had developed symptoms sometime after their swine flu shots. And with that, the government canceled the swine flu vaccination program.
Researchers later discovered that the vaccine didn’t lead to the deaths among those elderly folks. And while Guillain-Barre Syndrome can develop after getting any kind of vaccine, the chances are extremely rare. It’s much much more common to develop Guillain-Barre Syndrome after getting a bacterial or viral infection — not the vaccine that prevents it. The National Health Service conducted a study into the vaccine used during the 2009 swine flu outbreak and found that for every 1 million people who received the vaccine, fewer than two extra cases of the syndrome had appeared.
Sound familiar? From blood clots to infertility, so many different things have circulated the media about COVID-19 vaccines and ways they can hurt you. And while some aren’t rooted in fact (infertility, to name one), it is hard to decipher what’s factual and what isn’t these days. The CDC claims, for example, there isn’t a causal link between COVID-19 vaccines and death. However, the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, as I’m sure you’ve all heard, can cause a rare side effect — blood clots with low platelets, which has caused deaths.
But to give you an idea of how rare this side effect is, 9 million doses of the J&J vaccine have been given in the U.S., and there have only been 28 confirmed reports of people who had this side effect. Ironically, birth control actually causes a higher risk of blood clots than J&J’s vaccine. I mean, much higher. The FDA found that out of every 10,000 women taking birth control pills, three to nine of them will develop a blood clot.
It’s easy to argue that “science is a liar sometimes,” in the wise words of Mac from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Scientists have gotten a lot of things wrong in the past. At different points in history, humans thought draining blood from a sick person would make them better and that the Earth was the center of the universe.
But it’s important to keep in mind that research on top of more research only leads to a better understanding. Plus, scientists and their research are held to insanely high standards, especially today.
And that’s why I, like nearly 157 million other Americans, decided to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
We trusted science.
The First Dose
I’ll keep this part of my vaccination experience short and sweet since that’s exactly how it went. And, really, the credit goes to the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Frisco, which is where I got both of my doses.
On April 13, when I walked into the hospital, I couldn’t believe how well they had streamlined the vaccination process. It unfolded like the drive-thru line at Chick-fil-A. It was the busiest vaccination day in North Texas, but you wouldn’t know it by how fast the process went.
The first line you wait in is to fill out a one-page piece of paperwork at a table. Then, you wait in another line for another table, where a staff member types your information into their computer system. Finally, you jump into the vaccination line. You go to another table, and a nurse gets a Band-Aid ready and sticks you. The shot itself felt like a small pinch.
Then, you’re “held hostage,” as the nurse jokingly told me, for 15 minutes after getting the vaccine to make sure you don’t spontaneously combust (that’s a joke, too). The hospital also had a socially distanced waiting area with chairs.
My left arm was sore at the injection site immediately after receiving it and throughout the next day. It was the same pain and reaction I get every year from the flu shot. Then it went away entirely a couple of days later. That was it.
The Second Dose
I thought I’d set my expectations appropriately when I headed back for my second COVID-19 vaccine dose on May 4. I figured I’d have a sore arm and a few more symptoms, but nothing that would really be noticeable.
“May the 4th be with you,” the nurse at Baylor Scott & White said after giving me my second dose.
Spoiler alert: The force was not with me.
The next morning, I wasn’t dying by any means, but definitely didn’t have the energy to wake up an hour-and-a-half earlier, put on makeup and nice clothes, and drive 45 minutes to the office. I felt fatigued, my head hurt and my muscles were achy. I had a low-grade fever of 99.5.
Most people who get the first dose of Pfizer or Moderna have little to no reaction just like me. But some people who have had COVID-19 have a similar reaction to the first dose that most people don’t have until the second dose. And here lies the answer to why the second dose sucks. (According to the CDC and this SciShow YouTube video that breaks it down).
Think of your innate immune response as a college student who stayed out all night drinking only to wake up the next morning to find out they have an exam. Unprepared, they scramble through the test. Adaptive immunity, on the other hand, is the college student who studied for the test days in advance, went to sleep early the night before and got through the exam with ease.
Those who already had COVID-19 had an innate immune response to it. Now, they have adaptive immunity. Their body has studied the viral protein and knows to square up if they see it. So once they get their first vaccine dose, their innate and adaptive immune responses activate, causing worse and more widespread symptoms.
For people like me who (thank God) haven’t had COVID-19, our bodies experience COVID-19’s spike proteins for the first time during our first vaccine dose. Then, the second shot is when our innate and adaptive responses kick in and make us feel terrible.
But just two days later, I was back to normal.
Why I Got the Vaccine (And You Should, Too)
I don’t blame anyone who reads this if they don’t believe in my logic for getting the vaccine. Some of the closest people in my life still don’t. Obviously, I’m not a scientist (but my friends say I was in another life, if that helps). I do know fear, though.
I know fear and how paralyzing it can be probably better than I know anything else. And know that, even though I am 100% for the COVID-19 vaccine, those fears are valid. The mass vaccination of an entire country is unprecedented. And the idea of getting a vaccine developed in less than a year sounds crazy.
Yet, there’s a reason why people are getting their vaccine, even though it means they may have to (God forbid) take a day off work. The COVID-19 vaccine is about taking steps to end this pandemic that has killed 3.29 million people worldwide, shut down countless businesses and caused mental anguish among many.
Some conservative media outlets (namely, Tucker Carlson) — and some liberal ones, too — have been sensationalizing the dangers of the vaccine. But the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective. Of course, there’s risk. If you’re a woman under the age of 50, for example, you probably want to avoid the J&J COVID-19 vaccine.
Plus, depending on your specific genetic makeup, you may have little or no side effects to the second dose. No one body is the same. A CDC report about COVID-19 vaccination reactions found that women are much more likely to experience side effects. The same goes for younger folks. So, as a 23-year-old woman, I just happened to fit the bill.
And if my anxious ass can do it, you can, too.