Vaccine Hesitancy is Real for People with Allergies

As a nurse and public health practitioner, I understand the devastation the pandemic has caused on my colleagues, their patients and families, and the world at large. I believe wholeheartedly in science, and I am very much pro-vaccine. Still, I am also a person who suffers from several severe allergies, including allergic reactions to the flu vaccine and anaphylactic reactions to shellfish. Heck, because of my allergy to the flu shot I forgo it each year and I am well past my due date for my next Tetnus shot. So it should come as no surprise that I was therefore extremely hesitant to even consider getting the coronavirus vaccine, and I am not alone, I know many others with severe allergies who had the same fears and concerns. But, as a nurse and public health practitioner, I firmly believe it is my job to model good behavior, decrease vaccine hesitancy, and help dissuade the public’s fears.

At the beginning of the pandemic, though, when the vaccines were starting to be developed, I swore I wasn’t going to get it; I told my family and friends to be wary of a vaccine that was being developed so quickly, that we had no idea the safety and efficacy of something that hadn’t been tested longitudinally. “Clinical trials usually take years and years to show they are safe,” I said. “Look at what happened with the drug Thalidomide back in the 50s and 60s; the devastating effects of that drug were not known for years”, I continued. I was voicing any excuse not to get the vaccine based solely on fear, fear of a potential, yet slight, risk of an anaphylactic reaction, and looking for community validation to opt-out of getting it. I have struggled for years with allergies, and in turn, anxiety — never knowing when your body is going to try and kill you really puts you on edge — and makes one at times somewhat irrational.

I reassured myself that it would take a long time for the vaccine to be released and that once it did, I would be on no one’s shortlist to receive it right away anyway. Then, in early February, seemingly out of nowhere, as I was checking my email mindlessly, I was notified that I was eligible to be vaccinated and went into full-on panic mode. I subsequently closed my email and pretended as if it didn’t exist and proceeded to ignore it for a few days. On the other hand, my wife received her notification that same day and, within minutes, had scheduled her appointment for the next day.

As I allowed my panic to subside and my scientific brain to take over though, I began talking to colleagues and friends who also had severe allergies and who had gotten the COVID vaccine with no problems. I spoke with my allergist, which turned out to be a mistake in hindsight because they ran through the list of what could potentially cause a reaction, what would happen, and how I could attempt to mitigate it, making me more concerned, not less. I also did my own research, reading articles about the development of the vaccines. The research reassured me that these vaccines were developed safely and that over 200 years of vaccine development and science, along with committed partnerships between researchers, pharmaceutical companies, and the federal government, propelled us to where we are today, inoculating the public with a new vaccine much quicker than we ever have before. In the end, I decided I needed to feel the fear and do it anyway, and scheduled my vaccination for the following weekend.

All that reassuring research did nothing to quell my worry however, and for the week leading up to my vaccination appointment, it was all I could think about — I was an anxious wreck; I couldn’t sleep and was in a state of panic while awake. On the morning of the vaccination, I almost canceled, fight or flight in full effect, but I knew I couldn’t. The vaccine is bigger than just me; the vaccine protects my family and protects the community. So, with a strong support system in tow on an early Saturday morning, I made my way to my appointment full of Benadryl (dose #1). My wife drove me and waited outside; my sister, a first responder, came in and stayed with me the entire time, with my mother texting incessantly to see how I was doing and making sure I was ok.

Standing in the line leading up to the shot, I felt like a cow being led to slaughter. Honestly, I still don’t know how I made myself do it, but taking a lot of masked deep breaths and more Benadryl (dose #2) to calm my nerves and protect me against a potential reaction, I got the vaccine. Immediately after the shot, I was so afraid my brain would make it feel like I was having a reaction even if I wasn’t — which it did a little, but I was able to talk my brain down and get through it with the help of Benadryl dose #3 as well as puppy images and videos on Instagram. As my sister so kindly Tweeted while we waited the prescribed 30 minutes post-shot, “As much as I’ve wanted to stab her [@marionleary] w something over the years, it’s not going to be today cause she’s gonna be just fine!” And I was.

Jen Leary’s Twitter page with image of Marion Leary and Jen Leary. Caption: “As much as I’ve wanted to stab her with something over the years it’s not going to be today cause she’s gonna be just fine!”
Shot #1

Because I received the Moderna vaccine, I had to go through that anxiety anguish again — the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine was literally approved the afternoon after I got my first dose of Moderna, go figure! With four weeks between the first shot and the second shot, I had plenty of time for my anxiety brain to go full out again, but with a successful first shot, I was able to control it much more, fight or flight be damned.

Then on another early Saturday morning, with my support system in tow once more, I got the second shot. I did the same routine as last time, three doses of Benadryl consumed in the same order; I figured why jinx it, it worked the first time, it couldn’t hurt the second time. Interestingly, I had less anxiety leading up to the second shot but had much more anxiety for hours afterward. And then of course, as has been noted with the Moderna vaccine especially, I experienced the joys of the body doing its job and producing the antibodies needed to fight off COVID— I had a fever, chills, and was extremely achy and sore for about 36 hours. On the second morning post-vaccine, I was completely fine. No harm, no foul, fully vaccinated!

Marion’s Twitter post with Marion Leary and Jen Leary standing outside of the TLA Penn Medicine COVID19 Vaccine sign. Second shot.
Shot #2

To date, there has not been a prospective study examining the rate of allergic reactions to any of the COVID vaccines, though one is currently in the works. Retrospectively, the rate of anaphylactic reactions is low, with the CDC reporting a rate of 11.1 per million doses administered for the Pfizer vaccine, and the Moderna vaccine fairing even better, with a rate of 2.5 per million doses (glad I got Moderna!). There are no known fatalities in either group. Therefore, providers are encouraging people with allergies to get vaccinated, unless you’ve had a severe reaction to the first shot, then you should skip the second one.

Recently someone asked how it felt to have gotten the vaccine, and I described it in this way, “it’s like marriage, it shouldn’t feel any different, but it does.” I am glad I felt the fear and did it anyway; I am glad I listened to science and people smarter than me, and I am sure glad I didn’t have an allergic reaction, as this will only help my allergy-anxiety brain in the future as more boosters and vaccines are needed.

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Marion Leary

Science geek. Passionate abt Philly, resuscitation, social media, scicomm, innovation, art, & helping others. http://marionleary.strikingly.com