With more than 1.4 million COVID-19 doses administered in the state so far, there are now plenty of Hawaii residents who have experiences to share about their side effects.
While no two stories are exactly the same, they are now swapped among friends, family and acquaintances as a shared experience during this global pandemic.
“Most aren’t bad,” said Dr. Tarquin Collis, chief of infectious disease at Kaiser Permanente Hawaii. “We don’t see that much after your first shot. Maybe a sore arm, some fatigue, and some folks have a little bit of a headache. … Most reactions are going to come after your second shot.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the most common side effects as headache; fatigue; pain, redness and swelling on the arm receiving the shot; as well as muscle pain and chills. Fever and nausea are also possible.
Side effects will vary widely from person to person, according to Collis, depending on factors like age, gender and genetics.
Some might report little to no side effects while others report symptoms similar to a mild flu, mostly within one to two days after receiving the shots.
“Most of the best vaccines we have on infectious diseases, in general, do carry side effects with them because that’s when your immune system kicks in,” he said. “You feel it.”
Elementary school teacher Mariel Santos, 25, had fewer side effects after her first Pfizer shot at the Pier 2 Vaccination Center and was bracing for more severe ones after the second one.
After the first Pfizer shot, she just felt a little pain where she got the vaccine.
When she got home later that day, however, she felt as if someone had punched her in the arm, and was feeling tired.
“The best way I could describe it is like I took Nyquil and Dayquil at the same time,” she said. “There was that Nyquil feeling of drowsiness, and there’s a specific feeling when I have Dayquil, when it keeps you awake but makes you feel medicated.”
As a teacher, Santos was able to get the shot early, in January, followed by the second in February.
She was bracing for more effects from the second shot, after having heard stories from other teachers, and was prepared to be out of commission the following day.
On the day of the shot, she had no symptoms, but the following day they kicked in.
“The second day it hit me like a wave,” she said. “I just kind of remember being in bed with chills. I couldn’t eat. But it was just that night that I was a little miserable, and that was it.”
Getting the vaccine was a relief, she said, and she feels safer from getting infected now, particularly on the job, and in keeping her household safe from COVID-19.
“If doctors and science recommends getting another booster — just like the flu shot — I definitely would,” she said.
Barbara Whitaker, 81, was fortunate to have practically no symptoms at all.
Whitaker said she is not a fan of needles and has a particularly painful memory of shingles vaccines.
But she barely felt the needle for the Pfizer vaccine, which she received at Adventist Health Castle in Kailua. Overall, it was a positive experience.
“It was done, and I thought I’ll just take a nap,” she said. “It was just no big deal to me.”
She did, indeed, take an afternoon nap, and had no side effects after the first dose or the second dose three weeks later. She was surprised there were no lines when she went in for the second one.
“It lifted my spirits,” she said. “It just gave me hope for normalcy.”
Whitaker, who was adventurous enough to go skydiving last year, is looking forward to traveling again and visiting her grandkids and great-grandkids on the mainland.
Stan Goosby, a federal scientist, said that in retrospect he probably should have asked a friend to drive him to his vaccine appointments.
Goosby, 68, felt side effects immediately after both the first and second doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
After the first shot at The Queen’s Medical Center in February, he went straight home.
“I went to sleep, and then when I got up a few hours later, I was actually a little dizzy,” he said.
He felt the onset of symptoms, including a runny nose, and went back to sleep. He woke up eight hours later, feeling completely wiped out, and also experienced chills.
The second dose of the vaccine left him with extreme fatigue — but no other side effects — and he took some time off from work.
“The real fatigue and exhaustion came after the second one,” he said.
Goosby said his niece and her husband in California both got COVID-19, and she told him it was not an experience he would want to have — advice he took to heart.
“I don’t have any regrets about taking it,” he said. “You still have to be mindful of the side effects compared to the possibility of catching COVID and the long-haul symptoms.”
The state Department of Health did not have statistics specific to Hawaii to share.
Nationally, health care providers are required by law to report certain adverse side effects to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS. The system accepts all reports, even if it is not clear the vaccine caused the problem.
In rare cases, according to the CDC, some people might experience a severe allergic reaction and fainting after a COVID-19 vaccine.
This is why clinics ask vaccine recipients to stay for observation 15 to 30 minutes following the shots. CDC said vaccination providers have medicines to immediately treat patients who faint after a vaccination.
Generally, side effects are more common in younger people than seniors, who have a less vigorous immune response, said Collis. Women also tend to have a stronger immune response than men.
Swollen lymph nodes are another possible side effect and can last for weeks. For this reason, anyone with a mammogram as well as head or neck screening is advised to reschedule them following a COVID-19 vaccine.
There is another rare side effect known as “COVID arm,” in which redness, itchiness and swelling occur at the site of a vaccine shot about a week later and eventually go away.
When side effects last more than a few days, according to Collis, do not respond well to acetaminophen or might be something other than a vaccine reaction, then it’s a good idea to call the doctor.
Collis warned that an individual can still catch COVID- 19 between the first and second doses of the vaccine, so it is important to remain vigilant after the first dose.
To be clear, the vaccine does not give anyone the virus or a false positive in a COVID-19 test, he said.
Also, it’s important to get that second dose.
A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and two weeks after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
As for the J&J vaccine, which federal authorities paused briefly last month after six cases of blood clots in women ages 18 to 48 before allowing them to resume, it’s important to pay attention to certain symptoms.
If a headache is severe six to 15 days after a J&J vaccine and keeps getting worse, Collis said, or there is any leg or abdominal pain, then it’s a good idea to call your doctor.
On the flip side, Collis said, not having side effects does not necessarily mean the vaccine isn’t working.
Due to expected side effects, some companies, including Target and Walmart, are offering their employees two hours of paid time for each dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, plus three days of paid sick leave for side effects.
“Even at its worst, which isn’t very common, these side effects are very modest compared to COVID itself,” said Collis, whose team diagnosed the first two cases in the state. “You’re doing yourself a great favor even if you’re feeling a little lousy for a few days. You’ve prevented your body from having to deal with the real thing.”
WHAT TO KNOW
>> It’s a good idea to stay hydrated.
>> Talk to your doctor about taking over-the-counter medicine like acetaminophen to relieve post- vaccination side effects (not recommended beforehand, however).
>> You might have swollen lymph nodes as a side effect. If you have a head, neck screening or mammogram appointment coming up, it’s a good idea to postpone it after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine shot.
>> Side effects might affect your ability to do daily activities but should go away in a few days.
>> You can tell the CDC about side effects, with personalized check-ins, after the COVID-19 vaccine via v-safe on your smartphone.
Source: CDC, Dr. Tarquin Collis