In early December of last year, Margaret Keenan, 91, a Northern Irish woman living in Coventry, received her first dose of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination, making her the first in the world. On the same day, a nurse in Edinburgh became the first Scot to receive the Pfizer vaccine too. And, so began the roll out of the vaccines with Pfizer being the first adminstered in the world followed by Moderna and Oxford Astrazenca. Slowly, but surely, and steadily gaining momentum, the vaccines are making their way down the ages, underlying conditions, and professions. I was lucky enough to be in the first roll out, because I work in social care, and so provide direct care in my line of work.
I was vaccinated on January 20th of this year and my second dose should be at the start of April. It’s been nearly a month since my first dose.
But, first, a bit of background on the particular vaccine I received.
As I was in the first roll out, I received the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine. This is a COVID-19 vaccine developed by scientists funded by the pharmaceutical companies: BioNTech, Pfizer, and Fosun Pharma. It was developed in less than a year due to the immense funding that went into the vaccine development and the abundance of infectious diseases/vaccine technology already going on in the background. This is especially true with the type of vaccine I received, which was a mRNA vaccine. mRNA stands for messenger ribonucleic acid. Ribonucleic acid, or RNA, is a single stranded molecule rather than the double stranded counterpart that we know as DNA. Similar to DNA, RNA deals with genetic expression. And, concerning the vaccine, RNA has a responsibility for sensing and communicating responses to signals within the cells.
As basically as I can put it, when COVID began to circulate around China and beyond, scientists there disseminated the genome sequence (the genes) of the virus, which allowed scientists from around the world to identify the virus’ RNA. When the virus comes in contact with a person, it sends its RNA into the cells of the body and will tell these cells how to make copies of the virus. These will multiply and multiply and there we have it: the virus has infected you. So, by understanding COVID’s RNA, scientists can then understand and isolate the part of the RNA that attaches to the body’s cells. These are called spikes and by isolating these spikes, a vaccine can be developed to teach the body how to replicate them. This is why the m in mRNA stands for messenger as it provides the message of the spike to the body of the spike. Once exposed to the spikes, your body will replicate them and train the immune system for future exposures to the virus. The amazing thing is: this is only a fragment of the virus responsible so it is not possible for your body to develop the virus as it hasn’t been exposed to the full pathogen.
Just to clarify, in case you have just read that and thought whaaaa? I am not an immunologist, or a scientist full stop, so I don’t blame you. However, what I am here to do is to provide you with a lived experience of someone receiving the Pfizer BioNTech Vaccine, so you have a better understanding of what to expect when your appointment date arrives.
Now, this is one person’s experience. Everyone is different and everyone reacts differently. I am a white female who is relatively fit and healthy. I have asthma, for which I am prescribed two inhalers. I have anxiety, for which I am prescribed sertraline. I used to have an eating disorder, which left me with some lasting physical damage such as increased acid reflux. I was also twenty five years old at the time I received the Pfizer vaccine and am still twenty five at the time of this post. I work in the community as a recovery worker in a supported living service, and am therefore more at risk of covid-19 exposure.
So, there’s my general disclaimer on my health and characteristics.
As mentioned above, I work in social care in Lanarkshire, and, within my role, I provide direct care and support, as I work in peoples’ homes. Consequently, this can involve personal care. Therefore, I was eligible to be in the first roll-out. I was notified by my employer to book online, in a similar fashion to how I booked my flu jab. The general public are provided with letters, giving them their appointment time and location. However, I booked for my vaccination online on the NHS-based provider, Salus. Salus is used to provide occupational health, safety, and return to work services. One of their main port of calls is organising the scheduling of vaccinations among the health and social care population.
I’m going to be honest, this was probably the most stressful bit of the entire vaccination process. And, this was solely due to the influx of visitors to the website, as you can imagine. Appointments were disappearing within seconds. The site was crashing and I got to wait in an online queue. As soon as appointments were released, they were gone. Everyone wanted their vaccine. So, it was an unfortunate issue yet one that couldn’t be helped. Health and Social Care Lanarkshire and Salus released vaccine appointments daily at a certain time with the aim of having us vaccinated with the first dose within a few weeks. Eventually, I got my appointment and booked my second appointment at the same time; scheduled 12 weeks later. I was given a text message with a reminder of the date and location of my appointment, and the station I was to go to. Which I appreciated, as the whole process of booking went by in a blur, as I was so flustered in snapping up an appointment, that I completely forgot everything.
When I missed the first set of appointments and then the second, I thought that I would be waiting weeks for a potential appointment, but thankfully the quick turnaround of adding more dates to the array of Lanarkshire venues meant I only had to wait a week. Before I knew it, the date of my appointment was upon me, and I was waiting anxiously in my car outside a local community centre, watching the time tick on.
I waited until a few minutes before my actual appointment, as I didn’t want to crowd the waiting room unnecessarily, especially with current covid-19 restrictions and the new variant going around the UK. As with everywhere, I was required to wear a mask. I am very used to wearing one now, so it was no issue to me. I entered the community centre, and then spoke to a healthcare worker who instructed me to sit in the waiting room until I was called in. But, before I even sat myself down, the worker returned and asked me to head to my allocated station.
My vaccination was given by a nurse. She wore the correct PPE and I sat across from her, as she prepared a bundle of paperwork for me to take away: a booklet with detailed information on the vaccine, and then a further two booklets on what to expect after. However, to ensure I fully understood, she ran through everything with me. I confirmed I was going to be given the Pfizer vaccine to which the nurse further confirmed that I would also receive Pfizer for my second dose. This was likely due to the misinformation of people receiving the Pfizer vaccine for their first dose and then the Oxford Astrazenca vaccine for the second dose. She then provided a screening assessment. This is standard practice, particularly due to it being a new vaccine. I was taken through questions about any allergies, types of allergic reactions, medications I was on, pregnancy and breastfeeding status… This was to ensure I was suitable, as there has been anecdotal evidence of two people going into anaphylactic shock and requiring their EpiPen. There has also been no evidence on the vaccine’s effect on pregnant or breastfeeding women due to none being knowingly tested in the clinical trials. Although frustrating for those in these current situations, this is a response you want from the NHS and healthcare providers, as this shows they are following and working with the science. No evidence = no vaccine. You are being given a tried and tested vaccine, not participating in a clinical trial. Your health is being put first.
In fact, as I am writing this, they have begun trialling it on consenting pregnant women. See, science moves fast.
Anyway, my only allergy was penicillin and I didn’t go into anaphylactic shock when the allergy was first discovered. And I’m not pregnant, or breastfeeding for that matter, so I was eligible. I also didn’t have COVID at the time, nor did I have it in the previous four weeks. This would have also ruled me out. First part done!
Next, the nurse ran through common side effects following the vaccine. They were all completely what I expected them to be. Most vaccines make you feel a bit unwell, because your body is building up its immune system, as I explained above.
In the next 48 hours, I could expect a sore arm at the site of the injection. I may also have a slight fever, sore throat, some fatigue, and just feeling generally rubbish. So, exactly like the side effects of the flu vaccine I receive annually. The nurse further explained that should I have any of these side effects appear after 48 hours then it was likely not to be the vaccine, but instead potentially symptoms of COVID-19 that have developed. If that was the case, I would follow the standard practice of: test, results, and self-isolate if positive.
And, just like that, I was asked my preferred arm, which was my left, and the vaccine was prepared in front of me. It was a small needle, similar to the needle used for the flu jab. The nurse came around to my left side and, one sharp scratch later, I had received my first COVID-19 vaccination. She then asked if my second appointment had been booked, which it had, but I had forgotten what the date was due to my frantic attempts at selecting a time. She was empathetic of this, and quickly searched up the location to give me the date. I was told I would also receive a text closer to the time should I forget. We shared some brief conversation, and then I was back out in the waiting room.
Now, booking the vaccine was the most stressful part. However, this bit here was the most painful. I had to wait fifteen minutes in the waiting room with nothing to entertain me as there was no mobile signal or good 4G in the building. The agony.
Every person, after their vaccine, is required to wait fifteen minutes in the vicinity and are monitored by a nurse or other healthcare provider. So began me checking my phone every ten seconds because I thought five minutes would have passed. I began to count the tiles on the floor, and then wished for a four year old OK! magazine to flick through, but then realised that was likely COVID contamination central. As people left, the person monitoring us would sanitise the seats thoroughly. Periodically, she would check the people still waiting were okay and reminded us to alert someone if that changed. At one point, I had leaned forward to rest my chin on my hands, and my face was thick with boredom, so this prompted the person to ask me if I was feeling okay and well. In all fairness, it probably looked like I was in the process of passing out or falling ill. Fortunately, I was fine, and just had a naturally bored and annoyed face. But, it did comfort me that she was attentive to little changes in our posture.
Fifteen minutes were up. Or maybe fourteen minutes and thirty two seconds, but I’m sure it took me more than 30 seconds to walk out of the community centre. So, I did wait for fifteen minutes … more or less. I was feeling well with a slight bit of tenderness in my arm. Expected.
The rest of the day went by without a hitch. I was able to eat all my meals as normal. I did some athletics training. No issues arose.
The next morning I woke up to a real ache in my left arm. I couldn’t lean on that side, but it was very apparent I had made this so because I had been sleeping on that side of most of the night. In all honesty, it felt like someone had punched my arm or I had serious DOMS after an arm workout. I felt the injection site and there was some hardness where it had swollen. I asked my dad to see if there was any significant difference between my arms. There wasn’t. He could see some swelling on my left upper arm, but nothing of concern. This is actually normal. As mentioned, your body has been injected with a protein fragment so your body will begin to build an immune response. So, that swelling and pain is your body doing its job. It’s fighting off the fragment. Your arm is the first bit that meets the vaccine. Of course, it’s going to be inflamed and sore. Think about a broken leg or an infected piece of skin. It might swell or become more inflamed, as this is the outwardly physical appearance of a defence system at work.
I went about my day, feeling sore in the arm, and sorry for myself. It ached to change gears when I drove and I couldn’t really lean on that side. However, I had this ache corroborated by my colleagues who experienced similar after effects, which confirmed it wasn’t concerning. Toward the end of the day, the pain began to subside, and, by the next day, it was gone.
In terms of side effects in general, I only experienced arm pain and some tiredness. I’m always tired, though, so this wasn’t out of the ordinary. I know of people who had a slight fever such as my mum. Some people had a slightly sore throat. But the most common after effect was a sore injection site for a day or two.
I’m now a month post-first COVID vaccine, and I’ve experienced no concerning symptoms/side effects, or any side effects/symptoms in general. They are now making their way through the third roll out of vaccine recipients and there are now people getting their second dose. I’ve got another two months until my second dose. I’m excited for it. Anything that can protect myself and the people around me. Anything that will get a cafe back open so I can sit and have a good coffee. Anything that will loosen restrictions and I can really use my first year of being a licensed driver to drive for more than work and food shopping.
I know a lot of people have different opinions, and I know right now information is conflicting, particularly with trolls, anti-lockdown activists, and anti-vaxxers. But, right now, I am following the science. It was the science that found the genome sequence so quickly. It was science that had an bountiful stock of fantastic evidence and information on vaccine technology, which allowed for the vaccine to appear so quickly. The mRNA vaccine was already in the works, before covid-19 existed in human populations, so it wasn’t as if it was pulled out of thin air.
This was one person’s experience, but it may reflect the experience of many. Vaccines are very important and have been the ruin of so many infectious diseases. If it weren’t for vaccines, we would still be living with high and quite literally viral numbers of smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, polio… In fact, we’ve even got a vaccine for the plague! Being vaccinated is essential to my work as I support so many vulnerable people, and, not only that, I have many vulnerable people within my immediate family, and I am also vulnerable with asthma.
Please take the vaccine when you’re offered it.
For more information on COVID-19, please check out these resources.