While there are lots of varying opinions and views on the COVID-19 vaccines, for physician assistant Shawnette Proper, getting it was a non-negotiable. Working in the emergency room for New York's largest public hospital (which she has chosen not to disclose), Proper has had a front seat to the devastation brought on by the virus, which has had nearly 18 million reported cases and more than 316,000 deaths at the time of publication, according to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC). "After the last 10 months of seeing people consistently get very very ill from COVID, have long-lasting effects, and have numerous people die, I wanted to do whatever I could," says the medical professional to TZR.
When the first phase of the vaccine was passed by the CDC's advisory committee in December 2020, healthcare workers like Proper and residents of long-term care facilities were the first in line to receive the vaccine, which is currently available for use in two forms, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. The Pfizer vaccine was passed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) on Dec. 11 and essentially "teaches our cells to make a protein that triggers an immune response," says the CDC website. "This immune response, which includes making antibodies, protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies," says the site. While the Moderna vaccine (which was approved by the FDA on Dec. 18) is similar from an operational and execution standpoint to Pfizer, there are some differences in the "structure and makeup," according to an article by CNN.
Here are some important things to note about the COVID vaccines:
- Both vaccines require two shots, to be taken 21 days apart.
- Side effects currently include: pain, swelling, and redness in the location of the shot and chills, fatigue, and headaches for the rest of the body.
- While the vaccines will help prevent you from getting COVID, studies are still being done to determine whether they can help from spreading it to others.
- Although healthcare professionals who are pregnant may choose to get vaccinated, according to the CDC, there are limited data available on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines for people who are pregnant and breastfeeding.
- Because the vaccine can take a few weeks to produce the memory cells that remember to fight the virus in the future, "it is possible that a person could be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 just before or just after vaccination and then get sick because the vaccine did not have enough time to provide protection," says the CDC.
With or without the vaccine, Proper says she's been incredibly diligent from a precautionary standpoint — even prior to the pandemic. "I've been practicing in the emergency department for 17 years and I think, over time, I've seen a lot of infectious disease, and it's made me try to be as meticulous as possible about using infectious disease protocol and things like that," the healthcare worker explains. Proper, who shares a home with her husband and two tortoises, says she works hard in general to keep her immune system boosted by sticking to a plant-based diet and exercising regularly.
Once Proper was first exposed to COVID in March 2020, however, she upped the safety ante even more. "I think none of us really knew at that time exactly what full precautions we should be taking [...] We didn't always know when people were COVID positive or not, so I started taking extra precautions." This included changing her clothes before she left the hospital after a shift, showering and washing her hands frequently, and even distancing herself from friends and loved ones for almost a year. "I actually haven't seen any of my friends, even in New York, or any of my family since February because I didn't want to risk anyone else in case I happened to be an asymptomatic carrier," says Proper, who says she's been tested for COVID antibodies, but none were found.
Getting vaccinated was the last piece of a very important puzzle. "We've been under so much stress and worry over the last several months," Proper says. "I think that underlying anxiety made me want to know as much as I can and understand as much as I can to reassure myself. As soon as I read the scientific literature on the vaccine and understood how it worked, I felt completely comfortable with it and no hesitancy at all [in getting it]."
Those around her, however, had more mixed reactions to her decision. "I think people that were medically knowledgable were happy and very excited," says Proper. "However, I think a lot of people are very wary and feel scared that things moved so quickly." Her family fell into the latter category, expressing skepticism and worry about her experience. "I really think if people would take the time to sort of understand how and why things were able to move so quickly and, from a medical standpoint, the safeness of the vaccine and the good it will do, I think they would feel much more comfortable."
When it came time for her first vaccination, Proper, who received the Pfizer, says there wasn't much to the process. "There really wasn't any prep, it was a matter of [filling out] a standard questionnaire to make sure you weren't already sick — which you have to answer anyway when you enter the building," says the physician assistant, who received the vaccine in the hospital she works for.
The rest of the procedure was pretty quick and painless, and Proper says she experienced no side effects other than a slightly sore arm. "Afterwards, I felt completely normal," she says. "[...] My arm felt similar to when I've gotten the tetanus vaccine, in that my muscle was a little tender, but I was still able to work out and didn't have any difficulty and didn't have any other symptoms."
The relief and peace of mind that's come with Proper's vaccination experience has been a bit more significant. "Even though we don't know the full effects of whether or not I could still carry COVID and transmit it to others, it does give me sense of relief that I won't get sick and not be able to work and not be able to function and do the things I normally do," she says, citing "normal" things like seeing friends and family and enjoying live music as the elements of daily life she's been missing the most. "[Getting the vaccine] does give me a bit of hope in this year of darkness."
Proper's hope extends to those who are still questioning the validity and safety of the vaccines, as well. "I think it's very difficult for people who haven't seen others get sick from COVID or die or have long-term effects to understand how bad this disease is —I can understand how they might not think this is something they would need," says Proper. "But I would hope that they all take the time to listen to medical professionals and scientists who have this first-hand knowledge and sort of try to understand better and get more comfortable with the vaccine."
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support.