The only known severe allergic reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States occurred in Juneau this week, and public-health officials are hoping Alaskans take the rareness of the event into consideration as they think about getting vaccinated.
The hospital worker was released Thursday, after a two-night stay at Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau. She and another worker at the hospital both experienced adverse reactions after receiving the vaccine this week. The second worker was briefly treated for a mild reaction at the hospital Wednesday afternoon and released after about an hour.
“We’re definitely hearing some reports of vaccine hesitancy because of it,” Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said about the events in Juneau.
But many Americans were safely vaccinated with the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine this week, Zink told reporters Thursday. And even among people who have heard about the reaction, there are many who are still extremely enthusiastic about getting a dose of the vaccine. Zink described watching a stream of workers get vaccinated one after another with no issues.
“It’s easy to see these things in the news or hear about this one case and generalize it in our minds,” Zink said.
Zink said it’s important to share what happens as the vaccines are given, whether there are adverse reactions or not, to help the public make informed decisions about their own vaccinations.
The state is investigating the incidents, along with the Juneau hospital, Pfizer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Zink said. They’re looking at factors like whether there was a problem with the particular shipment or if the reactions were specific to the vaccine itself, she said.
“We don’t have an answer yet,” Zink said.
Bartlett Regional Hospital is continuing to vaccinate staff as they had originally planned, spokeswoman Kathryn Bausler said Thursday.
“It’s really important to let people know that the mood here at Bartlett is that we are very confident in this vaccine, still confident in our process,” Charlee Gribbon, infection preventionist at the Juneau hospital said Thursday.
While there was some initial concern that the hospital might need to hold back some vials for investigators, Gribbon said they were encouraged to just keep vaccinating.
A few workers canceled their appointments, she said. But they haven’t indicated they do not want the vaccine, rather they’d like some more time before getting it.
In total, two staff members who received vaccinations at the Juneau hospital this week needed emergency treatment afterward. A female staff member experienced a serious but rare allergic reaction and was hospitalized for two nights.
The worker, said “she felt like she was running a marathon and couldn’t catch her breath,” during the reaction, Gribbon said.
“She adamantly continues to encourage her colleagues to go through with getting this vaccine,” Gribbon said.
A second staff member on Wednesday showed symptoms of a mild reaction after getting the vaccine and was taken to the hospital’s emergency department for treatment, hospital officials said. The reaction wasn’t considered anaphylaxis, hospital officials said. After about an hour, he was released and “felt completely back to normal.”
Both staff members were said to be hopeful that their adverse reactions would not have a negative impact on fellow health care workers who are set to get the vaccine this week.
Neither of the two workers had a history of adverse reactions from an injection, Zink said.
It’s important to contrast the rare, single, severe allergic reaction that occurred among the hundreds of thousands of safely administered vaccines with the surging pandemic and the thousands of Americans who die every day, Alaska’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Joe McLaughlin, told reporters Thursday.
“If you just look at the big picture, the vaccination makes such great sense,” McLaughlin said.
And any vaccine comes with side effects, which is why the vaccines go through so many trials in the first place, Dr. Tom Hennessy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and affiliate faculty member at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said Thursday. While tens of thousands of people were enrolled in the Pfizer trial, that’s only a fraction of the millions who are getting ready for vaccination in the U.S. right now.
“As you expand the vaccine and give it to many more people, rare events can come to light more,” Hennessy said.
It’s part of the process for a vaccine rollout. And that’s why there is so much monitoring built into the effort. Hennessy said detecting these events and telling the public about them shows the system is working.
“Should it shake the public’s confidence? No, I don’t think it should,” Hennessy said.
Plus, the vaccines are extremely effective, he said. Risking a sore arm as a means of preventing a coronavirus infection that could come with lasting lifelong consequences is just worth it, Hennessy said.
The vaccine, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, should be administered somewhere with supplies for a possible severe allergic reaction, according to Dr. Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases. A history of severe allergic reactions shouldn’t necessarily preclude someone from receiving the vaccine, but they should be monitored for 30 minutes after vaccination instead of the standard 15, Butler said.
COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Alaska early this week and have been touted as the most important step toward the potential end of a pandemic that has wreaked devastating consequences on individuals, families and communities across the nation.