Five Alaska health care workers experienced adverse reactions after getting the COVID-19 vaccine this week — including two cases that were considered serious — but health officials continue to emphasize that such reactions are both rare and treatable while the vast majority of vaccine recipients were fine.
A Fairbanks health care worker was treated for a “probable” serious allergic reaction on Thursday after she received the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Foundation Health Partners care system.
Additionally, on Friday evening, Providence Alaska reported that two caregivers who received the COVID-19 vaccine experienced non-life-threatening, mild reactions. Those incidents follow reactions experienced by two Bartlett Regional Hospital employees in Juneau — one serious and one mild — after they were vaccinated earlier in the week.
Nationally by Friday night, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had identified six cases of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, according to presentation materials from federal health officials. Those cases included one person who had a history of anaphylactic reaction after a rabies vaccine, according to the CDC, which said that more than 270,000 vaccinations had been administered by Saturday morning.
The six anaphylaxis cases reported nationally included the health workers in Juneau and Fairbanks who had serious reactions, state health department spokesman Clinton Bennett said in an email Saturday.
Bennett wrote that officials do not believe shipment of the vaccines to Alaska played a role in the incidents but “everything” is under consideration as they investigate. Alaska is not changing its vaccination plans at this time, he wrote.
The best-investigated case of a severe allergic reaction occurred in Alaska but the reactions have been reported in multiple states, said Dr. Peter Marks, who directs the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, on a call with reporters Friday. He said federal officials from both the CDC and the FDA will continue monitoring the events.
“It’s difficult to talk about them with any kind of good certainty until we have more information about them,” Marks said.
Marks said health officials will be looking at what ingredients in the vaccines may have caused the reactions. He speculated that one component — polyethylene glycol — has been uncommonly associated with allergic reactions, but that they do not yet know exactly what occurred.
Providence Alaska spokesman Mikal Canfield said that due to privacy laws, they could not provide additional information on the two employees who experienced the reactions, as reported Friday.
But the three other health workers who experienced reactions to the vaccine all are doing well. None are still hospitalized, and the three workers have recommended that others continue to receive the vaccination, which is expected to be one of the most important tools in ending the pandemic, officials say.
The Fairbanks worker started to show what hospital officials described as “traditional anaphylactic symptoms,” including tongue swelling, voice hoarseness and difficulty breathing, roughly 10 minutes after getting vaccinated, Foundation Health Partners spokeswoman Kelly Atlee wrote in an emailed statement Friday morning.
She was taken to the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital emergency department and treated with epinephrine before being discharged six hours later. The worker does not have a history of allergies, but did have a reaction to a bee sting that was not confirmed as an allergic reaction, Atlee said. Thursday was the first anaphylactic event that the worker experienced.
Despite her reaction, the employee, who officials said prefers to maintain her privacy, still recommends people get vaccinated.
“I would get the vaccine and recommend it to anyone, despite my reaction, to help our country get immunized which is needed for the health of all Americans, for the economy, get families hugging again, for getting children back to schools, and to get the country on the other side of this pandemic,” she wrote. “I’ve seen firsthand the suffering and death of COVID patients, and my adverse reaction to the vaccine pales to what COVID infection can do to people.”
The vaccine has been safely administered to thousands of Americans nationwide — as well as hundreds of Alaskans — this week. Health officials have emphasized that allergic reactions are incredibly rare and treatable, and that those administering vaccines are prepared for them.
Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said that she hopes people put the events into a greater context. She received her first dose of the vaccine Friday at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, where she practices emergency medicine.
COVID-19 is a “wild card” while a rare, adverse reaction to the vaccine is both treatable and manageable.
“Being exposed to this virus, it’s kind of like playing Russian roulette,” Zink said. “You might be fine, but you might really not be fine.”
Plus, she noted while waiting the specified 15 minutes after her vaccination, allergic reactions can happen in response to various triggers, from antibiotics to injections. The reactions are what she calls “bread and butter emergency medicine” in terms of treatment and response.
That’s why officials are making sure that those who give the vaccines are able to deal with such a reaction. While the state is still getting vaccines out, she said they’re responding to the new information. She noted that the CDC’s interim vaccine guidance now has a guide for what supplies are needed on hand in case of a serious allergic reaction — a change since the first adverse reaction in Juneau, Zink said.
“As (the vaccine) is being flown out to many of our really rural communities, they are going out with plenty of that medication,” Zink said.
Alaska officials met with the CDC on Friday to discuss in detail what occurred, she said.
The vaccine, developed by drugmakers Pfizer and BioNTech, showed no serious allergic reactions in clinical trials, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people with a history of serious allergic reactions discuss getting the vaccine with their doctor.
“Allergic reactions, though uncommon, can occur with injections of medications and vaccines,” Foundation Health Partners chief medical officer Dr. Angelique Ramirez said in a prepared statement Friday. “This is why our staff is trained and prepared to respond to any symptoms of anaphylaxis. Our employee is doing well and was able to go home yesterday.”
Foundation Health Partners, which operates Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, Tanana Valley Clinic and the Denali Center, is working with the Alaska health department and the CDC to provide details of the woman’s reaction.
Jenny Mayo, infection prevention coordinator at Alaska Regional Hospital, encouraged those who may be more hesitant to get the vaccine to talk about it more and noted that the number of people with reactions compared with the total number of people vaccinated is quite small.
“Each of us has to be comfortable with the decisions we make around risk,” Mayo said.
Mayo, who also got vaccinated recently, said she’s been participating in a daily check-in with the CDC and that as more people who participate in the CDC’s monitoring, there will be so much more known about reactions and experiences with it.
“That’s going to really improve safety and efficacy going forward,” Mayo said. “And so from this point on, there’s just going to be more and more information available for people to make their decisions and my hope is that it makes them more and more comfortable.”
In an emailed statement, a representative from Pfizer wrote that the company does not have all the details regarding allergic reactions in Alaska. The company said it’s monitoring reports of such reactions and that they would update labelling language if necessary, the statement said.
“The prescribing information has a clear warning/precaution that appropriate medical treatment and supervision should always be readily available in case of a rare anaphylactic event following the administration of the vaccine,” company officials said in the statement.
The company said they did not identify safety signals of concern in their clinical trial process, but that they would continue to monitor reports of adverse reactions.
“Reports of adverse events outside of clinical studies are a very important component to our pharmacovigilance activities and we will review all available information on this case and all reports of adverse events following vaccination,” the statement said.