For these Alaskans, the COVID-19 vaccine had one significant side effect: relief

SPONSORED: An asthmatic child, a nursing infant and an Elder in the household are just a few of the reasons these Anchorage health care leaders are happy to be vaccinated.

Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

The arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine last winter couldn’t have come at a better time for Anchorage hospitalist Dr. Linnea Smith.

Along with her colleagues caring for COVID-19 patients at Alaska Native Medical Center, Smith felt overwhelmed on the heels of Alaska’s winter surge.

“It was, a lot of times, just really discouraging and sad,” she said. “Our goal is always to make people better, and we get satisfaction from doing that -- and in so many cases where we were taking care of COVID patients, so many people just got worse.”

That began to change as the first vaccines rolled out.

“I was really excited,” Smith said. “It was the first time I started to feel hopeful that maybe there would be an end in sight.”

As a breastfeeding mother with an infant then just five months old, she admits that she initially felt a bit nervous about getting her shot last winter.

“We just didn’t have much information,” Smith said. “I wasn’t sure what to do.”

So, as a physician, Smith did what she always tries to do: She listened to the science.

Digging into a deep body of research

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for COVID-19 are what’s known as mRNA vaccines. They work by instructing cells to produce harmless spike proteins that mimic the SARS-Cov-2 virus. The immune system responds by creating antibodies to fight off the spike proteins, and those antibodies are subsequently able to protect the body against the virus that causes COVID-19.

Although mRNA vaccines themselves are new, the extensive research that developed them dates back more than 50 years. So when it came time to make her own decision, Smith dove into the science. She spent an entire weekend reading studies and speaking with other physicians, including a pregnant colleague weighing the same decision.

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Ultimately, she couldn’t find any scientific evidence that the vaccine could be harmful to pregnant or nursing mothers and their infants -- and, she added, “I knew the risks of the alternative.”

“The risks of getting a COVID infection can be so high,” Smith said. “We know that a pregnant woman is at a very high risk for bad outcomes if she gets COVID, and we know that these vaccines are really safe. I just think it makes sense to do anything you can to protect yourself.”

Once Smith had decided that she would be vaccinated, she was one of the first people in the state to get her initial shot -- and she was unprepared for how it would make her feel.

“Honestly, I cried,” she said. “I got the shot and smiled for a picture, and then I went to the bathroom and cried. I had just finished an exhausting week of work when I had seven patients die from COVID.”

For Smith and countless other parents, the COVID-19 vaccine has come with one overwhelming side effect: a sense of relief.

Protecting young and old alike

Unlike Smith, Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson and her family didn’t hesitate for an instant when vaccines became available.

“We went as soon as we were eligible,” said Davidson, the president and CEO of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Like many Alaska Native people, Davidson grew up in a family impacted by disease. Five of her mother’s siblings died in childhood.

“There are five aunties and uncles that I just never met,” she said. “For us, those stories are very real. In many of our communities, (Elders are) some of our last language and culture bearers. We’re doing our part to protect them.”

It’s not just about Elders, she added. While Alaskans aged 10 and younger have accounted for 11 percent of COVID cases but just 1 percent of hospitalizations, younger people are not guaranteed to be spared by the virus. There have been more than 750 pediatric deaths in the U.S. -- and due to historical, health and socioeconomic factors, Alaska Native people have been overrepresented in case counts, hospitalizations and deaths. That makes it equally important to protect the young, Davidson said.

“We always say ‘Respect your Elders and make sure that we take care of them,’ and at the same time, I also know the Elders I know, in times of scarcity, would say ‘Make sure the kids are taken care of,’” she said. “It’s that incredible connection of community.”

Davidson’s multigenerational household includes her mother, who is in her late 70s, and her daughters, the youngest of whom has asthma and a history of contracting respiratory infections, including RSV, swine flu, and bird flu.

“By the time she was 7, she had been hospitalized nine times,” Davidson said. “So we knew that she was already at risk, and we were terrified. Our house went on total lockdown at the beginning of March last year.”

When vaccines became available after a year of strict COVID safety at the Davidson house, all three generations were eager to get their jabs. Her mother sailed through the vaccinations “like a champ,” while Davidson felt sick for a couple of days after her second shot.

“When I wasn’t feeling well, I would chant ‘Go, antibodies, go!’” Davidson said. “I knew that my body was working, and whatever I felt, the fever that I had was small in comparison to what would happen if I was really sick.”

However, Davidson’s own side effects were nothing compared to the emotional effect when her 17-year-old daughter received her vaccine.

“When it was her turn, we cried,” Davidson recalled. “We all just cried, because she’s the one we were the most worried about.”

“She knows what it’s like to fight for her life and not be able to breathe -- and for her, that’s a very real experience, a very real feeling,” Davidson said. “To know that getting the vaccine meant that she increased her opportunities exponentially to be able to survive if she got sick was huge.”

Weighing the vaccine decision

The COVID-19 pandemic has been -- and continues to be -- hard on everyone, especially parents who have had to juggle stressors like child care, distance learning, and kids’ mental health.

“It’s just been a really, really tough year for a lot of reasons,” Davidson said. “Wherever people are in their range of emotion in processing this last year is valid and real.”

That’s why she and Smith encourage Alaskans on the fence about the vaccine to read up on the science and bring any questions to their family physicians. While the vaccines don’t provide guaranteed protection against contracting or spreading COVID-19, they dramatically reduce the virus’ potential to cause harm. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that unvaccinated people are at significantly higher risk of illness and death from COVID-19.

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“You still can get COVID-19 even if you’ve been vaccinated, but it may be the thing that prevents you from getting really, really sick and needing to be hospitalized and connected to a ventilator,” Davidson said.

In Davidson’s family, that knowledge has brought a tremendous sense of relief.

“Having that extra protection has definitely helped us to sort of ratchet down the emotional, constant worry,” Davidson said. “We’re still ultra vigilant. We’re still careful.” But they’re also able to attend events like her daughter’s high school graduation, something they wouldn’t have been comfortably able to do without being vaccinated.

Smith, similarly, has felt herself able to relax a bit, and her mother and in-laws have been thrilled to spend more time with their grandson without worrying as much about exposure from Smith’s workplace.

“I still leave the dirty scrubs at work, and I still change clothes before leaving for home,” she said. “I don’t know that I’ll ever drop that now. I do think maybe the one good thing that has come from all of this is that it has all made us think about how we were spreading viruses. I think I’ve been more conscious in general. There are lots of other viruses that we can spread.”

And controlling spread, especially with the rise of more virulent strains like delta and omicron, is critical to getting COVID-19 under control, she added.

“I don’t get vaccines just for myself,” Smith said. “I get them also to help protect the community.”

The pandemic has highlighted the role individuals play in promoting public health -- something Davidson says is right in line with Alaska’s culture of community.

“That’s what we do as Alaskans,” Davidson said. “We look out for each other. If they ran out of firewood, you would give them that firewood to make it through the night. This is exactly like that. We’re giving somebody else that extra boost -- that extra protection.”

Meanwhile, the vaccine provided another injection for Smith and her colleagues at work: some much-needed hope. Although the pandemic continues, the feeling when taking care of a COVID-19 positive patient is no longer one of hopelessness.

“Now it just makes it kind of sad and disappointing, because it’s preventable,” Smith said.

This story was sponsored by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with ANTHC. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.