Sharp has opened a vaccination supersite at Grossmont Center in La Mesa.
Sharp has opened a vaccination supersite at Grossmont Center in La Mesa. Photo by Chris Stone

It’s been considered a beacon of hope, the one thing so many have been waiting months for: a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19, the disease that has led to severe illness, hospitalizations and the deaths of more than 480,000 people in the United States.

However, now that millions of Americans have received one of the two mRNA vaccines, some are becoming concerned about receiving the vaccine as they hear stories of possible side effects.

As chief executive officer of Sharp Coronado Hospital, it is important to me that everyone understands the benefits the vaccines provide far outweigh the reported risk of reactions. And I believe this so strongly that I didn’t hesitate to receive the vaccination myself, and am pleased to share that I had no reaction to speak of, just a little bit of a sore arm for a day or two.

Common COVID-19 Vaccine Reactions

I am lucky enough to be among the approximately 6 million Californians who have received the vaccine. Of those, the majority — like me — experienced no reaction or a mild to moderate reaction for 1 to 3 days after vaccination.

Commonly reported vaccine reactions include the following:

  • Sore arm (where the vaccine was injected)
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chills

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these symptoms are normal and are a sign that your immune system is working to build protection against the virus that causes COVID-19.

Taking an over-the-counter pain- and fever-reducing medicine, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can help relieve the discomfort you may feel. However, I encourage you to not hesitate to contact your doctor if redness or tenderness where you got the shot increases after 24 hours or if your side effects are worrying you or do not seem to be going away after a few days.

Certainly, these commonly reported vaccine reactions should not limit anybody from considering getting the vaccine. Believe me, having those side effects is much preferred over having COVID-19 and the potential complications.

Rare Severe COVID-19 Vaccine Reactions

In rare instances, other less common reactions have also been reported after vaccination, such as anaphylaxis in approximately 5.5 per 1 million individuals vaccinated. According to one CDC study, more than 80% of the people with anaphylaxis had a history of allergies or allergic reactions. In all instances, this type of severe allergic reaction was successfully treated with epinephrine or personal epinephrine auto-injectors, such as EpiPens. Another rare reaction included swelling after vaccination in people with cosmetic facial fillers, which was successfully treated with antihistamines and steroids.

Though infrequent, vaccination providers, such as Sharp, are prepared for the possibility of such severe reactions. Vaccine recipients are monitored on site for 15 to 30 minutes after being vaccinated. And providers are equipped with appropriate medications and trained to give rapid care and call for emergency medical services.

For people who experienced a severe reaction after receiving their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or have a history of experiencing allergic reactions to other types of vaccines, the CDC has issued the following recommendations:

  • If you had a severe allergic reaction after getting the first dose of a COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, you should not get the second dose.
  • If you have ever had a severe allergic reaction to any ingredient in a COVID-19 vaccine or to polysorbate, you should not get the vaccine.
  • If you have had a severe allergic reaction to other vaccines or injections, you should ask your doctor if you should get a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • If you have a history of severe allergic reactions not related to vaccines or injections — such as to food, pets, oral medications or environmental allergens — you should still get vaccinated.
  • If you have had an allergic reaction, such as hives, swelling and wheezing — even if it was not severe — to any ingredient in an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, you should not get either of the currently available COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, or if you had a reaction within 4 hours of your first COVID-19 mRNA vaccine dose, you should not get the second dose.

COVID-19 Precautions Post-Vaccine

While I strongly encourage all those who are eligible to receive the vaccination do so, I also need to stress the importance of continuing to follow the precautions we’ve been taking for several months to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Once you get your vaccine, your body is not automatically immune from the virus. I join my health care colleagues in advocating that everybody still practices the prevention habits of wearing a face mask, practicing social distancing, avoiding large crowds, always washing your hands and just generally making sure that you’re doing what you can to prevent being exposed or exposing others to COVID-19.

Experts believe that approximately 75% or more of people in the U.S. need to be vaccinated to reach true herd immunity, which occurs when a large portion of the population becomes immune to an infectious disease – usually through vaccination – limiting the risk of infection passing from person to person. It is currently estimated that just 14% of Californians over 16 years old have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, the primary reason why maintaining COVID-19 precautions is so important.

Health care systems like ours here in San Diego are certainly seeing the devastation that COVID-19 is causing every day. Every single health care worker is being heroic in their daily actions and each of us can join them and be a part of the solution by receiving the vaccine.

Susan Stone is senior vice president and chief executive officer of Sharp Coronado Hospital.