‘The vaccine is safe’: Endocrinologist E. Dale Abel shares his COVID-19 vaccine experience
On Dec. 18, the FDA granted emergency use authorization for a second COVID-19 vaccine in the United States, clearing the way for millions more doses to be shipped to health care institutions across the country as the pandemic has worsened.
Distribution of the first COVID-19 vaccine, a messenger RNA vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, is already underway nationwide, and frontline workers across the country have begun receiving the first of two doses. Experts have cautioned that physicians need to begin preparing their patients — and themselves — for vaccination. In a Dec. 3 survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, just 47% of 1,117 adults said they plan to get vaccinated, while 26% said they did not plan to get a vaccine and 27% were still unsure.
Healio spoke with E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD, chair of the department of internal medicine and director of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, and immediate past-president of the Endocrine Society, about his experience as part of the first wave of clinicians to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, the symptoms he felt after receiving his first dose, and the need for more education to combat vaccine hesitancy, particularly among underrepresented communities.
What went through your mind when you first found out you would receive the COVID-19 vaccine?
Abel: I view it as an amazing privilege to be among the first to receive the vaccine. There are many others who are more deserving. My institution made a decision that, in addition to immunizing frontline workers, particularly those working in the COVID-19 care units, to also have institutional leaders be immunized early to show that we were committed both as leaders and individuals to receive the vaccine. As you can imagine, even among health care professionals, there are pockets of vaccine skepticism. With that said, I felt I had a responsibility to do it and share my experience. I want people to understand that I believe the vaccine is safe, and the vaccine is effective.
Can you walk us through your vaccine experience?
Abel: I knew it was happening that day, but I did not know what time. As you can imagine, due to logistical issues with how many doses we had and everything needing to remain frozen, things had to land with military precision. I received an email that essentially said, “Your slot opens in 30 minutes, get over here now.” I had to rearrange some things, and then I walked over. I knew they wanted some videography to share, so I had a colleague meet me in the hallway and we took some footage. I had to check in and ran into an ICU colleague of mine. We stood, socially distanced, to sign up, and then we did the “vaccine walk” to be immunized.
Then it dawns on you: I’m about to get this shot. I have certainly received immunizations before, like my annual flu vaccine, but this was different.
The nurse asked me which arm, and if I preferred to stand or sit. I opted to sit. The brain can do funny things, right? The brain can overthink things. The last thing I wanted was to get wobbly-kneed on camera. It was a very fine-gauge needle, and I did not feel it as it went in — but I did feel a cool liquid going into my arm. It has to be kept frozen, so at that point it was cold. It was not an uncomfortable feeling, but I sensed that coldness. Then it was over. I stood up to make sure I was OK, and I was. There is a little bit of anxiety, as you can imagine. You might have read that a couple of people in the U.K. experienced acute reactions after receiving the vaccine. I then made my way back to my office.
What were your symptoms, if any, after receiving the vaccine?
Abel: I went back to work as usual and returned home that evening. The only symptom I had at that time was a slight headache. I would describe it as that feeling you get when you think a headache is coming on. I took acetaminophen before dinner. The next morning, my arm was a little sore, and I felt a little warm — not feverish, just warmer than usual. I took my temperature, and it was 98 degrees. My temperature is 97.4 degrees usually, so for me, this was a low-grade fever. I took more acetaminophen, had a glass of water and did my usual morning workout, which involves light weight training. These symptoms did not stop me from doing that on that day. The tenderness in my arm gradually abated, and by the end of the second day, I felt fine.
I deliberately talk about these symptoms because my symptoms were minimal. I get my next dose of the vaccine during the first week of January, and I intend to live tweet the experience. I want to let people know exactly what to expect. I have heard that some experience more symptoms after receiving the second dose.
You mentioned vaccine hesitancy. What responsibility do you feel, not just as a health care provider and endocrinologist, but as a Black clinician?
Abel: I view sharing my experience as really important. I see myself as a role model for many. As a Black man, it is important that I am a public example of accepting science and putting something into my body that I believe will play an important role in putting an end to this pandemic.
The other point I want to make is I am still going to wear my mask, even though I am immunized. We don’t yet know if being immunized — which means I likely will not get the clinical disease — means that I can still carry the disease. Time will tell. Until we have an answer, I will continue to do things that will protect others.
- AP-NORC. The December 2020 AP-NORC Center Poll. December 3, 2020. Available at: https://apnorc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/topline_vaccine.pdf. Accessed Dec. 21, 2020.
For more information:
E. Dale Abel, MD, PhD, can be reached at email@example.com.