You may have read that the unprecedented COVID-19 vaccine rollouts in the U.K. and the U.S. have hit some early road bumps. In the slightly more than a week since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave Pfizer and BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine an emergency authorization for certain groups at the highest risk of COVID, such as health workers and nursing home residents, there have already been issues with distribution and disparate, confusing policies on to whom exactly the first doses should go.
None of this is all that unexpected, given the highly complex nature of this project and the gamut of stakeholders who need to work together to make a vaccine campaign successful. But one thing that may be giving Americans pause as the effort rolls out is the wave of initial reports of side effects experienced by some of the first people in the U.K. and the U.S. to receive doses of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, including health workers.
At least two health care professionals in Alaska developed serious reactions, including one who had to be hospitalized. Two other health care workers in the U.K. developed similar symptoms, including anaphylactic symptoms, but most of the workers recovered from their symptoms quickly, including one within slightly more than an hour. More of these stories will inevitably trickle in, since the vaccine is so new and the sheer number of people, all with different biological peccadilloes, are expected to eventually take it. (We’ll find out in the coming months exactly when other groups can get a shot, which will likely depend on where you live.)
An allergic reaction certainly sounds like an unpleasant prospect, but if it’s deterring you from getting a vaccine, it shouldn’t. Instead, you should keep an eye on potential side effects and prepare to potentially take a day or two off from work if they prove severe.
Although side effects are possible and can be severe, they tend not to be debilitating in most people without a severe history of allergies or inflammatory problems. There’s plenty of evidence of that, both from Pfizer’s and Moderna’s large-scale clinical trials and from the conclusions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) .
That said, side effects are fairly widespread, per the CDC report. The most common by far is some pain at the site of the first COVID vaccine injection, which is usually done in the arm. In a trial of Pfizer’s vaccine versus a placebo, more than 83% of people aged 18 to 55 reported experiencing this side effect.
But 51.1% of the study participants reported that the injection site pain was mild; another 30% reported it was moderate. Severe and above was limited to 1%. Other side effects such as redness and swelling were far more rare. Other common issues, which lasted a median of about one day, according to the CDC, included fatigue, headache, and muscle pain (although which mild to moderate side effects hit which age groups can vary).
Healthy skepticism is understandable. But health care experts note it’s still more important to get a COVID vaccine than risk getting COVID-19 itself. That latter option is far more precarious.
One expert, Dr. Melanie Swift of the Mayo Clinic, recently told Fortune that her own health system has developed a grid of side effects related to COVID vaccines versus those related to active coronavirus infections, in order to keep as much of a depleted workforce in place as possible.
So how do these (generally) mild-to-medium, (usually) brief side effects compare to the symptoms that hit you when you actually contract the disease?
“When the virus does cause symptoms, common ones include fever, body ache, dry cough, fatigue, chills, headache, sore throat, loss of appetite, and loss of smell,” according to a guide from Harvard Medical School. “In some people, COVID-19 causes more severe symptoms like high fever, severe cough, and shortness of breath, which often indicates pneumonia. People with COVID-19 are also experiencing neurological symptoms, gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, or both. These may occur with or without respiratory symptoms.”
There have been more than 17.5 million coronavirus cases and 315,000 COVID-related deaths in the U.S. to date. That’s more than five times as many deaths in the highest range of the CDC’s estimates for annual flu-related deaths since 2010.
Those numbers make an even stronger case for taking a chance on the vaccine.
More health care and Big Pharma coverage from Fortune:
- The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is dangerously flawed. Science and data could fix it
- How hackers could undermine a successful vaccine rollout
- “There simply isn’t the trust”: The fight to overcome vaccine skepticism in the Black community
- You can now get personalized updates on the COVID vaccine from Zocdoc
- Here’s how much Europe will pay for each COVID-19 vaccine