8 People on What It’s Really Like to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine

People have a wide variety of feelings before and after getting the COVID-19 vaccine—from anticipation and relief to fear and concern about side effects. Here are eight people who had the vaccine who ultimately said it's worth it.

COVID-19 vaccine distribution

The speedy development of the COVID-19 vaccines has been one of the biggest success stories of the pandemic. Before this, vaccines typically took years to develop.

COVID-19 vaccines were developed in mere months, says Hana El Sahly, MD, associate professor of molecular virology and microbiology, and of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. The quick turnaround is because scientists were able to build on decades of relevant vaccine research on previous coronaviruses (such as SARS and MERS). Massive funding also helped to develop the vaccines faster than normal.

Considering they are the key to establishing herd immunity—the point at which enough people are immune to the disease to stop its uncontrolled spread through the community—and helping us get back to normal life, this is very exciting news.

Vaccine distribution began in the United States on December 14, 2020, and since then, more than 100 million doses have been given; the current average is over 2.3 million shots per day. President Joe Biden recently announced that he was directing all states to make vaccines available to all adults by May 1, which means we could get to herd immunity by the summer.

As of writing, about 13 percent of the total population has been vaccinated, according to federal data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For updated information for your state, check the NPR COVID-19 vaccine page for live updates.

Understandably, people have lots of questions about how the COVID-19 vaccine works, whether it’s safe, and what it’s like to get one. Here’s everything you need to know, including why you should get vaccinated even if you’ve already had COVID-19.

Types of COVID-19 vaccines

There are four possible types of COVID-19 vaccines: whole virus, RNA (ribonucleic acid) or mRNA (messenger RNA), non-replicating viral vector, and protein subunit.

Currently, only the mRNA and viral vector vaccines are approved for use in the United States, but other types are currently in Phase 3 clinical trials and may yet be approved, according to the CDC. You may not have a choice in manufacturer of the three options currently available at your vaccination site.

Americans getting the mRNA vaccine have two options for manufacturers at the moment: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Both are roughly equivalent in efficacy and duration, and they have similar rates of side effects, as far as current data shows. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both require two shots, spaced 28 days apart.

The other vaccine option available is the Johnson & Johnson viral vector vaccine, which was approved in early March. This vaccine requires only one shot, and it is much easier to store and transport, as it can be stored at normal refrigerator temperatures. It has been shown to be slightly less effective than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, but epidemiologists stress that there is no cause for concern; the vaccine is still very effective at preventing severe infection and death, and it’s a vital tool in the race to reach herd immunity.

You may have heard of other brands—including Sputnik V, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Sinovac, and Novavax—but while these have been approved for use in other countries, they are not yet approved in the United States. Here’s how to get the vaccine at Walmart.

How COVID-19 vaccines work

All vaccines work by training your body’s immune system to recognize a version of the infectious agent and to create antibodies to fight it off in the future. The mRNA vaccines do this by programming a strand of RNA to make a harmless piece of what is called the “spike protein,” which is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. The viral vector vaccines do it by imparting instructions to our cells to make copies of the protein that adheres to the virus that causes COVID-19.

In both cases, your immune system recognizes that the protein doesn’t belong in your body and begins making antibodies, just like what happens in a natural infection with COVID-19.

Now your body’s immune system will “remember” the virus if it encounters it again in the future and will already know how to fight it.

It’s more efficient to create and produce mRNA vaccines than traditional vaccines because they are developed in a laboratory using readily available materials, the CDC says. This means the process can be standardized, scaled up, and is more easily adapted. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is even cheaper and easier to produce, and will likely be the shot that most low-risk people receive.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which each require two doses, are highly effective. Clinical studies so far have found the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to be 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infection, while Moderna’s vaccine is 94.1 percent effective. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose. Studies showed it to be 66 percent effective at preventing moderate to severe infections and 85 percent effective at preventing severe infections. If you’re currently eligible, you can get vaccinated at Kroger.

Concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines

Where some people see huge scientific progress, others are more wary, worrying about the effects of rushing the development. It is true that this mRNA type of vaccine has never before been licensed for use in humans, but the CDC notes that it isn’t “new” technology and researchers have been working with it for decades. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine development came out of research on a similar vaccine for the Ebola virus, which was approved for use in July 2020.

The most common side effects reported for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are fever, chills, tiredness, and headache, which are more likely to happen after the second dose of the vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine had fewer side effects, with people reporting only headaches, fatigue, and muscle aches. People also reported pain, swelling, and soreness at the injection site for all three brands. Most of these side effects resolved within a few days, and all effects were more common in people aged 18 to 59.

However, as with any vaccine, there were a very small number of severe reactions reported. All were easily treated. If you are concerned, talk to your doctor about your specific risk factors for vaccinations.

Make sure you get both doses if you need them

As mentioned above, two of the vaccines approved for use in the United States require two doses to be fully effective, so be sure you check your vaccine card to see which one you got, and get that second dose if it’s the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.

“Once we have our first dose of the vaccine, there is a degree of protection that starts to kick in, but the information and data we have about the effectiveness of the vaccines are really about two doses,” says Dr. El Sahly.

For optimal protection, you need both shots. Here’s how to get vaccinated at CVS.

What to know after you get vaccinated

Vaccination isn’t a get-out-of-social-distancing-free card, Dr. El Sahly says. There is a lot we still don’t know about the long-term efficacy of the vaccine and what the vaccines do for our ability to transmit the virus to others.

It is possible that the vaccine may prevent us from getting COVID-19 symptoms but not asymptomatic infections that could unknowingly spread the disease to others, Dr. El Sahly says. She adds that more research is needed in this area. Current research only provides data for two months post-vaccination.

Until the vaccine coverage in the community is high, it is very important to keep wearing a mask and maintain preventive social distancing measures, even if you are vaccinated, Dr. El Sahly says.

Yes, this means avoiding large indoor gatherings, wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and not being around unvaccinated people who fall into high-risk categories.

What it’s like to get the COVID-19 vaccine

To help you better understand what getting the vaccine is like, we asked eight people to share their experiences and what they’ve learned.

It may give you a sense of hope

As an intensive care unit (ICU) and emergency room (ER) nurse, Alyson W., 43, of Minnesota has been on the front lines of the pandemic since day one. And after working many shifts in the COVID-19 ICU, she has seen exactly how horrific the virus can be.

So when she was offered the opportunity to get the Pfizer vaccine in December 2020, making her one of the first people in the country to get it, she jumped at the chance.

The injection and soreness was on par with that of a tetanus shot, she says. She experienced no side effects after her first dose and had some minor symptoms after the second dose, including a low-grade fever, body aches, a moderate headache, and a bit of diarrhea. This she had expected. What she didn’t expect?

“I was honestly so surprised by my emotional response,” she says. “For the first time in a year, I finally felt a glimmer of hope. My dedicated coworkers and I have struggled for so long with anxiety, with fear, with the weight of indescribable losses. When my turn came to get the vaccine, I was overcome with pride and gratitude. I continue to feel that way.”

This woman and her daughter are both immunocompromised. Here’s why she’ll be getting the vaccine as soon as she can.

pile of covid-19 vaccination stickersSan Francisco Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/Getty Images

You can choose to trust the process

“I was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma, and the high-dose steroids used as part of my cancer treatment suppress my immune system,” says Lacey Adams, whose husband, Jerome Adams, is the former Surgeon General of the United States. Getting COVID-19 could be fatal for her, so she rarely leaves her home.

She registered for vaccination online, and on February 1, 2021, she got a call from the vaccine center. Not only did they have a vaccine for her, but since she’s homebound, two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) would come to her house to administer it.

The shot—she got the Moderna variety—was like any other, and aside from some soreness at the injection site, she had no issues.

“My husband has talked quite a bit about the safety measures put in place in the development of the vaccine, and as Surgeon General, he even got his vaccination on live TV,” she says. “So I already knew that it is not only effective but safe.”

Getting vaccinated has made her feel more comfortable about seeing her parents and allowing her children to go back to school in person part-time. “I know in my heart and in my mind that it was the best decision for me and our family, and I hope people can get the facts about vaccinations from a trusted and reputable source, and then make a truly informed decision about what’s best for them.”

Do you know why you shouldn’t share photos of your vaccination card online?

It may make you feel guilty

Emma P., 28, and her husband own a medical clinic in Idaho, and because they work in health care, they were some of the first in their town to receive the vaccine. She got the Moderna vaccine in late January. While it makes sense to Emma that her husband should get it right away, she has mixed feelings about herself. She doesn’t work with patients, and she’s young and healthy.

“I decided it was best to just get it while I had the chance. I wasn’t worried. I was very relieved and excited to get it,” she says. “But I do feel a little bit guilty for getting it when I know others that need it more.”

The shot itself was a nonevent and hurt less than getting her seasonal flu shot, she says. However, she did have some side effects, such as a low-grade fever, chills, and exhaustion for a day and a half after getting vaccinated. After the fever broke, though, she was back to normal.

“I knew the side effects were temporary and so much milder than the actual virus,” she says. She does have one piece of advice for others getting the vaccine: “If you sleep on a particular side, don’t get it in the arm you sleep on. Trust me!”

You may still get COVID-19

Health care worker Rutzaida O., 49, of Denver got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine just four days after the first dose was administered in the United States.

But vaccines don’t work immediately; the immune system needs time to create protective antibodies, so it’s possible to still get COVID-19 during that time. (Or afterward—vaccines are not a guarantee you won’t get sick, but they greatly reduce your risk of getting severely ill or dying of a disease.)

“Unfortunately I had a high-risk exposure the day after I received my first shot, before my body had the chance to develop immunity from the vaccine, and I got COVID,” she says.

Her case was fortunately mild. She spent about a week with a headache, mild body aches, and a loss of smell. “It’s possible that the one dose of the vaccine I got helped, but I’m not sure,” she says.

Even though she had already had the disease, she still got her second dose of the vaccine. “The benefits outweigh any unknown risks, and it was the right thing to do to contribute in putting an end to the pandemic,” she says. “I felt that as a health care professional I needed to lead by example.”

One thing that greatly concerns her now are the many conspiracy theories about the vaccine that are going around. “Believe what the science and medicine experts are advising us to do. The vaccine is safe and effective,” she says. “It is the solution to accomplish herd immunity and put an end to the pandemic. The virus is not going away; we need to outsmart it to survive.”

The vaccine supply is a problem in many countries

The United States isn’t the only country where the vaccine is in short supply.

“In Germany, we have problems getting enough vaccine, so currently only people in priority group one are allowed to get the vaccines,” says Stefan S., 42, of Berlin, Germany. Priority one applies to people over 80 years old and some health care workers, so as a paramedic, he was eligible.

He got the Pfizer-BioNTech version at the end of January. He also works at a vaccine clinic and says he read all the literature beforehand, which made him feel confident in getting it.

He felt even better about his decision after learning that a nearby elder-care home, which received the vaccine, showed few or no symptoms even after an outbreak of the U.K. variant of the virus.

There are mental as well as physical benefits for him. “In Germany, we are in a semi-hard lockdown since December 10, so I’m only allowed to visit one other household, and when people visit me, I’m officially recommended to only allow one other person in my apartment,” he says. Since getting the vaccine, he’s been able to visit with some friends he hasn’t seen in months and go back to doing some of his favorite hobbies.

“For me, this means that I can continue my life without worrying about that anymore. This really lifts up my spirits,” he adds.

Here’s why COVID-19 hits people of color harder—and how racism place a role.

Even if you have concerns, you may be glad you got it

Lindy S., a 44-year-old nurse and student in California, had decided she did not want to get the vaccine.

“I was very worried because it is new—the mRNA resequencing is a totally new method of vaccines never used before—and it’s not been thoroughly tested,” she says. “I also have concerns about the long-term effects.”

However, she needed the shot because of her job.

“I was required to get the COVID vaccine because the California State Board of Nursing threatened to take away my nursing license, and I was told by my university that I would be dropped from the program if I didn’t get it,” she explains.

She got the Moderna vaccine in mid-January. “I felt very scared getting it, but I didn’t want to lose my livelihood,” she says.

It didn’t help when she developed a reaction six days after her first shot. “My arm became inflamed, stiff, and covered in itchy, red, raised bumps. I completely lost the use of my arm for a week,” she says. She was told to take Benadryl and use hydrocortisone cream on the rash. After a week, her symptoms cleared up.

Despite her initial fears and the side effects, she says she’s ultimately glad that she got it and hopes others who may be hesitant will also get it. “Get it anyway,” she says. “We need the courage to do something new. We need to end the suffering and death from this disease.”

The hardest part may be getting a vaccine appointment

“Getting the shot was the easy part. It was getting the appointment that was hard,” says Martin C., 84, who lives in a Florida retirement community with his wife, Mary, 85.

Both were advised by their doctor in January to get the vaccine as soon as possible, and due to their age, they were in the first group to be eligible. If only it were that simple.

Martin says he tried for weeks to get appointments. “I called the hotline over and over—no answer. I tried the website over and over. It crashed,” he says. “It was just a circus. Ridiculous.”

Even worse, they couldn’t find anyone to help them. It wasn’t until their son and daughter-in-law arrived for a visit that they were able to get an appointment—and that was only because their son knew someone who worked at the site administering the shots and was able to manually schedule their appointments.

“I tried multiple times to use the online scheduler, and it just didn’t work. And I’m pretty tech-savvy,” their son says. “I had to call in a favor, like I’m in the mafia or something. I can’t remember the last time I was this angry. It shouldn’t be like this.”

The couple was finally able to get their first dose on February 9, 2021. While Martin says they are relieved to get the vaccine and had no noteworthy side effects, they are very concerned about all their neighbors who have not yet been able to get it.

You can get vaccinated at a Costco—here’s how.

If you’re part of a vaccine trial, your experience may be a little different

“I got a shot on January 11, 2021, but I still don’t know whether it was a placebo or the real vaccine,” says Cynthia S., 47, of Maryland. In December 2020, she volunteered to be a part of the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen Ensemble 2 study vaccine trials. Why would she take the risk of being a guinea pig?

“I am proud to contribute to scientific research and help be a tiny piece of the puzzle getting the vaccines to the world and moving beyond this pandemic,” she says. “It also helps that being younger and healthy I would normally be at the end of the line to get a vaccine, and this gave me a fifty-fifty chance of getting it sooner. I really want to see my parents again—it’s been a year!”

She experienced a stiff, sore arm and a headache for a few days after getting her injection, so she’s hopeful she got the real vaccine, but she notes that her symptoms could have also been due to dehydration and getting a shot in general.

“It’s been maddening trying to analyze my symptoms, but I put my mind at ease knowing there’s a good chance it is the real thing, and if not, I haven’t lost anything,” she says.

She will know eventually—at the end of the study, she can request to be “unblinded.” Until then, she’s hopeful and enjoying the experience. “It’s been so fascinating being a part of the research. I’ve learned so much. It’s made me very invested in the study and interested in learning more about the science and process,” she says.

If you’re not yet eligible to get vaccinated, make sure you know the symptoms of COVID-19 to watch out for.

Sources:

  • Hana El Sahly, MD, associate professor of molecular virology and microbiology, and of medicine – infectious diseases, at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston
  • CDC.gov: “Different COVID-19 Vaccines”
  • Business Insider: “Coronavirus Vaccines Compared”
  • CDC: “Understanding mRNA Covid-19 vaccines”
  • GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance: “What are nucleic acid vaccines and how could they be turned against COVID-19?”

The Healthy
Originally Published on The Healthy

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.