My COVID-19 vaccine was like a flu shot. I got one and went right back to work.

My vaccine was anticlimactic and that's good. We've had enough drama this year. I hope you'll get vaccinated to protect yourself and others.

Dr. Thomas K. Lew
Opinion columnist

During a week in which two of my patients died from COVID-19 and I had to break the news to their families over the phone, during a month in which intensive care units are bursting at capacity across the nation, during a year in which more than 319,000 lives and counting have been claimed by the pandemic, I personally experienced a glimmer of hope — injected right into my arm. On Friday, I received the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Fifteen minutes later I returned to work and by the next day, my minor side effects were gone.

Since the emergency authorization of this vaccine Dec. 11, my front-line health care colleagues and I have been anticipating immunization like children looking forward to the holidays. We could suddenly picture a return to a time when our day wasn’t filled with patients struggling to breathe and when we weren’t paranoid about bringing home a lethal virus. When invitations to schedule a shot began to circulate around the hospital, we celebrated.

When my appointment finally came, the experience was quick. Just like with a flu shot, the nurse pinched my deltoid and I barely felt a small needle enter my arm. I then got a sticker and a vaccination record card. And just like that, it was over. After months of anticipation, it was anticlimactic. And that’s probably the way it should be. We’ve had enough drama for one year.

Side effects hit me but not for long

The vaccine is designed to make the body think virus proteins are invading, in order to induce an immune system attack that can then be remembered and reproduced if the real coronavirus is ever encountered. Because of this, common side effects are those that can occur when there is any inflammatory response in the body: fatigue, nausea, muscle aches and mild fever.

In addition to slight soreness at the injection site, I had all those side effects. Within six hours, it felt like my body had just run a marathon. I was warm and worn out, and my joints were sore. Going up the stairs made me feel closer to 70 years of age than the spry 30-something that I am.

Dr. Thomas K. Lew gets a COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 18, 2020, in Pleasanton, California.

However, all these side effects were minor and resolved by the middle of the next day. It felt exactly like after a flu shot. I was still able to work a full shift without a problem. This vaccine and the Moderna vaccine are safe. They went through rigorous clinical trial studies, and were overwhelmingly supported by the Food and Drug Administration advisory panel, with members saying there were no serious safety concerns. 

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As with any medicine, there is a rare risk of allergic reactions. There have also been reports of other very rare adverse effects, such as Bell’s palsy, although it is unclear whether these were actually related.

But to repeat, these vaccines are safe. They do not cause autism. They do not incorporate into your DNA. They do not contain government-tracking microchips. There is no conspiracy. Believe medical experts and scientists, not the Tucker Carlsons who would fan the flames of anti-vaccine skepticism.

Science and ingenuity are American

These vaccines are often called a modern miracle, but they are actually the result of years of sound scientific research finally put to action. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., recently said that he would refuse the vaccine because "I'm an American.” But what is more American than using American ingenuity to overcome a problem? What is more American than looking after our fellow citizens?

Dr. Thomas K. Lew after his COVID-19 vaccination on Dec. 18, 2020, in Pleasanton, California.

Yes, we all have the freedom to choose to be vaccinated or not, but the least fortunate of us might not have the choice of surviving a COVID-19 infection. The more of us who are immunized, the more of our brothers and sisters we can protect. This is how we achieve real herd immunity.

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While 2020 is nearly over, this pandemic is not, and more deaths are ahead of us. But we now have an injection of hope. Please consider receiving these vaccines when they become widely available, and persuade your family and friends to do the same.

Right after my vaccination, I went straight back to work, a little sorer but certainly safer. I did this to protect my loved ones, my patients and myself. I did this so I could take one step closer to a normal life.

Soon it will be your turn.

Dr. Thomas K. Lew is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending physician of Hospital Medicine at Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare. All opinions are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasLewMD