Last week, several doctors in the Pathology Department at VCU Health received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The second does will be given in three weeks.

Assistant Professor of Pathology and Ophthalmology, Dr. Woon Chow, said “I took the first dose of the vaccine Friday afternoon and my arm was quite sore over the weekend. I was also really fatigued Saturday, but I recovered Sunday.”

Several report arm soreness for about 24 to 48 hours.

“I had absolutely no side effects of the vaccine and had less soreness in my arm than I had with the flu vaccine. I feel very grateful to get this vaccine,” said Dr. Kimberly Sanford, Associate Professor of Pathology and Medical Director of Transfusion Medicine.

The CDC website states that the goal is for everyone to be able to easily get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as large quantities are available. The CDC also says that several thousand vaccination providers will be available, including doctors’ offices, retail pharmacies, hospitals, and federally qualified health centers.

Associate Director of Clinical Microbiology, Dr. Alexandra Bryson said “The data shows this vaccine is safe and effective. I would be much more concerned about the consequences of getting COVID-19.”

Dr. Susan Roseff, Vice Chair of Pathology and Chair of the Division of Clinical Pathology said, "my arm was sore for about 2 days...I was really excited to get the vaccine. The more people get it, the quicker the pandemic will be behind us! The scientific discoveries, know-how, and dedication of those who worked the vaccine make me feel very comfortable and safe. The only way to end this pandemic is to become immune by vaccination or by infection: I choose the former. Having had 1 dose I feel hopeful and optimistic.  Other than a painful arm, I’ve otherwise felt well. Please join me pushing COVID-19 out the door!"

Both Pfizer's and Moderna’s vaccines require two doses. Pfizer's is given three weeks apart. Moderna’s is given four weeks apart. Pfizer’s vaccine was given to VCU Health employees last week and Moderna’s vaccine will be available this week.

"The history of vaccines is remarkable," Dr. Roseff said, "Polio was wiped out, due to vaccination. I am relieved to have gotten the first dose and look forward to the second one."

The Polio outbreak in 1894 started in Vermont with 132 cases. Polio was a very contagious disease spreading from person to person. It was the most feared disease causing 15,000 cases of paralysis a year. The vaccine developed by Jonas Salk in 1955, nearly eradicated the disease.

COVID cases are at an all-time high. Faculty and staff are urged not to travel this holiday season, as the virus is spreading rapidly in the second wave.

In an email to staff, CEO of VCU Health, Dr. Art Kellermann said “COVID is everywhere. We now know that individuals can be highly contagious with few or no symptoms. This means we have to be laser-focused on infection control at work and must be equally careful when we head home at the end of a shift or go out to get groceries.”

Q&A with Dr. Christopher Doern - Director of Clinical Microbiology

How did you feel after receiving the vaccine; were there any side effects?

Just a sore arm for 48 hours.  Nothing else.

Do you feel safe and assured now that you have the vaccine? 

Not yet, the data suggests that some protection is conferred 10 days following the first dose and that maximal protection isn't realized until after the second dose.  

What do you say to those that have fears about the vaccine?

efficacy graph Efficacy Graph: Cumulative incidence of COVID-19 in the Phase III Pfizer vaccine trial. Note protective effect begins approximately 12 days following the first dose. These data show about a 50% efficacy after 1 dose and ultimately a 95% efficacy following the full vaccine series.

First, they should not feel badly about questioning the vaccine safety, it is wise to look critically at any medical intervention.  Second, I say look at the data, step away from the press releases and social media and look at the data. We now have 2+ months of objective, scientific, safety data from tens of thousands of trial volunteers. In reviewing those data these vaccines have been proven to be extremely safe with absolutely no sign that there are any serious side effects.  

It is true that some serious safety events were identified in vaccine trial participants but it's important to put these in context. These events did not happen with a statistically greater frequency in the vaccine arm as compared to the placebo.  In other words, you were as likely to have a serious event if you got the placebo.  Also, overall, the serious safety events noted in the trial actually happened at a lower frequency than would be expected for the population at large.  Now no one is saying the vaccine reduces your chances of having one of these events, but these data strongly suggest that these vaccines are safe.

One other point about safety.  Under normal circumstances, the FDA would review about 6 months of safety data to grant FDA approval, we only have ~2 months right now.  So a reasonable question would be, "How often are serious safety problems identified after 2 months post-vaccination?" 

safety graph Key Safety Data: Percent of patients experiencing side effects following the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Green indicates mild reaction, blue moderate reaction, and orange severe reaction.

I'm not a vaccine expert but I was concerned about this and did a bit of a literature with a particular focus on neurologic side effects because issues like transverse myelitis have been associated with viral infections and rarely vaccines.  What I found was very reassuring.  A review of the literature that queried publications reporting vaccine-associated-TM going back to 1970 found a total of 37 cases.  Importantly for me and my decision making, nearly all of these cases were reported within 1 month of receiving the vaccine.  From this I conclude that although we don't have a full 6 months of safety data, the 2 months of data we do have should be sufficient to have identified this side effect if were to occur with even the rarest of frequencies. 

I also concluded, again for myself, that the risk of getting the vaccine was far outweighed by the risk of contracting COVID-19.

How long will it take for the population to be vaccinated?

No one really knows for sure because this will be dependent on how several ongoing vaccine trials progress but there are several additional vaccines candidates that are deep into their Phase III trials and we expect approval very soon.  Major companies like Johnson and Johnson and Astra Zeneca, and others are all making great progress and have shown promising early data.   If all goes well, we should see the general population have access to vaccine as early as this spring.