At approximately 2:45 p.m. ET on Saturday, a ray of light illuminated my personal wrinkle of our ongoing global nightmare: I got my second shot. What followed was roughly 48 hours of debilitating side effects — a consequence I can only describe as fantastic.
Some 96 million Americans (about 29% of those eligible) are now fully vaccinated against covid-19, while 42.5% of the eligible population has received at least one dose, according to the most recent available figures. This is great news to anyone hoping to rebuild something other than the tenuous hellscape we currently call life. But this progress is stymied by millions of people who, according to recent polling estimates, have refused to get the vaccine.
Given the proliferation of highly privileged anti-vax sentiment and coronavirus-related conspiracy theories in the U.S., the no-vaccine cohort comes as no surprise, even if it remains highly disappointing. What is jarring is how many Americans are getting the first dose of the vaccine but not the second, perhaps due to a fear of side effects.
The New York Times reported earlier this week that 8% of people who received the first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna covid-19 vaccines are skipping their second shots. (A third vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson, is a single dose.) While every person will respond differently to the second dose of their vaccine — only 10-15% of volunteers in the vaccine trials experienced “quite noticeable” side effects — I thought I’d relay my experience for anyone who might be on the fence.
For the Pfizer vaccine, which I received, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says common side effects include tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever, and nausea. Recipients may also experience pain, swelling, and redness in the arm where they received the shot. I experienced all of them.
The first thing I noticed was the muscle pain. My shoulders, back, and calves were all bizarrely sore. I chalked it up to the first significant ride on my motorcycle this season, which can work muscles you forget you have. But it was soon clear that it had nothing to do with my motorcycle. I fell asleep around midnight Saturday and didn’t wake up until around 11:30 a.m. on Sunday. I am 38 years old, so this is highly unusual.
When I awoke, I felt ok, but I was still tired despite sleeping half the day and my brain felt foggy. The muscle aches had intensified, I had mild chills, my left arm was red, swollen, and throbbing with pain due to the injection, and I felt generally useless. By 1:30 p.m., the fever really began to take hold, and I planted myself firmly on the couch.
Amid attempts to binge-watch shows I hadn’t had time to watch before, my body temperature fluctuated wildly. One minute, the thermometer would read 99.7 degrees Fahrenheit; 10 minutes later, it’d be down to 98. These swings lasted about 24 hours, and my fever peaked at about 100 degrees. Around 3 p.m., I fell back asleep as my throat grew sore and I developed a mild headache. I awoke for brief periods over the course of the afternoon and evening, rewinding whatever bad show I had streaming only to zonk out again halfway into an episode I’d already missed once that day.
Around 11 p.m., I was fully awake and felt devoid of food. Not hungry, per se — all I could manage to eat was a bit of noodle soup and a few pistachios due to vague nausea. The temperature swings continued, and I fell asleep again around 1:30 a.m. as I attempted to rewatch Watchmen.
By the time I woke up on Monday morning, around 10 a.m., my fever was gone but the fatigue was not. I didn’t move from my couch until 12:30 p.m., and I proceeded to piddle around the house once I did. By 3 p.m., however — 48 hours from getting the shot — I felt about 80% normal, well enough to take the dogs on a walk but still tired, mentally dulled, and with some lingering body aches. Everything besides my throbbing left arm was back to normal by Monday evening, and I awoke on Tuesday morning feeling great.
Of course, having a fever and full-body muscle pain sucks, but if I’m being honest, I found the entire experience hugely relaxing.
For starters, I haven’t slept so well since the pandemic began. I also haven’t had an excuse to simply do nothing for an entire day in longer than I can remember. Yes, I felt like shit, but it wasn’t like having, say, the flu, because I knew it was only temporary. And although the breadth and severity of side effects has no known relationship to the vaccine’s efficacy, I’d be lying to say it didn’t give me peace of mind, which is a rare and glorious thing to feel these days.
On top of all that, I can now worry far less about contracting a deadly disease that has killed more than 3.1 million people globally and is infecting an average of 58,000 people in the U.S. a week. Once my two-week waiting period is up, I can forego wearing a mask outdoors, according to the CDC, provided I’m not in a crowd. And I feel good doing my part to leave this wretched period in the past.
Of course, my experience is an extremely privileged one. Not only do I have access to the covid-19 vaccine in the first place, I have paid sick days, a loving partner to bring me noodle soup, a strong immune system, and only some bored pets to disappoint by not being up and about for nearly two days. I cannot even fathom being a parent in this moment, let alone a single parent working an hourly job. And, yes, there remains a minuscule risk of experiencing a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine, which requires immediate medical attention. In short, the consequences of experiencing side effects aren’t the same for everyone.
Your medical choices are yours alone, even when tens of millions of people are making the same choices at the same time that collectively impact everyone. So you do what you need to do. My point is simply that if the only thing keeping you from getting that second shot is fear of the side effects, rest assured: Even if you get hit with most of them, like I did, it’s not all bad.