Vaccine Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring the rollout of COVID-19 immunizations.
“That’s it?” “That’s it.” The woman injecting my second dose of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine quickly bandaged my arm as the shot started wiring and inspiring my immune system. I was directed to the 30-minute observation area—the one for people with allergies—and I waited.
At first, I sat there full of some vague sense of accomplishment. I was finally vaccinated—it felt good. Then I started to feel bad, because of all the people who might need the vaccine but can’t get it yet. (I’m a private school teacher by day, and I’ve been teaching in-person, without the option not to, since August, so I qualified early.) Soon, some admittedly irrational anxiety started to percolate in me: I wondered if somehow my throat could seize, if anaphylaxis would suddenly choke-slam me to the floor. I hadn’t had a serious allergic reaction to my main assailant, tree nuts, before, but that’s where your mind goes.
Yet the wait period came and went, and I was still breathing. I drove home, ate dinner, and felt normal. Just like after my first dose. I felt a little cocky about it, actually, buff in my immune response.
Then I woke up in the middle of the night feverish, with aches and chills. When morning came, I was still feeling sick, now with fever north of 100. I sat down on the bathroom floor just in case I had to retch. The side effects were raging.
Around midday, with some ibuprofen, they just went away. Poof! I felt good again. Maybe too good. And also really weird. I had a burst of energy, and I decided I’d go for a walk and get a coffee. I tried to internalize that I was vaccinated now, and soon, I’d be at maximum coronavirus protection. I was feeling confident again.
Then, three days later, I was gesturing about something in the book my class and I were reading when I noticed my arms were covered in a raised, expanding rash. My right forearm looked like a pinkish-red archipelago, and more islands were popping up fast. They even looked like they were pulsating. There was also a red ring forming around the base of my neck. And my face under my mask was starting to swell up, too. When I took the mask off in the bathroom, I was horrified to find my face swollen and tilted sideways, as if someone had just gotten the best of me in a fistfight.
I told my principal I had to make a break for it. I left for an immediate care clinic during my students’ recess. Not knowing what was going on, the students waved to me as I drove away, in what felt like a gesture of solidarity with their swelling teacher.
Once at the clinic, they injected me with Benadryl, gave me a COVID test in case I had actually contracted the virus, and held me for observation. I got groggy, but I couldn’t take my eyes off my arms, since the rash clusters all over me had raised themselves up, like little volcanoes.
Finally, the clinic let me go, and I went home to sleep. For a couple more days, I’d have more flare-ups, with rash mounds all over my body popping up and going down.
By Day Two of this, I started thinking (and fought against) more irrational thoughts about what had happened to me. Maybe it wasn’t so crazy to fear the shot. But this is part of the bargain, I told myself. “But … but …,” my flagging body protested, always living in the moment. I couldn’t even say for sure my rashiness was a result of the vaccine. But even if it was, fine—because it was still definitely worth it. I’d do it again, if I had to. And then once more.
I was still worried, though, so I decided to go to an allergist to ask about what might have happened. The doctor said she couldn’t be certain at this point what exactly caused my rash. Some have reported rashes, or so-called COVID arm, after receiving the vaccine, but I can’t be certain that’s what happened to me, since most of those rashes occur at or around the injection site, and mine did not. I do have a condition called dermatographia, or “skin writing,” where even fairly light scratches on my skin will rise up as wheals, like someone wrote on me with red marker. Maybe it was related to that? (Per my doctor, I do have my volcano rashes to thank for one thing: Upon retesting, it turns out I’m not allergic to all tree nuts, and I am enjoying a pistachio as we speak.)
In any case, so much of my emotional roller coaster that week was because I know that vaccines are safe, and that for the vast majority of people, the side effects are mild. I may never know what really caused my reaction. But now I’m vaccinated, and I’m allowing myself to acknowledge both how scary and great that felt. At school, I continue my role as a polite but diligent enforcer of social distancing, often reduced to one imploring phrase: “six feet!” I’ve also mastered the art of not getting too out of breath while reading out loud in a KN95 mask. If the vaccine rollout continues apace, maybe before too long, I won’t need it anymore.
Update, March 20, 2021: This piece has been updated with more information.