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The Weirdest “Side Effect” of the Coronavirus Vaccine

I had no physical reactions, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotions.

People hold signs that say "No one is safe until everyone is safe" in front of the Pfizer building in New York
Protesters call on pharmaceutical companies and the Biden administration to commit to equal and fair coronavirus vaccine distribution. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

Vaccine Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring the rollout of COVID-19 immunizations. 

I had been waiting for the text message for months when it arrived: “Please click on the following link to schedule your appointment.” I yelped like a cartoon character.

I had registered for the coronavirus vaccine back in January on the New Jersey Department of Health website, after the state said it would progressively queue residents in the order of their infection risk. I figured: doctors and seniors first, and healthy young adults last.

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I clicked right away, under the presumption that I’d be one of the last to get it. I have family who work in hospitals, and they’d all been vaccinated, so I was eager to join them. I have moderate asthma that doesn’t normally affect me too much, but I checked it off on a list when asked.

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Then the text came on March 8. I was thrilled. I signed up, and I snagged the last appointment available for March 15, a week later. I came to the appointment ready to answer questions about my medical history. I found out the exact date I was diagnosed with asthma, in case they needed to corroborate it with my records. But none of that happened. I signed a waiver giving the hospital staff permission to poke me with a needle, and another acknowledging that the vaccine was a Food and Drug Administration emergency approval. That was it.

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Within minutes, I was assigned a nurse, who poked me in the shoulder and gave me a vaccine swag bag, with information on how to report significant side effects and a sticker that said “I Got the Shot!” Suddenly, I had my first of two doses of the Moderna shot, and I was one step closer to putting COVID behind me forever.

Yet I didn’t feel like I expected to feel. I certainly wasn’t happy. I had no physical side effects (and still don’t), but a different, weird one washed over me: guilt. I shoved the sticker in my coat pocket and walked away.

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What was wrong with me? Well, I thought of my parents, and so many vulnerable people I know personally who are still waiting patiently for their vaccinations. After I got my shot, which was incredibly easy thanks to the hospital staff and nurses, I tried to dial my mom and let her know the good news. I couldn’t. She’s in her mid-60s, has a medical history that makes her prone to illness, and is still waiting. I was so obsessive over quarantine, especially out of caution for her. It felt wrong that I ended up ahead of her in the vaccine line.

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The balance seemed off. I felt like I got the shot too soon. I’m a healthy 31-year-old, besides my asthma. About a quarter of the kids who grew up where I did in Newark have it, one of the highest rates in the country, possibly because of the awful air pollution caused by the waste stations, the airport, and the constant stream of truck traffic in residential areas. It really only becomes a problem for me when I’m swimming or trying to sing karaoke. I was officially diagnosed when I was 16, but I thought the inhaler was dorky, so I never used it.

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I only qualified because New Jersey qualified me. On the questionnaire for vaccine eligibility, people with cancer or liver disease are in the same category as people like me, and so are smokers. It felt especially troubling because there is currently little firm evidence that people with asthma are more likely to suffer severe illness with COVID.

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I do understand the urgency of getting as many people vaccinated as possible at this stage of the pandemic. I’ve heard more than once from my friends and family who work in medicine that right now it’s all about “shots in arms.” I had no problem getting the shot, of course, because now I’m much less likely to contract and spread the virus. I don’t regret it. I’d just feel better if my mother got it first.

When I finally talked to others about this, more than one vaccinated person close to my age told me they felt the exact same way. They knew they shouldn’t—this was only a good thing—but here we are.

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I think that as a child of immigrants, I’m conditioned in a different way than many to feel responsible for my parents’ well-being. I’ve been my mother’s unofficial translator in various scenarios, including at the hospital where doctors and nurses can forget to explain things without using medical jargon she doesn’t understand. I’ve witnessed how experts can lose their patience and raise their voices condescendingly, rather than try to explain things in different terms. It’s been widely reported that language barriers can lead directly to worse hospital care. I’ve always helped her through confusing and scary situations, and as with many others, I helped her and my dad sign up for their shots too. I finally realized that I just felt selfish, like I should have given up my appointment to them.

I know. That isn’t how it works.

I did finally tell my mother that I got the first shot recently. I was worried she’d be a tiny bit hurt, like she’d been cheated by the system. Instead, she sounded overjoyed. She said, “OK, I’m making fish this weekend.” She grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, so a fish dinner is as good as cake. In two weeks, I’ll have my second dose. I’m hoping it’ll finally be safe enough soon to give her a kiss on a cheek.

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