When Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU) nurse Meg Nemitz, BSN, RN, learned she and her colleagues were eligible to join the hospital’s first group of employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, it felt like a gift. It contained something precious, something she hadn’t felt in months — a sense of control.
“Going down to Hale for the vaccine on that first day made me feel empowered,” she said. “It felt like there was finally some way to fight back. We no longer needed to feel so powerless.”
Since the Brigham’s COVID-19 Employee Vaccination Program launched on Dec. 17, more than 12,000 members of the Brigham community have received their first dose of the vaccine. Nemitz is among the 2,600-plus staff at the Brigham who have now obtained their second dose. Across the Mass General Brigham (MGB) system, more than 43,000 employees have received their first dose, and over 7,100 have gotten their second shot.
“I have confidence in the science — and the scientists — that this vaccine is safe and effective. The trials had such a high success rate,” Nemitz said. “And if people don’t get it, what’s the alternative? Are we just going to keep doing what we’re doing? How many more lives are we going to have to lose?”
When Winifred Caddeus, first cook in Food Services, became eligible to be vaccinated in December, he had no hesitations about getting the shot either.
“With that virus out there, I want to protect myself. The best thing to do is to just take the shot,” he said. “I still have to wear the mask, wash my hands and keep my distance, but it feels good to have that protection.”
Caddeus said he experienced some minor fatigue after receiving his first dose of the vaccine. He returned for his second dose on Jan. 7 and has had no additional side effects.
Such experiences with the vaccine are typical, according to a systemwide analysis of reported side effects from vaccinated employees across MGB. As of Jan. 13, slightly more than half of vaccinated employees reported no symptoms after their first or second dose of the vaccine.
Mild symptoms — such as mild fatigue, mild body aches or low-grade fever — were reported by 39 percent of vaccinated staff after their first dose. Of that group, only one in 10 saw their symptoms last for more than a day.
About 8 percent of vaccinated staff experienced symptoms they categorized as more severe or typical of a COVID-19 infection. While the vaccine cannot give someone COVID-19, testing is still mandatory for staff who experience these symptoms after vaccination to ensure they were not unknowingly infected before the vaccine gave them immunity.
Allergic reactions, which include mild pain at the injection site, followed a similar pattern. For those who received their first dose, 48 percent reported no allergic reactions and half of vaccinated staff said they only had mild discomfort where they received the vaccine in their arm. One percent reported a rash, and a fraction of a percent had moderate allergic reactions.
“I know a lot of people are scared to take it. I don’t know what they’ve heard, but I want to tell them it’s the best way to protect yourself,” Caddeus said. “Just give it a shot. If we get more people protected, it’s better for us — not only in the hospital but everywhere people go outside of work.”
Starting a Dialogue
Ana Hoffman, a Spanish-language medical interpreter in Interpreter Services, described getting her first dose on Dec. 17 as an “early birthday gift” that she was excited, honored and grateful to receive.
“The best way to stop this pandemic is if everyone gets vaccinated. I want to go back to a normal life,” said Hoffman, who received her second dose on Jan. 7. “We see so many people sick and dying from this virus. I see these patients every day, and the family meetings are so sad and difficult. Honestly, it’s awful and traumatic. The way we change things is if each one of us does our part by getting vaccinated.”
A passionate advocate for vaccination, Hoffman has spoken with colleagues, family, friends and members of her community about her experiences and reassured them that the vaccine is safe and effective. To help kickstart conversations, she began wearing a button that she made, bearing a simple message: “I’m vaccinated and I feel great! ASK ME.” Since then, she has created 100 more buttons and passed them out to vaccinated colleagues.
“I feel responsible to lead and encourage others to be vaccinated. There are people who are apprehensive,” Hoffman said. “My arm was a little sore where they injected the vaccine, and for the first one or two days, I had a headache, which might have been because I didn’t have any coffee that morning. But that’s it. I trust science and believe our infectious disease experts.”
‘The Beginning of the End’
Marinos Sotiropoulos, MD, a research fellow in the Translational Neuroimmunology Research Center, said he was eagerly watching his email for the announcement that his vaccine eligibility group, Wave C, was open for scheduling.
“We’re all looking for a way out of this, and it’s easy to lose hope, especially as this pandemic drags on and on. But this vaccine is the beginning of the end,” said Sotiropoulos, who works in a laboratory that processes clinical samples. “By having more and more people get this vaccine, we will achieve a level of herd immunity soon enough that this virus will not be able to spread.”
After getting his first dose on Jan. 6, Sotiropoulos said he experienced some mild side effects: soreness in his arm, fatigue and mild body aches. But rather than be concerned, he was encouraged by the reaction.
“It was my immune system showing me something was happening,” he said.
He also noted that it’s important for staff to engage colleagues, loved ones and community members in discussions about the importance of vaccination.
“As members of the health care workforce, everyone is watching what we do and say. Our friends and relatives in outside fields will be looking to us for guidance and advice,” he said. “By leading this wave of trust towards the science, the vaccine and its safety, hopefully we will inspire others to get vaccinated as well.”