5 healthcare workers on what it was like to get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and the minimal side effects they experienced

After the FDA approved the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on December 11, shipments of the vaccine quickly began been rolling out to hospitals across the US.
Frontline workers and other healthcare professionals have been among the first scheduled to receive the vaccine — including five who spoke with Business Insider after getting the shot.
Pediatrician Hanita Oh-Tan said the vaccine felt less painful than a flu shot, and ICU nurse practitioner Cassie Lewis said she barely felt the shot and later had slight arm soreness. 
Here’s what their experiences were like, as told to freelance writer Gia Miller.
Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On Friday, December 11, the FDA cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in people 16 and older in the US. The vaccine uses a new technology platform called mRNA to train the body to fight off the coronavirus. It works by providing cells with instructions on how to create a piece of the “spike protein” so that the immune system creates antibodies to neutralize the actual coronavirus if it enters the body.On Sunday, Pfizer began shipping the vaccine in special containers maintained at -94 degrees Fahrenheit to hospitals across the US, centers which have developed detailed plans as to who will receive the vaccine and when.These five frontline workers were part of the first group to be vaccinated at each of their hospitals. Here’s what they had to say about the experience.Cassie Lewis, 37, is an ICU nurse practitioner and chief quality officer at Bon Secours Health System in Richmond, Virginia

Cassie Lewis receiving her first vaccine shot.

Cassie Lewis/Bon Secours

At 11:45 a.m. on December 15, I was the first person in our organization to receive the initial dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. As the leader of the team that secured the vaccine for Bon Secours, the team believed that having me receive the initial dose was the right thing to do, especially since I still have a clinical practice and see patients.

I was a little bit nervous, but mainly because a lot of people were watching. However, seeing the safety data that has come out over the last few months definitely reduced my nerves, so I felt very comfortable about getting the vaccine. Getting the vaccine didn’t hurt — I honestly didn’t even feel it. And despite a little soreness in my arm, I felt absolutely fine the next day. The data shows that some individuals have the same reactions as they would with the flu vaccine, such as a little bit of fatigue, muscle aches, low grade fevers, and arm soreness. Fortunately, I only had arm soreness.I know it’s safe and effective, so my main concerns were logistical. My biggest worry that day was getting people through the clinic. We’ve been doing a lot of planning behind the scenes to ensure that we’d be prepared when the vaccine arrived. The vaccine is very fragile and we have to be very careful about the amount of time between taking a vial out of the ultra-cold freezers, preparing it, and administering the proper dosage. It was definitely a challenge, and I had the pharmacy team with us to ensure that we were doing everything per the guidelines.While there’s no difference between this and the flu vaccine in terms of the amount of people coming through, it is, quite frankly, more logistically complicated. We developed a process to schedule our associates ahead of time so we knew who wanted the vaccine and how much we needed. Plus, if we had an extra dose because someone didn’t show up, I planned how we could get another associate in the chair very quickly so nothing would be wasted.The vaccine is an additional tool that will help us get this pandemic under control.We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, so even though I received the first dose, I’ll continue to follow every safety precaution — it’s still just as important to wear a mask and practice social distancing.

If we’re going to do our part to get this pandemic under control, then getting the vaccine is part of that process. A lot of people have lost their lives in this country, and those of us who’ve worked in healthcare during this time are exhausted — it’s taken a significant emotional, mental, and physical toll on our workforce. Getting the vaccine will also help protect our healthcare workers so they’re available for the future medical care of our communities. And, it’ll eventually allow them to go home at night and see and hug their families without the fear of giving them the virus. Beth Oller, 40, is a family physician at Post Rock Family Medicine in Stockton, Kansas

Dr. Beth Oller received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on December 18.

Associated Press

I got the vaccine around 9:30 a.m. on December 18, the first day that the Rooks County Health Center began administering it. Since March, I’ve been holding regular weekly livestreams on Facebook to update our community and answer questions about the coronavirus, as well as share the latest scientific news and numbers in our area. My vaccination was also streamed live on Facebook, and I answered vaccine-related questions right after. I wasn’t worried about receiving the vaccine, but at the beginning of the pandemic I said I would look at the data before deciding if I’d get vaccinated. I remember learning about mRNA vaccines in college and knew they’d be a game changer. I feel lucky to understand the science, and I’m very comfortable with the safety and efficacy of an mRNA vaccine.Now that I have the first dose of the vaccine, I’m participating in two studies.I’ve already signed up for the CDC’s V-safe After Vaccination Health Checker — it’s open to anyone who gets vaccinated. After your first dose, you’ll receive text messages asking about your experience and if you have any side effects. Usually, the only people monitored this closely are study participants, but it’s the first time we’ve ever rolled out a vaccine where we’ve had the technology to do this level of post-vaccine information gathering. It’s incredibly exciting.

Since I’m breastfeeding, I’m also part of a study through Mount Sinai’s medical school in New York. I’ll send in samples of my breast milk between one and six hours after getting each dose of the vaccine, then again in 24 hours, three days, five days, and seven days. Hopefully, it will help researchers know more about the transmission of antibodies through breast milk.We need to build a community of immunity. We’ve got to build a community of people who are immune to COVID-19 so that we can get back to a new normal. I encourage everyone to get the vaccine when they can so our kids can go to school in person, my nursing home patients can see their family members, and we can all socialize with each other again.Alicia Justice, 41, is an emergency room nurse at the University of California San Francisco

Alicia Justice at her hospital’s COVID-19 swabbing station.

Alicia Justice

Wednesday, December 16, was a big COVID-19 day for me. I worked the COVID-19 drive thru, swabbing about 300 patients, received my seventh and last COVID-19 test as part of a research study I’m participating in and then, at 5 p.m., I received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It was the first day the hospital was administering the vaccine, and being a frontline worker I was lucky enough to be selected to receive it. Getting the vaccine didn’t hurt at all, and so far I feel fine. I chose to get vaccinated because I want to be part of the solution to stop this pandemic, and I trust the science. In normal times, I’m an avid traveler and have been vaccinated for almost everything one can get vaccinated for. I’ve never had any hesitation about getting vaccines, so why start now?  

I tell patients to not be afraid of the new technology, it’s actually amazing.Although we haven’t had an mRNA mass vaccination yet, the technology has been developed and improved upon for decades. It’s pretty spectacular that scientists have developed a vaccine that can teach our body how to fight the virus on its own using just the virus’ genetic code, without using a weakened or inactive virus. Knowing this makes me way less concerned about the vaccine or side effects.The science behind it is absolutely fascinating, and the COVID-19 vaccine itself is an indicator of how quickly we can accomplish things when we put our money and resources towards solving a problem.Hanita Oh-Tan, 45, is a pediatrician at Capital Area Pediatrics in Falls Church, Virginia

Dr. Hanita Oh-Tan receiving the first shot of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Hanita Oh-Tan

On December 16 at 1 p.m., I was part of the first group to receive the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at my hospital. I was really excited because I and all of the doctors I’ve spoken with believe in the vaccine’s safety and potential to save millions. 

It was snowing on my way to the hospital that morning, so the 25-minute drive took me 45 minutes, which definitely allowed my anticipation to build. I arrived a little early, and there was already a small line, with each person standing on their little blue social distancing square. I could feel the excitement in the air, and once the line began moving, the administrative team and nurses ensured that everything ran efficiently and smoothly. Getting the vaccine was honestly less painful than the flu shot.The nurses were great — they even allowed us to take selfies! After the vaccination, we were sent to the hospital’s auditorium and required to sit for 15 minutes in case we felt dizzy or faint. They were playing the movie “Elf,” and there was a collective sense of excitement and calm throughout the room.  So far, I don’t have any side effects, but from what I’ve heard and read in the data, people tend to have more side effects after the second round, so we’ll see how that one goes in January.Receiving the first dose of the vaccine has made me hopeful, but I won’t behave any differently than I have since the pandemic began. I will still wear a mask. I will still social distance, practice good hand washing, and avoid big gatherings. Why? Well, partly because the first dose hasn’t kicked in yet — it takes about two weeks, according to the document Pfizer-BioNTech prepared for the FDA, and also because the second dose really boosts your immunity. But even after the second dose, Pfizer’s studies show that the vaccine only decreases the symptoms of COVID-19, not necessarily the transmission of it to others. Theoretically, I could still get COVID-19 and transmit it to my patients, family, or community. Until more people receive the vaccine, my individual vaccination won’t help anybody. It’s great to have a vaccine, but it will only be effective if people get vaccinated.

For me, getting the vaccine isn’t political, it’s public health.  I chose to get the vaccine because I believe it’s effective. I did it for me, my immediate family, my extended family, and my community. If everybody partakes and believes the science, we will get through this and return to the lives we miss. I want children to be back in school and parents to be back at work, and I want it to be safer for them to be there. I want to be an example for my own children and my patients. As a team, we can fight problems together.  Terry Nasser, 40, is an environmental services associate at Yale New Haven Health in Connecticut

Terry Nasser before receiving his COVID-19 vaccine shot.

Terry Nasser

I was one of the first five people in our hospital to receive the first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine — we did it as a group on the afternoon of December 15. I’m an environmental services associate in the infectious disease unit, so I serve as the point person for the nurses, doing what I can to make their jobs easier. Once patients have left, it’s my responsibility to do things like clean the apheresis unit — the machine removes blood from the patient then separates it into various components, such as plasma, platelets, white blood cells, and red blood cells. I was surprised that they chose me to be in the first group to get vaccinated, but it was such an honor.I was a little nervous about getting the vaccine, but I knew I wanted to get it. I know there was a lot of speculation about whether or not it was safe, but I’ve seen the patients who have COVID-19, and I felt an obligation to be vaccinated because I work in the health system. Plus, I knew it was safe because I work on the same floor with Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, who was the principal investigator of the Pfizer COVID-19 trial, and I asked him about the vaccine. He told me that it’s 95% effective, and I trust him.The vaccine wasn’t painful or scary.After I received the first dose, I felt really good. The next day, my only side effect was a sore arm, just like when you get a flu shot. I’m happy and excited about getting the next dose. 

Knowing that I now have the first part of the vaccine, I feel a lot safer. But even though it’s supposed to protect us against COVID-19, I will still follow the same protocols out of respect for everybody else. I’ll continue to follow the mask mandate, wash my hands, and wear my PPE. But do I feel a sense of relief? Yes. I’m definitely happy I got the vaccine.I’ve worked at the hospital full time throughout the pandemic. When COVID-19 first came to the US, I was definitely scared. But, as I started to learn more about it, and my director explained that we should be fine if we wear our PPE, I began to feel a little better. Luckily, everyone in my department has been a great support system for me, but seeing what patients were going through really changed me. A lot of them couldn’t see their family members, and there were many times when we were the only ones there to hold their hands. It’s something I’ll never forget. Luckily, I never got COVID-19 (knock on wood!), but it’s been a very humbling experience.I believe everybody who can should get the vaccine.You should get the vaccine for yourself, for your family, and to stop the spread of COVID-19. I got it, and I feel great. I think it’s a great vaccine. We need to stop the spread of COVID-19, and we can do that if everybody gets the vaccine. There’s nothing to be afraid of.