I got my COVID-19 vaccine earlier than expected. What the shot is like
Turns out a stick in the arm is a great way to ring in the New Year.
Eric MackContributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Ten minutes after getting the COVID-19 vaccine, I climbed behind the wheel of my truck outside of Holy Cross Hospital in Taos, New Mexico, and felt a strong physical urge to curl up in the seat and take a nap. I had planned to spend my afternoon on a mountain bike in the badlands north of Santa Fe. It was New Year's Eve, and I was just shy of my goal of 1,000 biking miles for 2020.
Instead, I spent the final hours of a historic and horrendous year sitting on my couch, groggily feeling as grateful for technology and tireless scientists and researchers as I ever have.
The dose circulating in my bloodstream was developed in record time using brand new technologies. Past vaccines have taken several years to get to the public, with the mumps vaccine holding the previous record at four years.
COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna -- the only two currently authorized for emergency use in the US -- use synthetic messenger RNA, or mRNA. This molecule contains a bit of the genetic code of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and stimulates the immune system to build up its defenses against the virus without actually being exposed to it.
I tend to melt around needles, but the COVID-19 vaccine injection delivered the least pain and anxiety I've ever experienced from the mean end of a syringe. I would easily prefer getting stuck again with one filled with Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine over stepping on a wayward Lego any day.
Moved to the front of the vaccine line
The opportunity to get the vaccine so early came as a surprise.
The Pfizer vaccine was only authorized on Dec. 11, with the Moderna vaccine approved a week later. On Dec. 29, I registered to get the shot on a New Mexico Department of Health website. Based on my age (41) and risk factors (none), it seemed I could expect to wait several months before it would be my turn to get a shot in the arm.
The following day, unrelated to my registration, I received a group message from the leader of the local search and rescue group I volunteer with. Turns out trained and mission-ready members of our group were eligible to receive the vaccine right away along with other first responders.
Watch this: Will a COVID-19 vaccine be a triumph of science or soul-searching?
The truth is I'm at relatively low risk of coming in contact with the virus. My wife and I work from home in a rural area, and our daughter hasn't seen the inside of a classroom since March.
But every few months or so, I spend a day (or a very long night) on a mission working with other search and rescue personnel and first responders to find someone lost in the millions of acres of forest, mountains, desert and river canyon that draw countless skiers, rafters, bikers and hikers here year-round.
Normally, I'll also spend a few days a month training in the field, practicing avalanche rescue or working with search dogs, among numerous other skills. I pass a couple more evenings each month in classroom sessions. But all that in-person training has been suspended since March to comply with state emergency health orders.
The mission call-outs haven't stopped, however. We've just added masks and hand sanitizer to our mission packs, among other new precautions.
So when some members of our team said it didn't quite seem right for us to receive the vaccine so early -- ahead of even the elderly and behind only frontline health care workers -- I agreed. We were encouraged to reconsider by our team leader.
The hope is we may begin to resume in-person training as soon as February and be able to respond to missions with that much more confidence in our skills and, hopefully, in our immunity to COVID-19.
Just another stick in the arm
Getting the shot was a pretty routine and literally painless process considering the months of anticipation for the big moment. Our team was invited to come to a building at the hospital set up for vaccinations during a one-hour window. We entered through tents in the parking lot on a crisp winter morning, and we waited for our temperatures to be taken and for a little paperwork to be completed.
Anyone without a sufficient mask (no bandanas here) was given a fresh one wrapped in plastic. After a little more processing and paperwork, we each got a stick in the arm, a Band-Aid and a vaccination card with instructions to return in three weeks for a second dose.
After getting stuck I was led to another room supervised by a traveling nurse to wait for about five minutes just in case of a sudden allergic reaction. We were also told to take it easy on the way home as such reactions usually crop up within about an hour. My teammates thanked the nurse for her work. She shared some anecdotes from the past year. Most were positive patient experiences, but there was also the story of the man at an Oklahoma gas station who berated her for pumping gas while wearing scrubs for fear she might contaminate the pump.
We all gave thanks for the coming New Year, and the nurse handed me another fresh mask wrapped in plastic and instructed me to continue to wear one and to practice social distancing.
I also received instructions for downloading a CDC smartphone app to track and report any side effects (or lack thereof) over the next few days.
In the first four days, I reported no side effects save for a little soreness around the injection spot in the first 24 hours. On day five, a headache and wave of nausea kept me in bed all morning, but I can't be sure that was tied to the vaccine. In fact, I'm pretty sure it was dehydration from a hike the previous evening.
The bottom line is that after my first dose, I feel fine, and now I have 12 fresh months to log 1,000 miles on my bike.
I'll report back again after my second dose later this month. Meanwhile, I'm adding a new profession to my gratitude list. Along with health care and essential workers and all the others that have kept us going, I now also think about the dedicated folks who spend countless hours in labs around the world. I imagine each one of those hours has brought us days closer to a return to normal life.