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I just got my second COVID-19 vaccine shot. Now what?

The Pfizer shot offers protection from the worst of the virus, but it doesn't offer a return to normal life. Not yet, at least.

The US is approaching 1 percent of its total population having received the vaccine.
Sarah Tew/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

Just before 8 a.m. on a chilly January morning in the Rocky Mountains, I took my place in line outside Taos Middle School with about a hundred others waiting to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

I got my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine three weeks earlier with a far smaller group, of perhaps two dozen, at a much smaller building adjacent to Holy Cross Hospital here in Taos, New Mexico. At that time, mainly health care workers and emergency responders were getting shots. As a local search and rescue volunteer, I was invited to get the vaccine with a group of first responders back on New Year's Eve. 

The operation has expanded significantly to include teachers, some seniors and essential workers and volunteers who come in contact with the public. The middle school's gymnasium has been transformed into a facility capable of delivering hundreds of doses of vaccine per day as they become available. 

People often joke about New Mexico running on its own sense of time. Things can be a little more laid back here, often at the expense of punctuality and efficiency. That has not been the case with the vaccine rollout, at least in Taos. Within about 30 minutes, I made it through the line, got registered, filled out my health questionnaire and got stuck with my second dose of vaccine with no hassle or crowding. 

The hospital's efficient delivery of doses has been rewarded by the State of New Mexico Health Department with larger shipments of the vaccine as the weeks have gone on, Holy Cross CEO Bill Patten said earlier this month. One of the people helping to manage vaccine distribution for the hospital is a friend and fellow search and rescue volunteer. A day earlier he spent his time off from hospital duties rescuing a person who'd been stuck in the snow for days near the top of a nearby mountain. It's vaccine coordination work by people like my friend, I believe, that's going to get us back to normal.


Vaccines ready for shipment at a UPS facility. 


But back to that middle school gymnasium. After receiving my second dose of vaccine, I was told multiple times to avoid alcohol for the rest of the day. 

The physician assistant who administered my shot warned of potential flu-like side effects more serious than the soreness and desire to take a nap I felt after the first shot. He told me not to take any ibuprofen or acetaminophen, but to simply let my immune system react as it will, and to seek medical attention should things turn severe.

From there, a volunteer ushered me to a chair, gave me a complimentary mask and asked that I wait 15 minutes in case of an immediate allergic reaction. Some people were asked to wait for 30 minutes instead. This differed from the experience after the first shot, when everyone was asked to wait for only five minutes.

My arm throbbed at the point of injection and I felt a familiar sense of tiredness, but overall I felt pretty good. (Over the next 12 hours I had a bit of a sore throat and some minor fatigue, but was perfectly normal the following morning.)

At the end of 15 minutes I got a text message informing me my observational period had expired. It was a very 2021 way to end the vaccination experience: dismissed with a text message and sent back into the world with plenty of questions and no further instructions beyond "stay away from booze and pills." 

Not that I blame any of the dedicated health professionals or volunteers, of course. The uncertainty is very real and the answers simply aren't clear yet.

All that's really known for sure is the vaccine series I've just completed seemed to protect 95 percent of people from SARS-CoV2 after being vaccinated in clinical trials. (It can take a week or two after the second shot to be protected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) It also appears that if I do still manage to contract COVID-19 despite being vaccinated, it would be far less likely to develop into a serious or deadly case. 

It does offer a great sense of relief just knowing that I'm likely protected from the worst possible outcome for myself. But it's also a bit messed up to have received the full vaccine before anyone else in my family, including my 91-year-old grandmother. (As of this writing she's had one of two doses.)

And there's still a big question mark around whether I might be able to carry and spread the virus as an asymptomatic carrier. With less than 1 percent of the US population fully vaccinated, nothing really changes for now in my day-to-day practices. Social distancing, mask-wearing and hand sanitizer remain part of the routine, probably for several months to come.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said that if we see 70% to 85% of the US population vaccinated by the end of the summer, we could begin to start returning to normal in the fall.

There are promising developments from elsewhere, though. A small study out of Israel finds that people who received the Pfizer vaccine had very high levels of antibodies to the virus in their systems, suggesting they are unlikely to become carriers that could spread COVID-19.

But these findings are preliminary and shouldn't be taken as a given.

There's still much research and work to do before I can feel comfortable and responsible doing things like visiting family in a neighboring state I haven't seen in over a year. That's a pretty serious bummer, but the good news is we're getting much closer to normal, one step and one jab in the arm at a time. I've never been more grateful for such baby steps.