As the Covid19 vaccine rollout continues in earnest worldwide, many people are starting to wonder whether they want to vaccinated and what to expect if they do. While the process varies between and within countries, this post is just to give you an idea of what happens from the point of contact about your coronavirus vaccination and what my experiences of the first Pfizer vaccine have been.
The UK Coronavirus Vaccination Programme
I’m in the JCVI group 6, which is for the 16-64 year olds with chronic underlying conditions putting them at greater risk of coronavirus. I have a few chronic conditions, but the ones that put me at risk are, I believe, the lung disease (bronchiectasis, lung scarring and inflammation) and autoimmune disease. I also have the likes of fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, ME/CFS, and so on.
I’ve written previously about how some people may find they’re no longer in the group 6 list, particularly those with ‘controlled’ asthma. While the government urges people not to contact their GP to see when they’ll be called up, if you feel you’re at risk and should have been in the priority group, then keep in mind that doctors do have some discretion as to who can be added to the lists because the issue of underlying conditions is not clear cut.
Vaccine programmes are getting underway around the world and all countries have slightly different goals taking precedence and different ways of organising the rollout. In the UK, priority groups are being called forward in sequence and instead of a 21 day gap between the first and second doses, there will be a 3 month wait, a move that has caused a lot of controversy.
Within England, all counties and vaccination centres will operate slightly differently. As of mid February 2021, it’s said that 1 in 3 adults in the UK have received their first dose of a vaccine and the goal is to offer this first dose to all adults by 31st July 2021. This post is just to give you an idea of what to expect if you’ve not yet had your vaccination.
Being Contacted For Your Coronavirus Vaccination
I received a text message to say my vaccination was due, with a link to the book this online. There was no telephone number given, only an email address. If I didn’t book online then somebody would call me in the next few days to book my appointment. Because the initial contact was by mobile, it’s important that your GP practice has your mobile number if you have one. If not, ensure your home number and house address are correct and up-to-date so you don’t miss any correspondence.
My parents had a slightly different experience as they have a different GP surgery to me, and theirs was operating in conjunction with three other practices, with a different one tasked with overseeing the vaccination programme’s organisation. They were given a link to book online and a telephone number, however only my mother received the initial text message. The first message said they’d hear about booking their vaccination within the next two weeks, but two days later she received the text to book. With my dad not receiving the initial text, he had a telephone call the next day and I was able to get my mum and dad conveniently scheduled at the same time.
Unfortunately, my email to the address provided in the text went unanswered but I was eventually able to get the website to proffer up an appointment. Once booked, I received a confirmation text. The website allows you to rebook your appointment, but in the case of this specific system you had to cancel your current appointment first. It’s a bit frustrating to have no immediate way to contact anybody either about booking the appointment itself or for any queries about what happens on the day. Booking online saves the staff and volunteers considerable time having to call more patients, but if you’re unsure of using the link or booking straight away then you can wait for a phone call. Obviously those without the means of using the Internet will need to wait for a phone call.
My parents also received letters in the post telling them that their vaccinations were due, which seemed like a waste as they arrived a week after they had theirs done. Still, as long as your details on with your GP practice then you should hear through one or all of these methods and not have to worry about missing anything by mistake.
On The Day : Arrival & Check In
I went to a fire station in Gloucestershire for my vaccination. At the entrance to the building there was a someone to greet patients. They’ll check that you’re wearing a mask and have an appointment, give you a squirt of hand sanitiser, and usher you forwards.
Once inside, there were four computers set up with staff manning them for patients to sign in. You’ll be asked to confirm your name, date of birth and address so they can register your arrival. You’ll be asked to confirm your ethnicity and respond to a few queries around whether you’re a carer, reside in a care home, and so on. Once signed in, I waited in the main queue, which was well spaced with 2m between each person. To keep as much space in the area as possible, people are asked to attend alone unless they need someone, like a carer, with them. I was able to go in with my parents, which I was very glad of, but I attended my own vaccination alone.
Where I was, there were tents set up like you’d find in an army camp. There are 6 pods, and staff work in teams of two, one to give the jab and the other to do the laptop work. This set-up has the capacity to work 12 hour shifts and vaccinate 7,000 people each week, though the numbers of how many have been vaccinated here isn’t known.
Getting Your Jab
The queue went down reasonably quickly as the jabs are typically quite speedy to administer. You’ll go to the pod and take a seat as the two-person team checks your details and finds you on their system. The vaccinator will ask a few questions to check the vaccination is safe and suitable. For instance, whether you’ve got any known allergies and whether you’ve had the flu vaccination in the past week. This will be fairly straightforward for most people.
My Experience : A Small Hiccup
My mother is allergic to penicillin but no further questions were asked. I, on the other hand, had a lovely lady as the volunteer vaccinator who asked a few extra questions, probing whether I’d had any allergic reactions to any kind of medication, over the counter product, IV drug and so on. I answered honestly: I’d had an allergic reaction previously to IV Buscopan when in hospital (which felt like I was about to have a heart attack and was incredibly scary). I’d also had an allergic reaction to a type of antibiotic.
Both things are apparently quite common and I’ve never had any other types of allergies or reactions, but the vaccinator didn’t want to take any risks. She spoke to another nurse, then a doctor. After about 10 minutes of to-and-fro, she came back and asked me to get something in writing from my doctor to say they thought I was suitable for the vaccination. I panicked – How on earth am I going to get that right now? I hated the idea of having to come back another day.
I escaped the tent to make room for other people to have their jabs done and went into the main area where everyone’s sat patiently waiting to ensure they’re okay after their jabs. I called the GP reception and impressed upon them the urgency of speaking to a doctor as I was standing staring at a fire truck, my hips on fire and feeling mightily embarrassed. Thankfully a doctor came to the phone within a few minutes minutes and said sure, he’ll say it should be fine!
I went back around to the beginning to queue again. My doctor had popped the note in a text but at the end of it said “ultimately it’s for the vaccinator to take responsibility”. D’oh! I saw the same woman as before and she seemed placated by what he’s said, until she got to the last line. More back and forth to other doctors, another 15 minutes passing… I said I was happy to take the vaccination and didn’t think it would be a problem, which the doctor on the phone concurred with.
A very friendly French doctor took over to give the jab so that he could watch over me in case things went horribly wrong. Apparently the reactions I’ve had previously are contraindications for the Pfizer vaccine, though I’d never heard of this before.
After Your Jab
Long story short, needle was in and out in seconds without any bother whatsoever. I went over to sit for 15 minutes, having to park my derrière close to the tent so Mr Nice French Doctor could keep an eye on me, which was very reassuring.
I wasn’t concerned about having the vaccination until all this palaver and suddenly I started to get a bit twitchy. Fortunately I had another thing to worry about to take my mind of whether the jab would send me into a sudden heart attack – my bloody parking ticket was going to run out!
You’re asked to wait for 15 minutes after your jab. Where I was, this was fairly well spaced out, with chairs dotted in rows in the middle of the large room. There was a plastic sheet on each chair showing ‘I’m clean’ that you take off when you sit, then put it back on the other way around showing ‘I’m dirty’ when you leave so that the chair can be cleaned afterwards.
Time up, I ambled out and back to my car, being 4 minutes over the ticket, and drove home, sending up a silent prayer that the car park’s ANPR camera team would take pity on vaccination patients (yeah, right!).
The vaccinator will give you a leaflet and a vaccination card to say you’ve had your jab. Make sure to keep these safe. On that card is a space for the confirmation and date when you have the second dose. I wasn’t given a date for the second dose and neither were my parents – our area apparently isn’t pre-booking second doses for patients, which is where concerns are being raised as to whether patients are really guaranteed that follow-up vaccine by 12 weeks. Other counties do seem to be pre-booking the second dose so patients know before they leave when they need to return, so it appears to vary by location.
Any Side Effects?
I’ll be honest here, I’d expected any side-effects to happen the day after the jab, if at all. I’ve been so focused on ensuring my parents got vaccinated and were okay afterwards that I hadn’t thought about my own. It came as a surprise then when less than two hours after I got back home I started to feel pretty tired. My arm felt heavy, but the soreness didn’t start until perhaps 4 hours later, at which point I couldn’t lift my injected arm very much.
By 5 hours later, a level of tiredness hit me full-frontal like being body-slammed the Sandman as he tries to pull down my eye lids. After a little sit down with a cuppa tea, I forced myself into town to run errands and pick up prescriptions just in case the next day, Saturday, I wasn’t up to it. When I came home I felt totally zonked out and exhausted, which lasted most of the evening. I have ME/CFS and fibromyalgia, but I’m lucky in that the Tramadol I take for chronic pain seem to offset the exhaustion a little. They did nothing for me post-vaccination, and the tiredness wasn’t just with my body but with feeling incredibly sleepy. Any time I blinked I felt like I might fall asleep, even walking down the stairs. It made me feel a little more rough and headachy than usual, with a heavy dose of nausea swinging by for a visit, too.
This eased off by the next day so I was back to ‘baseline’ fairly quickly, if this tiredness was indeed directly related to the vaccine. 99.9% of the time I feel like hell so it wasn’t much worse than usual. I wish I’d actually listened to my body and rested that day though. Learn from my mistakes.
There was a soreness in my upper arm for about 3 days, but the first 12 hours were the most intense, and I really wasn’t bothered at all by it; I’ve dealt with a lot, lot worse than not being able to lift my arm up for a couple of days. And that was all I really had to deal with, making me quite lucky.
My parents are in their 70s and had soreness in their arms at the site of injection also, mirroring my experience. However, they had no other side-effects, no tiredness or headaches or anything of note.
The vaccines will affect everyone differently but the scientists remind us that side-effects show that your body is responding and your immune system is acknowledging the vaccine. It does’t, however, indicate that no side-effects are the sign of the vaccine not working. People just respond differently.
- Doctors do have some discretion when it comes to adding people to the at-risk priority lists. If you feel you should be in group 6 but haven’t been contacted, it may be worth speaking to your doctor. Some charities are also offering advice and letter templates for contacting your medical professional to help lobby your case, so you could also check relevant charity website and social media accounts for further support. For instance, the ME Association has a template letter here to send to your doctor.
- Tell the vaccinator about any and all allergies and reactions you’ve had, even if you don’t think they’re relevant. Write a list if you think you’ll forget. If you have quite a few common allergies or have had a serious allergic reactions in the past, especially with any anaphylaxis, you might want to speak to your doctor first to enquire whether the vaccine is safe and suitable for you to take. If they say yes, it might be an idea to ask them to write a letter or send a text to put that into writing for the vaccinator on the day.
- Wear clothing you can easily remove or tug down to bare your upper arm. No latex gimp suits or Spiderman onesies.
- Build flexibility into your days around your vaccination, including the same day, just in case you experience side-effects. This is particularly important if you need to drive and experience tiredness.
- If you’re also having the flu jab, speak to your doctor. The vaccinator asked me if I’d had the flu jab in the past week, so it may be best not to have the two close together.
- Ensure your GP practice has your contact details, including mobile number if you have one. Make sure your home telephone and postal address are correct and up to date so that you don’t miss any communications about your vaccination.
- Everyone responds to vaccines differently in terms of side-effects. I’m obviously not a doctor but common side-effects are a known sign your immune system is responding, which is good, but if you have any concerns then speak to your doctor, especially if symptoms linger for several days.
- In the UK, you won’t know what brand of vaccine you’ll be given until the day as most centres don’t know what stock they’ll have. Patients are not given a choice. As of February 2021, patients will receive either the Oxford-AstraZeneca or BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, though more brands have been pre-ordered by the government for future use.
I personally feel we are very fortunate to be in the 21st century with the technological, scientific and manufacturing advances to be making a vaccine rollout like this possible. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and feelings about the vaccine, but it helps to know that you’re among many people worldwide also receiving theirs. Hopefully this is a glimmer of light towards the Covid-free future we’re all keeping our fingers crossed for.