Local Physicians Stress the Importance of Receiving COVID-19 Vaccine as Distribution Continues

Feb 22, 2021

BROWNSVILLE & HARLINGEN – As health and government officials throughout the Rio Grande Valley continue to plan COVID-19 vaccination events as supply permits, area physicians are encouraging local residents to consider receiving the vaccination as soon as they are eligible to do so.

For Dr. Beverly Zavaleta, physician adviser at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville, and Dr. Christopher Romero, internal medicine specialist at Valley Baptist-Harlingen, such encouragement was not offered lightly – both elected to receive the vaccination as soon as it was available to them.

“I was looking forward to getting vaccinated because I wanted increased protection from COVID infection over that provided by personal protective equipment. This is both because I work in a high-exposure area taking care of COVID-19 patients, and because as a cancer survivor I’m at high-risk of severe COVID disease should I become ill,” said Zavaleta, who received both doses of the Pfizer version of the COVID vaccine. “I also want to protect my family, especially elderly family members, from potentially catching COVID from me. I’m looking forward to the time, months from now, when the majority of the population is vaccinated and we can socialize without wearing masks.”

Romero, who also received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, expressed a similar sentiment regarding his vaccination, stressing that electing to receive the vaccine not only offered him an extra layer of protection when treating COVID patients, but also plays a role in reducing the community transmission of the virus that has put a severe strain on the region’s healthcare system.

“I have been working around COVID patients for months, and every day I hope and pray that I am not bringing something home to my family. I also know that the vast majority of infections in our community are happening when people are going about their daily lives, going to the store, getting gas, seeing family and friends,” he said. “If there is anything I can do to help break the chain of spread, I am going to do it. Being vaccinated hopefully will not only protect me, but should help break the chain of transmission.”

Both physicians said the mild side effects they experienced after receiving both doses of the vaccine paled in comparison to the potential impact of severe illness associated with contracting COVID-19.

“After my first dose of COVID vaccine, I had a little arm soreness and was a bit tired that evening. I’ll admit that going into my second dose, I was nervous, since I’d heard that the side effects could be more severe. After my second dose, however, I felt fine except for some arms soreness,” Zavaleta said. “The next morning, I awoke with body aches. These body and muscle aches continued throughout the day, but improved with acetaminophen. Luckily, I didn’t have to work and I hadn’t planned any errands – so I caught up on TV shows and reading. By the following day I felt back to normal and I was able to exercise in the afternoon.”

Romero said that while the side effects following his second dose of the vaccine were mildly inconvenient, they were tangible proof that his immune system was working to develop the antibodies needed to ward off future COVID-19 infection.

“I had zero side effects after the first dose. After the second dose I experienced what I was expecting based upon the clinical trial data the FDA used to give the vaccine its approval. About 84 percent of people in the Phase III trial had injection site reaction, 62.9 percent of people had fatigue, 55 percent of people had headache, and over 38 percent of people had muscle pain. These reactions were more common in vaccine recipients under 65 years old,” he said. “The day after my second dose, my arm was stiff and ached where I had been vaccinated, I was a little tired and feeling worn down. The next day I was back to normal. I actually was pretty encouraged by these symptoms as it meant that my body was reacting to the vaccine and my immune system was getting revved up for a fight.”

For those who have already received the first dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna versions of the COVID vaccine, making the commitment to receive the second dose is key to full protection and slowing community spread of COVID-19, Zavaleta said, adding that even with both doses, continuing to practice COVID safety measures will still be critical for some time.

“Remember that after the first vaccine dose, you only have 50 -percent immunity after ten days and 95-percent protection doesn’t occur until three weeks after the second shot. This means that after you receive your vaccine, you shouldn’t change your COVID safety measures,” she said. “Additionally, and this is hard to hear, in order to decrease COVID-19 transmission we have to wear masks, wash hands, and continue to physically distance until we reach 80-to-85-percent population vaccination levels. It’s tough, but we have to do it, especially given that the newer strains are more transmissible.”

While the various versions of the COVID-19 vaccine are still not widely available to the public, Romero said local residents who may be unsure of obtaining the vaccine should strongly consider doing so as soon as they are able.

“I think people should talk to their doctor and weigh their risks. We weigh risks and benefits every day in our lives, such as when we decide to drive in a car,” he said. “With how severely this disease has impacted our community, many of us have seen firsthand what that risk looks like. If someone has those conditions that are known to increase the risk of having severe disease from COVID-19, such as diabetes, obesity, kidney problems, COPD, heart disease, or smoking history, they should strongly consider vaccination.”

Until the versions of the vaccine become more readily available, both Zavaleta and Romero encouraged local residents interested in receiving the vaccine to check with their doctor, in addition to following area newscasts and the Cameron County Public Health Department’s website at https://www.cameroncounty.us/publichealth/index.php/coronavirus/ for the latest information on vaccine distribution efforts.

“For information about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, check your county health department website or the CDC website to be directed to your local resources. In addition, many physicians are receiving shipments of vaccine for vaccinating their high-risk patients, so check with your doctor,” Zavaleta said.

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