With the first COVID-19 vaccines rolling out to frontline healthcare workers, we asked physician assistant Amanda Stearns what it was like to receive her first dose during this Pulsar podcast brought to you by #MOSatHome. We ask questions submitted by listeners, so if you have a question you'd like us to ask an expert, send it to us at sciencequestions@mos.org.

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ERIC: The effort to understand COVID-19 and develop a vaccine has been nothing short of a monumental achievement in science. Less than a year after the virus was identified, the first wave of vaccinations is taking place across the world.

Today on Pulsar, I ask a question we've gotten several times. What's it like to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

I'm your host, Eric, and my guest today is Amanda Stearns, a health care professional on the front lines of the pandemic. Amanda, thanks so much for joining me today.

AMANDA: Hi. Thanks for having me.

ERIC: So why don't we start with where you work and what you do.

AMANDA: So I am a physician assistant. I work at Chestnut Hill Hospital. It's a small community hospital outside of Philadelphia. And I work in the emergency department there.

ERIC: And I'm sure the coronavirus has become a huge influence on the daily routine for you.

AMANDA: So I see COVID patients every day. I actually started working in April. So my entire time in health care has pretty much been dominated by caring for COVID patients. So we see probably a good mix of people coming in who are sick, sick from COVID versus having mild symptoms and just kind of requesting testing and things like that.

ERIC: Can you tell us about the PPE, the Personal Protective Equipment, that's the first line of defense against getting infected when working with COVID patients? We had listeners asking what you wear and how long it takes to put on.

AMANDA: We wear N95s every shift for your entire shift. When you start working in an emergency department, you get fit tested for that, meaning that they will actually test to make sure that the size is right for you and there's a good seal. We wear a face shield as well and then gown and gloves when you go in to see every patient.

So the gown and gloves you get rid of, and then the N95 and face shield you wear again. It takes probably a couple minutes to get everything on and back off when you leave the room.

ERIC: And how is it to wear that medical-grade mask all day?

AMANDA: As far as wearing the N95 for a 10-plus-hour shift, some people say it's painful. I think, personally, that it's very itchy. Like, it kind of makes your face itch all day.

And it's, I think, something you kind of get used to over the course of the day. And then by the time I get home, I'm sitting in my living room, and I reach up because I'm like, wait, where's my N95? I'm so used to wearing it.

ERIC: Now getting to the vaccine, we all followed the progress of clinical trials and approvals throughout 2020. And then in December, the first doses started to roll out. How did you find out that you'd be getting the vaccine?

AMANDA: We heard through email, actually, and then my ER director came and talked to us as well because I think she was very excited to tell us that we were getting the Pfizer vaccine.

So we heard in the email first that they would let us know what tier we were in and when we could start to set up our appointments. So we're all checking our emails obsessively.

And maybe like a day or two later, I found out that I was tier 1A and I could set up my appointment to get the vaccine.

ERIC: So the first shots were given in the US outside of the testing phase on December 14. When were you able to get yours?

AMANDA: December 18 was when I got the first dose.

ERIC: And we got a few people asking, was this any different from receiving other vaccines, like the flu shot?

AMANDA: It was mostly the same. Everyone had to set up appointments. And then we had a clinic going on in a conference room in the hospital. And so you went to your appointment. The vaccine takes all of 5 seconds to administer.

And then they actually had us wait for about 15 minutes. Everyone who got the vaccine had to wait for around 15 minutes just to see if there were side effects or anything like that.

ERIC: Did you experience anything like that, either right away or later that day?

AMANDA: The only side effect that I had - and this is what all of the other providers in the ER said they had as well - was just some pain at the injection site. It didn't hurt with movement, only really if someone touched it. And that's when I found out that my spouse touches my arm 500 times a day.

ERIC: Yeah, I've had that with the flu shot. It sort of feels like you banged your arm on something all night, and then the next day, it's gone.

AMANDA: Yeah, and that's what it was. It lasted for about 24 hours.

ERIC: So you've had the first dose of the vaccine, but you need two shots. Do you have the second one scheduled yet?

AMANDA: I do, yes. So two doses spaced apart by three weeks. And January 8 is when my next appointment is.

ERIC: So when this episode is live, you will have already had your second dose. A lot of people are asking, what's next? Did you get a time frame for how long it takes before you'll start to build immunity to the virus?

AMANDA: What they've seen from the trials and the studies is that it takes a few weeks. Another thing I would say is that all the studies have shown, certainly, that the vaccine will likely decrease your chances of getting COVID, decrease morbidity, things like that.

But we don't have a ton of data on how it affects transmission and viral shedding and things like that.

And so get the vaccine if it's available to you. You don't have any reasons not to get the vaccine. But I would say, this isn't exactly the end of the road. We have to keep wearing our masks. We have to keep washing our hands. We have to keep all kinds of gatherings at low numbers and things like that.

It's not going to be that restrictions change based on how many people have gotten the vaccine, but more we're still going to be looking at the numbers and the data and seeing how many cases we have.

So I think it's so exciting that the vaccine is being rolled out. We were all so excited to get it. I think it's amazing that they were able to have it approved so quickly. But I think we need to kind of keep doing exactly what we're doing.

ERIC: So it's not like three weeks to the day after your second dose, you can just throw away all your masks and...


ERIC: It's not like the movies where you get a special bracelet that says "immunized," and you can go around doing whatever you want.

AMANDA: Exactly.

ERIC: Well, any final thoughts on the pandemic and being on the front lines, knowing that you've gotten the vaccine but we're still a long way from the end?

AMANDA: Yeah, it really has just kind of been crazy working only during the time of COVID. And it's been so wild to see how things have changed so much in that short amount of time.

I think there will be some challenges now that we have a vaccine, kind of talking to people and convincing people that the road's not over and we still have a little ways to go.

But I think we've turned an exciting page. And I'm kind of looking forward to when the vaccine becomes available to the general public. It's been nice seeing all the pictures that people have been posting of getting the vaccine. Everyone's been so excited.

ERIC: Yeah, I was going to ask, did you get a vaccine selfie?

AMANDA: I did. I didn't post it, but I do have my vaccine selfie. I mean, it feels like history is being made.

ERIC: Well, Amanda, thank you so much for talking to us about what it was like to get your COVID vaccine.

AMANDA: Of course. Thanks for having me.

ERIC: If you've got questions you'd like us to answer on the podcast, send them to sciencequestions@mos.org.

For more on the science behind the COVID vaccine, visit mos.org/coronavirus.

Until next time, keep asking questions.

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