Last week, Toni Lannigan’s excitement over getting her COVID-19 vaccination quickly turned into panic.
The 32-year-old had no known allergies, but sometimes felt slightly unwell after annual flu shots, so staff at the King’s County Memorial Hospital in Montague, P.E.I., flagged her to wait 30 minutes after her Pfizer-BioNTech shot instead of the usual 15, to make sure she would be all right.
It didn’t take that long before she became very ill. The roof of her mouth itched, her tongue swelled and she became confused.
“I don’t remember everything, but I remember looking around and seeing the nurses so concerned,” she said.
Luckily, the emergency department was just steps away and staff rushed her there, where she said her heart began to race, her blood pressure dropped dramatically and she began having sharp pelvic pains.
Treated with epinephrine
She remembers being treated with epinephrine, a drug used to treat severe allergic reactions, and starting to shake uncontrollably. An ambulance took her to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, where she was admitted to intensive care.
“I felt like I was running a marathon,” she said. “It was a really traumatic thing.”
Lannigan was released after two days, when her blood results improved, her heart returned to normal and she began to feel better.
Back home in rural Montague, she said the vision in one eye is still severely blurred — her doctor is keeping an eye on that — and she is weak, extremely nervous and jumpy. Her head aches, she has no appetite and she isn’t sleeping well.
“Do I feel like myself? Absolutely not. I’m a very bubbly kind of girl — I don’t feel that. I feel very nervous or on edge, and I don’t know why,” she said. “My nerves are shot.”
She’s been thinking about the last text she sent to her daughter right before her vaccination, telling her she loved her.
“Could that have been the last thing I said to my daughter?” she said.
Still supports vaccination
Lannigan herself works in the health-care system, and knows anaphylactic reactions to medications, vaccines or foods are not uncommon. She said she still trusts the health-care system in Canada.
“Just because it happened to me doesn’t … mean that it’s going to happen to you or a person you love,” she said.
She urges people to receive COVID-19 vaccines, but to also educate themselves about what’s in the shot they are receiving and whether they might be allergic to it.
Lannigan is glad her vaccine was administered at a hospital, not one of P.E.I.’s mass clinics. “Would I have made it to where I needed to be?” she wondered, if she had gotten the needle somewhere else.
She has other questions too.
“I couldn’t really get any answers as to why that happened. And I still don’t have any answers,” Lannigan said. She would like to know what vaccine ingredient caused her reaction, and why.
Reactions ‘extremely rare’
Fatima Tokhmafshan is a Montreal-based geneticist and bioethicist who has been combating misinformation about COVID-19 on social media platforms including TikTok. She helped launch COVID-19 Resources Canada, a group that started a website and holds video meetings to let experts answer people’s questions about COVID-19.
She said it is normal and valid to be anxious and have questions about the vaccines, adding that adverse effects are “extremely rare.”
Tokhmafshan said it’s important to stay on top of your own health and share all your medical history with those administering any vaccine.
“Vaccines are safe. They work, They’ve been vigorously tested,” she said. “They are the silver bullet that we have in this battle against the pandemic.”
Tokhmafshan urges everyone who is offered a vaccine to get it. That’s what she herself intends to do, when her turn comes.
“Take heart in knowing that people are monitoring every single adverse reaction that is reported all across the world,” she said.
“The various experts group, they meet very frequently, we discuss this, we discuss what could be the mechanism of this kind of reaction. So there are some unanswered questions for us as well, but we are working together to find answers.”
Side-effects being tracked
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved for use in Canada on Dec. 9, 2020, after scientists finished a two-month review of the company’s clinical trial data and concluded there were no important safety concerns.
The public first began to hear about allergic reactions to the vaccine in early December, when a health care worker in Alaska suffered one. Later in the month, a health worker in Hamilton, Ont., went public about her severe reaction.
On Dec. 12, Health Canada issued a safety alert warning, saying that people with allergies to any of the ingredients in the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine should not receive it.
Health Canada has been tracking reported side-effects following COVID-19 vaccinations since early January. It notes that serious side-effects such as allergic reactions are rare, and says the benefits of the approved vaccines continue to outweigh the risks.
Up to March 19, 2021, Health Canada said there had been 2,530 reports of side-effects after COVID-19 vaccinations — that’s just under 68 reports per 100,000 doses administered. Of those side-effects, 320 were considered serious.
Slightly more of those adverse effects (1,444 with 263 serious ones) were reported from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine than from Moderna (1,079 with 54 serious). The Covishield vaccine (the Serum Institute of India’s version of AstraZeneca) had five total reported adverse effects, one of which was serious.
The most frequently reported serious adverse event was anaphylaxis, which happened in 59 cases, Health Canada said. There have been 24 post-vaccine deaths reported; 13 of them have been deemed unrelated to a vaccine, while 11 remain under investigation.
COVID-19 more serious than vaccines
Tokhmafshan encourages everyone to go through the ingredient lists for the vaccine varieties on Health Canada’s website, and share anything that stands out with their health care provider. She said the ingredient that could potentially cause an allergic reaction is polyethylene glycol, or PEG, although experts don’t yet understand why this may happen.
She said some reports of serious adverse events include rashes or long-lasting fevers, and those are not that serious when considered next to what they are designed to prevent.
“You look at the rate at which these adverse effects are occurring and their nature, and you compare it with COVID-19, the disease,” she said. “The risk of experiencing much more unpleasantness and sickness and disease because of the virus is a lot higher than from the vaccine.”
Health Canada monitoring
In an email statement to CBC P.E.I., a Health Canada spokesman said they are carefully monitoring the post-market (meaning after authorization) safety and effectiveness of authorized COVID-19 vaccines, and keeping Canadians informed by publishing information about adverse events.
For their part, Pfizer executives said in December that there had been no cases of severe allergic reactions to the vaccine during its late-stage clinical trial involving nearly 44,000 volunteers. However, that trial excluded people with a history of severe allergic reactions to any vaccine or to any of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s ingredients.
The trial did include about 6,000 participants with a range of allergic conditions such as pollen allergies and food allergies. Those participants had a history of symptoms including anaphylaxis, but Pfizer said there were no anaphylactic episodes related to the vaccine in the trial.