Have you ever felt like a “guinea pig?” No, not literally but the figurative one—like you are part of some grand experiment? Over my many years of clinical practice, patients have mentioned feeling that way when we discussed treatment options. My standard response has largely been “I understand and in reality, you are your own guinea pig.” What I meant by that is for every treatment, science can instruct as to the known effectiveness and side effects of the treatment, but each individual will have a unique response.
Recently I took the role of patient. As an emergency psychiatrist working in a busy emergency department, I was placed on a list to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. As the days approached to my appointment, I thought more on the guinea pig statement. What does it mean to be one of the first to receive the vaccine? Will I have some type of terrible reaction? The pros and cons flittered through my mind. For hospital providers, this is not entirely new. We were in a similar situation with the swine flu vaccine several years ago. Many providers were scared—of the vaccine but more so, of the infection. People received the vaccine and very few had major reactions.
Currently, there is a lot to weigh in contemplating receipt of the vaccine—individual benefits and risks, as well as societal benefit. In this case, the individual benefit is clear. Having seen the effects of the virus firsthand, I definitely know I don’t want the infection and I am tired of being cooped up at home! In terms of risk, there has been a lot of media coverage over rare adverse events, but the most likely side effects are similar to other immunizations: soreness at the injection site, fatigue, muscle aches and a low-grade fever. The societal benefit of receiving the vaccine is huge (or on the flipside, the societal risk is huge in not receiving the vaccine), as the vaccine only helps the larger population if each of us choose to be inoculated. You see, COVID-19 will have less and less people to infect.
So—what was my reaction to the vaccine? Just a little shoulder tenderness and a lot of warm, hopeful feelings about our future.