Alaskan has nation’s first—and only—severe allergic reaction to coronavirus vaccine

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S. Virus particles are shown emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. The spikes on the outer edge of the virus particles give coronaviruses their name, crown-like. Credit: NIAID-RML.

State, local and federal health officials are stressing transparency after a health care worker in Alaska had the nation’s first and, so far, only severe allergic reaction to the coronavirus vaccine, marking just the third such incident worldwide as the vaccine rolls out.

According to the state, a health care worker experienced an allergic reaction about 10 minutes after receiving the vaccine on Tuesday at Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital and was later admitted to the emergency department, where she experienced anaphylactic shock and was administered the typical course of medicine for a severe allergic reaction. She is currently in stable condition after an overnight stay at the hospital.

Health officials, including Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC who was formerly Alaska’s chief medical officer, stressed that transparency with the vaccine is critical and that the existing systems caught the reaction and provided for an appropriate response.

“Vaccine safety is a top priority of course and balancing any potential risks with the benefit the vaccine provides in ending the pandemic is an ongoing process,” he said. “So far, this is the only case in the United States. It doesn’t mean there won’t be more cases as well, so we will continue to monitor it closely.”

He said the response of the staff at the Bartlett Hospital, which logged the reaction through the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, is a model example for how handle the potential risk of such reactions. Officials said nearly 100 vaccines were administered at Bartlett Hospital on Tuesday as part of a distribution of more than 31,500 doses of the Pfizer vaccine reaches Alaska.

Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, noted that such a reaction appears to be extremely rare. No such reactions were reported in clinical trials with more than 40,000 people and just two other cases of a severe allergic reaction were reported in Britain, which began rolling out the vaccine last week.

“Lightning’s going to strike anywhere,” she said, relaying comments made by one of the people who treated the Alaska health care worker.

Last week, Zink addressed a series of questions about vaccine conspiracy theories from legislators, including one about whether it could induce severe allergic reactions (as well as it altering DNA and containing tracking microchips). She said an allergic reaction could be possible but would be rare.

As for that health care worker, the state didn’t offer many details about the nature of her work. They did say out of concern for her safety, she will not be receiving the second dose of the vaccine necessary to establish coronavirus immunity.

Doctors from Bartlett Hospital said that she was in good spirits and wanted to see the vaccination program continue.

“She was very positive throughout it except when she was having, yes, an anaphylactic reaction,” said Dr. Nobel Anderson, one of the doctors who treated the woman. “She kept a very positive attitude, and she was excited that she got the first dose and disappointed she will not be getting the second dose and encouraged all of us to press on.”

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