For Sandra Leal, the decision to get the COVID-19 vaccine was an easy one. As someone who holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health, is a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD), the Executive Vice President of SinfoniaRx (a national medication therapy management services provider) and the President-Elect of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), Sandra’s life’s work has been all about preventing and managing illnesses and disease. Suffice to say, Sandra was armed and ready (no pun intended) with all the information needed to make the decision to #SleeveUp and get the COVID-19 vaccine when it was her turn—not just for herself, but for her community as well as her daughter.
“I have a daughter who has type 1 diabetes,” she shares. “So that’s why I want to protect her.”
Not only was Sandra elated to get the vaccine, but she also jumped at the opportunity to participate in Moderna’s clinical trial for it’s COVID-19 vaccine.
“They were trying to recruit diverse members of our community—including people of different ages and racial backgrounds—so they could make sure the vaccine is safe for different populations,” Sandra explains. “I happen to be Hispanic, so that was one of the reasons I decided to participate [in the trial]. I wanted to make sure that I contributed to that process, since I can speak to the experiences of different community members that I work with. Pharmacists have been very involved in the vaccination process, and it was important to me to speak on that process and the science behind it.”
The Clinical Trial
Although Sandra signed up for Moderna’s Phase 3 clinical trial for its COVID-19 vaccine, she received a placebo rather than the actual vaccine. However, she shared with us that the trial was a great experience that prepared her for getting the real COVID-19 vaccine.
When discussing her experience in the clinical trial, she explains: “They did take quite a bit of lab work to make sure that they were monitoring all of my systems to make sure they were functioning correctly and to get a baseline idea of where my health was at.”
As part of this process, Sandra was also tested for COVID-19. After she was given the first dose of what she thought was the COVID-19 vaccine, Sandra was instructed to download a special app on her phone on which she was to track any side effects she might have from the vaccine. Of course, she didn’t experience any side effects since she was given a placebo. In addition to tracking potential side effects in the study’s app, Sandra also received several follow-up calls in between and after her first and second doses to check on how she was feeling.
“They were tracking all of these potential symptoms to report to the FDA before [the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine] was approved for Emergency Use Authorization [EUA],” says Sandra. “About a week and a half after Moderna received EUA, I was able to find out if I had received the actual vaccine. They told me that since I received a placebo, I had to sign up and schedule an appointment to get the actual COVID-19 vaccine.”
Registering for the Vaccine
Although Sandra was tested for COVID-19 before she could participate in Moderna’s clinical trial, she was not required to take a COVID-19 test before getting her first dose of the actual (non-placebo) COVID-19 vaccine. Since Sandra had already participated in Moderna’s clinical trial, she also received Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine when it came time for her to get the real thing. Prior to receiving her first dose of the vaccine, Sandra had to fill out a questionnaire online to prove that she was eligible at that time to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“You essentially do the questionnaire and schedule an appointment, then show up—as long as you meet the criteria,” she explains. “Registering to get the COVID-19 vaccine is a bit more complicated than getting a regular shot [such as the flu shot]. The reason for this is because you have to be in an eligible group, and different states have their own processes for vaccine rollout.”
Sandra adds that she had a harder time scheduling a COVID-19 vaccination appointment for her mom—who is in the 65 years and older group—than she did scheduling an appointment for herself.
“I was trying to sign her up, for example, and it was quite complicated,” she says. “I went to the website and had to register her. Once I registered her, I had to sign in again and get a verification code. And after that I had to sign in a third time, once I verified the email address I used and entered the verification code. At that point, I could finally start looking for an appointment—but once I started looking for appointments, unfortunately, there were no more available.”
When it comes to scheduling a COVID-19 vaccination appointment for others—such as an elderly relative—Sandra wishes there was an easier process, such as a way to call to make an appointment or a mail-in registration process, for those who don’t have a computer or have difficulty scheduling an appointment on a computer with the current system.
However, she remains optimistic. “I think all those things are continually being improved,” she says. “Every single day we learn more. And you’re seeing it, because the number of people getting vaccinated is growing each and every day. And while that’s a good thing, there’s obviously going to be some kinks in the system that need to be worked out.”
The First Dose
In spite of the difficulties Sandra had signing herself—and her mom—up for the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the appointment itself was pretty seamless. Sandra had a “traditional” scheduled walk-in appointment, although several of her friends and colleagues in the same field had drive-thru appointments at different locations.
“My vaccine was administered by a nurse, but I’ve heard of many different personnel administering the vaccine,” she says. “I have a lot of friends that are pharmacists who are the ones distributing it—either within their state’s public health system or at a college of pharmacy—and they’re working with faculty and students there to help administer the vaccine. So, there are definitely numerous ways that it’s being administered depending on who’s receiving the distribution and how they can help to operationalize it.”
At Sandra’s appointment, they told her what potential side effects to watch for and asked her to report any side effects to VAMS—which stands for “Vaccine Administration Management” and is a web-based platform by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) where people can self-report any side effects they may experience from the COVID-19 vaccine.
As for what side effects Sandra experienced after her first dose, she says, “It felt totally normal.” She adds, “It was almost the same as receiving a flu shot. I maybe felt a little bit more sore [in my arm] than when I got the flu shot, but it wasn’t that much more. I didn’t have any other side effects, though, and the sore arm went away within 24 hours.”
After receiving her first dose, Sandra scheduled an appointment on the spot to get her second dose—a practice that Sandra says is common when getting either the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Sandra also received a paper COVID-19 vaccination record card after getting the first dose of the shot. For those seeking a digital record of proof of their COVID-19 vaccination, MyIR Mobile is free and a great place to start.
The Second Dose
Twenty-eight days after getting the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Sandra was able to get her second dose. She was nervous because she had heard that possible side effects—such as a headache or mild fever—were more likely to happen after the second dose. Fortunately for Sandra, the only side effect she had after getting her second dose of the vaccine was a dull headache that lasted less than 24 hours.
“My experience was truly just like getting a flu shot,” she says.
Even though Sandra had very little side effects, she advises people to keep in mind that side effects are normal and a sign that the COVID-19 vaccine is working. Should they occur, side effects typically resolve within 24 to 48 hours, and Sandra recommends scheduling your COVID-19 vaccine appointment(s) on the weekend or letting your workplace know in advance when you will get the vaccine.
For Sandra, getting the COVID-19 vaccine was momentous for more reasons than one. She was able to ring in 2021 by getting the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine—which she got on New Year’s Eve, 2020.
“To get the dose before the end of the year was very monumental,” says Sandra. “It was so significant—it just felt like ‘hope’ you know? It was so epic to get it the last day of 2020, and start the new year with the hope that we’re actually going to get through this.”
Sandra describes herself as a “huge proponent” of public health and prevention, which is why she urges anyone who can get the COVID-19 vaccine to do so.
“Unfortunately, some people are having what they call ‘long COVID-19’ or ‘long-term consequences,” she says. “There are people that six months after being discharged from the hospital from having COVID-19 are having significant mental health issues like depression and anxiety, as well as significant health and lung issues from what they experienced. I have colleagues who have been out sick now for a month due to COVID-19, so it’s not like it’s a couple of days and then you’re good to go. It’s so unfortunate that we have to wait until somebody we personally know has it before we actually do something about it and believe in it. So, I can’t stress that enough—don’t wait to be a statistic. Don’t wait to experience this. Don’t wait before you believe in it. Because, this is a very preventable thing with the vaccine, and with wearing masks and following all the recommendations for physical distancing, washing your hands, etc.—all those things are really critical to minimizing exposure and illness.”
Now that Sandra is vaccinated, she plans on continuing practicing the COVID-19 safety guidelines put forth by the CDC so she doesn’t accidentally spread coronavirus to someone who has not yet been vaccinated. However, she has a few plans in the works that she didn’t feel comfortable doing until after she got both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I finally scheduled my eye doctor appointment, now that I’ve been vaccinated,” she says. “I’m also planning on traveling in March because I’m getting installed as the president of the American Pharmacists Association. While it’s a virtual meeting, they’re asking myself and the current president (who will also have been vaccinated by this time) to meet in Washington D.C. to do a peaceful transfer of power. So, I’m super excited to actually be able to go now having the peace of mind that I’ve been vaccinated!”
Beyond getting the COVID-19 vaccine, Sandra reminds us of the importance of staying up-to-date on vaccinations.
“Getting vaccinated is so important, because we do see the consequences of not getting vaccinated,” she says. “When we have outbreaks, like with the measles, it’s because not enough people are getting the vaccine. It’s very detrimental when you see that situation happen that is so preventable. I’m not sure why you would say no to something that could completely improve your quality of life and prevent significant complications. Vaccines have improved society so much, and there’s plenty of data, science and literature to back that up. So, in my mind it’s a very clear-cut decision to get vaccinated.”