This story has been updated with additional information and context, including a statement from Pfizer.
A Juneau health care worker was hospitalized and treated for a serious allergic reaction after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, hospital and health officials said Wednesday.
The worker felt flush and took an antihistamine around 10 minutes after receiving the vaccine Tuesday afternoon, authorities said. She felt short of breath and was transferred to the emergency room, said Dr. Lindy Jones, emergency room medical director at Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau.
Upon arriving at the emergency room, where Jones was the attending physician, she had an elevated heart rate and a red rash on her face and torso, he said. Jones began treating her for anaphylaxis with epinephrine and more antihistamines, which she responded to.
But her symptoms began to re-emerge, he said, and she was treated with more epinephrine as well as steroids. When providers tried to wean the worker off the epinephrine, her symptoms re-emerged before resolving once again, Jones said, and she was then moved to the intensive care unit for observation overnight, he said. She was in stable condition “and doing well” on Wednesday, Jones said.
Jones said the plan was to discharge her Wednesday evening, as long as she doesn’t have any more symptoms and remains off all medications, Jones said.
“She was still enthusiastic that she got the vaccine and the benefits that it would give her in the future,” Jones said.
The worker, who was described as middle age, had a positive attitude throughout, Jones said, and was disappointed she won’t be able to get the second dose of the vaccine.
“She encouraged all us to press on,” Jones said.
At Bartlett, vaccinations began Tuesday and nearly 100 frontline hospital staff there have been vaccinated so far, according to Kathryn Bausler, a hospital spokesperson.
The worker did not have a history of allergic reactions and is not allergic to certain vaccines, Jones said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers having a history of severe allergic reaction to some other vaccine as a “precaution,” but doesn’t see it as a reason to avoid the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC, said Wednesday in a video call with reporters.
The CDC recommends that the vaccine be administered in facilities that have supplies for a potential severe allergic reaction and can monitor those who do have a history of such reactions for 30 minutes after vaccination instead of the standard 15 minutes, said Butler, who is also the former Alaska chief medical officer.
The safety of a COVID-19 vaccine is a “top priority,” Butler said, and is balanced against its risks. The Juneau worker’s reaction is the only such case reported so far in the United States.
Butler also encouraged anyone who received the vaccine to enroll in a federal program in which vaccine recipients receive daily check-in texts for the first week after vaccination. Butler said he want to continue transparent communication with the public.
“It’s important that people understand what’s happening, and what’s not happening — what we know and what we don’t,” Butler said.
The Alaska worker’s plight made national and international news Wednesday.
Two health workers in Britain had anaphylactic reactions and recovered after receiving the vaccine when that country began vaccinating people last week. Trials in the United States did not find serious complications among participants, though many had mild side effects including aches and fevers, the New York Times reported.
Alaska received a shipment of the vaccines, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, on Sunday night and began vaccinating this week. Those prioritized the first shots include frontline health care workers, people giving the vaccines, community health aides, long-term care facility residents and staff as well as emergency personnel.
Pfizer responded to questions about the incident saying it was aware of the Alaska incident but did not have all the details yet. Participants in the third phase of its drug trial were excluded if they had historically experienced severe reactions to vaccines or ingredients in the Pfizer vaccines, officials from the drugmaker said in a prepared statement.
“Overall, there were no safety signals of concern identified in our clinical trials, including no signal of serious allergic reactions associated with vaccine,” they wrote. “However, reports of adverse events outside of clinical studies are a very important component to our pharmacovigilance activities and we will review all available information on this case and all reports of adverse events following vaccination.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
Reporter Annie Berman contributed.