Utahns find the second dose of COVID-19 vaccine can bring harsher side effects

Arm soreness tops the list, but vaccinated Utahns also describe fatigue, headaches, muscle pain and fever.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nurse Julia Paas, right, goes over information with Betsy Altschuler as she gets ready to receive her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Utah Film Studios in Park City on Thursday, March 18, 2021.

Shelise Andersen felt tired after her first COVID-19 vaccination, but the second one “was a little more adventurous.”

“They warned of flu-like symptoms, and sure enough, I got them,” said Andersen, 32, an EMT and online English teacher who lives in Vernal. She had a fever, body aches “that felt like charley horse cramps,” and was “wiped-out tired.”

Andersen experienced what experts from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned everyone: The side effects from the second shot hit harder than the effects of the first one.

She was one of nearly 100 Salt Lake Tribune readers who have had both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and responded to a request to share stories about their vaccinations. Of the 148 Utahns who wrote to The Tribune, 43 had not yet received the second dose, and another nine got the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Nearly all of the readers who had received a second dose reported some kind of side effect from it — more than the majority who experienced side effects from the first dose, the bulk of which were no worse than soreness in the arm where people got jabbed.

While Cheryl Soshnik, 71, said recovering from the second dose was “one week of hell” for her, most side effects from either dose go away after 24 to 48 hours, both Tribune readers and medical experts say.

“Virtually all of the side effects are uncomplicated and people recover within a day or two,” said Dr. Sankar Swaninathan, chief of the infectious diseases division at University of Utah Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not reported a significant difference in side effects among the three approved vaccine brands: The two-shot Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna versions, and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Among the more than half a million Utahns who have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, 184 people had bad reactions — ranging from fever and nausea to muscle and joint pain — that have been reported to a federal database.

The database includes five Utahns who died after they got a shot, but federal health officials say they have found “no evidence that vaccination contributed to patient deaths” in any cases. There have been no deaths in Utah because of COVID-19 vaccines, the state’s Office of the Medical Examiner confirmed in a statement Thursday. And no Utahns have reported having a rare severe allergic reaction to the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines; that possibility is why vaccine recipients are observed for 15 minutes after a shot.

Feeling fatigue, fever, chills

A handful of responding Tribune readers said they had no ill effects after the second vaccination. Just over half of the readers said their second doses caused arm soreness — which was significantly less than number who said their arms hurt after a first dose.

It’s also less than the 75% of patients nationally, based on data from the CDC’s v-safe smartphone app (and reported in the journal Nature). That discrepancy could be explained, in part, by the small sample size of the Tribune’s respondents.

Pamela Carson was among those who experienced arm soreness both times. “By the second dose, I knew what to expect,” said Carson, 74, a retired secondary school teacher living in Salt Lake City. “The shot did not hurt, and I only had a sore arm.”

Half of the people tallied in the CDC’s data, and nearly as many Tribune readers, reported fatigue after the second shot. (Only 1 in 5 Tribune readers who responded said they felt fatigue after the first dose.)

[Read more: Here are the side effects these Utahns felt after their first shots of COVID-19 vaccine]

Melissa Bunton, 43, said she had “a really sore arm and I felt completely run down for about a day after.” Bunton, a substitute teacher from Tooele, added she “was still able to go to work, but was very tired.”

Nationally, recent CDC research showed, women report more significant side effects from COVID-19 vaccines than men.

Other symptoms also spiked the second time around for Tribune readers. A quarter had a headache and a third said they experienced muscle pain. In the CDC data, both symptoms were reported by 42% of people who got a second dose, up from 26% for headaches and 17% for muscle pain after a first dose.

The side effect that showed the biggest increase, among Tribune readers, was chills. After the first dose, only a small number said they felt chills; after the second dose, that went up to more than a quarter — close to the 29% reported in the CDC data.

Soshnik, a retired nurse living in Park City, has helped other seniors get registered for their vaccination appointments. After her own second dose, she had the “flu-like symptoms” the CDC warns are possible.

“Thirty-six hours of fever of 103, beginning 16 hours after the injection. Then, after the high fever broke, a low-grade fever for the next four days,” Soshnik said. “Totally weak, with diarrhea and body aches.”

Katie Simpson, 30, a mental health therapist who lives in Sandy, said she “experienced moderate to severe flu-like symptoms” 18 hours after getting her shot. “I had a fever; bone, muscle, joint pain, chills; back muscle spasms, headache, fatigue and body aches,” she said. After 12 hours, Simpson said, they subsided.

Kim Gardner, 42, a veterinary technician from West Jordan, said she suffered a migraine that was bad enough that she called urgent care — which told her to take acetaminophen. “The next day I had cold chills, fever, body aches, fatigue and was exhausted,” Gardner said. “That lasted about 24 hours.”

A day and a night of side effects, Gardner said, was, “honestly, a fair trade for a lifesaving vaccine. I look forward to the day my whole family can be vaccinated and herd immunity is achieved.”

‘I took the shot for everyone’

Other Tribune readers expressed similar sentiments.

“Even with the symptoms I got after the second dose, I’m glad I got the vaccine,” said Andersen, the EMT in Vernal. “I share with people my experience, so they are informed to make their own decision. But I still recommend it.”

Devon Cooper, 40, a math teacher at West Valley City’s Hunter High School, experienced 24 hours with joint pain, body aches, fever and chills after his second shot. But he’s glad he did it. “I didn’t take the shot just for me,” Cooper said. “I took the shot for everyone I come in contact with.”

Carson, the retired teacher, said that after her second shot in late February, “I think I came home with a smile and a private smirk, but no one could tell because I had my face mask on.”

Getting the vaccine meant “being able to see the grandkids again, and [thinking about] how much I looked forward to seeing them,” she said.

Not long after getting the second dose, Carson said, she visited her grandchildren in person. “After almost an entire year,” she said, “this made us very happy.”