A vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine seen on displayed at University of Louisville Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
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Jeanie Wheeler is a volunteer firefighter in Johnson County, Kentucky, in the heart of the eastern Kentucky coalfields. And for Jeanie, her gig was stressful enough already, before the pandemic hit.

“It’s not always a fire that we respond to,” she said, “but accidents, medical emergencies… all those kinds of things. So, you may be up close and personal in a lot of situations. So, it’s been a little difficult here in the last year or so.”

Jeanie is also a retired nurse. And, especially given her medical experience, when she has found herself in close contact with strangers as a firefighter, she says it’s been hard not to think about the coronavirus.

Jeanie Wheeler (Photo submitted)

“It’s always in the back of my mind,” she said. “You know, I have medical issues myself. I have elderly parents who have medical issues. I have grandchildren that are around me occasionally. So, it worries me that I might expose myself to something that I don’t want for sure, and [that] I sure don’t want to take in to anybody else.”

Most of us have been nervous about getting the virus, but for Jeanie, the stakes are a little different. She has type 2 diabetes. While she says she keeps healthy and manages her blood sugar levels well, health professionals say that type 2 is one of several conditions—like COPD, black lung disease, or heart disease, among others—that could make the symptoms of Covid-19 worse, if you were to happen to get it.

So, when she became eligible for a vaccine, Jeanie says she didn’t hesitate.

“Well, given my current medical state,” she said, “I had to make a decision on whether—do you take a chance on getting it, because you know, with your diabetes, that in all likelihood, if it’s a bad case, you’re not gonna make it through? Or do you go ahead and take a chance on taking the vaccine? And I had no issues with deciding that the vaccine was the way to go.”

“And for me,” she added, “I was always for vaccinations for my children. And my daughter’s a frontline worker, and she had her vaccines. My parents have had theirs, and they’re 85 and 89 years old. And they did exceptionally well; they had no side effects whatsoever from either dose.

“You know, this is—it’s not a local thing. It’s a major worldwide issue. And all the other countries are in the same position that we are. So, we just have to take a chance.”

Denesa Watts is a registered nurse and a licensed diabetes educator with the Kentucky River District Health Department in nearby Knott County, Kentucky.

“We do know that people with diabetes are more likely to have more serious complications from Covid-19,” she said. “So, we really encourage people with diabetes to talk to their physicians and to consider having that Covid vaccine. 

“And also, we know that the risk of getting sick from Covid-19 is likely to be lower if their diabetes is well-managed,” Denesa continued. “We know right now is a very stressful time, and lots of times when we’re stressed, we kind of get lax in doing some of those important things: our healthy eating; our physical activity. But it’s more important now than ever to try to keep those blood sugars in control, and to try to keep diabetes well-managed.”

Denesa said she got her own Covid vaccine, quite literally, as soon as she could.

“Absolutely, the first day it was available for me.” she said. “And I’ll never forget it, it was an emotional day too. Because, just thinking [about] the changes in our lives over the past year—and to think about this vaccine, how wonderful it was, that step in getting back to some normalcy in our lives.”

Denesa knows some might have questions about the vaccine, but she says people should know that their doctors, nurses, and health professionals are getting vaccinated themselves. Denesa has even been helping to give out Covid vaccines, on top of her diabetes work.

“In the local health departments, we had long waiting lists when the vaccine came out, [of] folks wanting to get their name down,” she said. “I think most health care providers really feel strongly that the advantage of taking the vaccine greatly outweighs the possible risk from the vaccine. Which, there are other folks who have more side-effects, but from what I’m seeing as a provider, the majority of the time it’s just a little sore arm. And most of those side effects we do see have been going away in 24, 36 hours. It doesn’t last long in general.”

When it came to her side effects, Jeanie Wheeler said they were manageable. 

“With my vaccine, the first one, my arm was a little sore,” she said. “The day afterward, I was a little sluggish, you know, but nothing really drastic at all.”

“And with the second one, my arm got pretty sore that time. The next day, I just wanted to kind of lay around the house, and didn’t really feel like eating much that day or anything. But, I mean, there were no side effects that were really any major issues.”

On that note, you might have heard that, this spring, the FDA instituted a temporary, eleven-day pause on the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. According to the FDA, this happened after a small number of people developed a serious blood clotting issue in the days following their vaccination. All in all, though, this issue has been incredibly rare: so far, it’s affected just about seven out of every 1 million women aged 18-49 who’ve gotten the J&J shot, and the risk is seen as even lower in men, as well as in women aged 50 and older.

While the pause understandably grabbed a bunch of headlines, health experts say it was actually a sign the system is working like it should: to help medical providers best look out for people who might end up with these rare side effects. In the U.S., the vast majority of vaccines given out have been from Pfizer or Moderna, and there have been no reports of a similar issue with them.

“I’ve been a public health nurse for 33 years,” said Denesa Watts. “I’ve always been an advocate of all of our vaccines. I spent many years vaccinating babies [and] young children: with the TDAP, the measles-mumps-rubella, [and] chicken pox [vaccines].

“We just really encourage people—those not only with diabetes, but anyone—to look at the possible risk if they actually did contract the Covid-19 virus, and kind of weigh the risk with the vaccine,” she said. “It’s not something that has been looked at lightly. It has been tested; [there have been] trials. So, we feel that it is a safe vaccine.”

“With the fire department,” said Jeanie Wheeler, “we have a lot of EMTs, and we have career firefighters as well as the volunteers. And they have all been more than willing to take the vaccine and to protect themselves. So, I mean, it’s not like anybody is forcing you to do that. But it’s just a personal decision that you have to make yourself.”

“I’m a very devout Christian,” she added. “And the Lord has got it in his hands, and whichever way it works out is the way it’s going to be. But I see no reason to take chances that you don’t have to take. So, therefore, the vaccine, that was my choice.”

This article was produced by Prevent Diabetes EKY, a collaboration of the Kentucky Department for Public HealthAppalshopMaking Connections News, and WMMT-FM.