“I feel safer going to work knowing I’m protected and in a sense, protecting my patients as well,” Mechelle Punjwani (21B) said. “I thought it was important to take the first opportunity I got to achieve herd immunity at a faster rate for the community.”
Punjwani, a data analyst at Peachtree Orthopedics, was among the first group of Emory students to be vaccinated. In late December, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech began distributing their long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines to healthcare personnel, as the first step of a phased distribution plan.
Punjwani and patient care technician Natalie Scales (21N) received the Moderna vaccine, while nurse Eva Cheng (19N) and scribe Brian Wang (22C) received the Pfizer vaccine. Both vaccines require two doses, administered either three weeks (Pfizer) or one month (Moderna) apart.
The vaccines both work through injecting genetic instructions, through the form of messenger RNA (mRNA), to build the spike proteins found on the surface of COVID-19. When the body detects the proteins, the immune system will produce antibodies, which fight the virus.
This process can result in a variety of side effects. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these effects include pain, swelling, fever, chills, fatigue and headache, which should subside in a few days. However, when a vaccinated person then contracts COVID-19, their body will already know how to quickly create the necessary antibodies to quickly fight the virus without strong, adverse symptoms.
After graduation, Cheng began working at Emory University Hospital in 2019 as a cardiothoracic operating room nurse. As a health care worker, Cheng could receive and administer the vaccine. She received the doses on Dec. 19 and Jan. 6.
As a scribe, Wang charts patient-physician encounters. He first received a consent form through He then received the two doses on Dec. 28 and Jan. 19. Afterwards, he received a card administered by the CDC which recorded information about the patient and the vaccine, including the date he received the vaccine.
The shot only took a few minutes, but Wang noted that he was instructed to stay for 15 minutes afterwards to confirm no immediate reactions occurred. In an email to the Wheel, Cheng wrote Emory Healthcare employees have recorded patients react more severely to the second dose, which Wang experienced. Cheng said she only experienced soreness at the injection site for a day.
“The first very dose was fine,” Wang said. “Once I got the second dose … I had body aches that would run down from my shoulders down to my fingertips … and I had a slight headache.”
Scales was eligible for the vaccine as a frontline health care worker and a nursing student. She received the first dose on Jan. 7 and is scheduled to receive the second on Feb. 7. Scales experienced headaches and chills for two days after the first dose.
Scales had already contracted COVID-19 in July 2020; however, she was scared of contracting the virus again. When the pandemic first hit in March, many health care workers were forced to work without sufficient personal protective equipment.
“The first few months of me working at Emory, I was very scared,” Scales said. “We have [personal protective equipment] and everything, but people were still getting really sick. The vaccine is an extra barrier, a protection for health care workers. I think the shot has reduced a lot of the stress for the healthcare team.”
Wang agreed with Scales’ previous worries and said he considered quitting his job before receiving the vaccine due to fear of contracting COVID-19. He was especially concerned about exposing his parents to the virus.
“I did take a leave of absence though for a little bit because I was scared for my parents for a little, and I obviously didn’t want to get them sick,” Wang said.
Scales noted that although the vaccine alleviated some health care workers’ worries, others remained concerned about its safety. Wang said a few of his colleagues declined the vaccine because they were afraid of possible negative effects. Scales noted that her pregnant colleagues were especially anxious about the vaccine’s effect on fertility.
Nevertheless, Scales emphasized the importance of vaccinating students. Punjwani and Wang recommended all students receive the vaccine.
“Don’t be afraid of the symptoms,” he said. “I’m sure most people would agree that the few days, or even day, of body aches and headache is worth the gaining of freedom again.”