‘Lightning’s going to strike somewhere’: Juneau health care worker hospitalized, another treated after COVID-19 vaccination

A mostly empty hospital hallway
A nearly empty critical care unit at Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau in April. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Two Juneau health care workers were treated this week for allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine produced by drug companies Pfizer and BioNTech, including one who had a serious anaphylactic reaction and was hospitalized in the intensive care unit, officials said Wednesday.

The woman, who did not have a history of allergies, spent Tuesday night in the ICU at Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital and was taken off epinephrine early Wednesday, officials said at a news conference. She remained in the hospital Wednesday night, hospital officials said.

The second worker experienced eye puffiness, light-headedness and scratchy throat shortly after receiving the vaccine Wednesday, Bartlett officials said in a prepared statement.

The male worker’s was taken to the hospital’s emergency department and was treated with several drugs, the statement said. The man’s reaction was not consider anaphylaxis, and he returned to normal with an hour and was released.

Both workers said they did not want their experiences to deter others from being vaccinated, according to the hospital.

The woman who was hospitalized said she was still enthusiastic about having received the shot, and was disappointed to lose her opportunity to be injected with a second dose a few weeks later, Nobel Anderson, one of her doctors.

“She encouraged all of us to press on,” Anderson said at a Wednesday news conference.

The New York Times first reported the woman’s reaction Wednesday morning. The man’s reaction was announced by the hospital late Wednesday.

The woman’s anaphylactic reaction is the only one reported in the country so far, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases, Dr. Jay Butler, said at the news conference. And the state is not planning any changes to its program for distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer.

“There were over 40,000 people in the trials and we did not see any reactions like this,” she said.

a person wearing a face shield and mask administers a shot to someone wearing scrubs and a mask
Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium nurse Emily Schubert (right) injects nurse anesthetist David Kwiatkowski with the COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday. Kwiatkowski was the third Alaskan to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Zink summarized the event by relaying a comment made by one of the providers who treated the woman’s reaction: “Lightning’s going to strike somewhere.”

“Our goal is to be transparent with Alaskans and the public,” Zink was quoted as saying in the hospital’s statement late Wednesday. “We have no plans to change our vaccine schedule, dosing or regimen.”

Regulators had already warned medical providers to be on the watch for allergies after reports that two British health care workers also experienced anaphylactic reactions when they were injected with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine last week. Alaska hospitals are keeping recipients of the vaccine under observation for a period of time after their injections.

Pfizer has said there were “no safety signals of concern” identified in its clinical vaccine trials, and anaphylactic reactions to vaccines in general are rare, estimated at just over one per million doses.

The woman’s symptoms began 10 minutes after she was injected with the vaccine, when she felt flush while she was still being monitored in the hospital’s foyer, officials said. She took a Benadryl, but still felt short of breath and was transferred to the emergency room, said Lindy Jones, the doctor who treated her there.

Related: COVID-19 vaccinations begin in Alaska

Jones was concerned about an anaphylactic reaction and gave the woman a “standard treatment” of epinephrine, and she “responded immediately,” he said. She was also given other antihistamines, including Benadryl and Pepsid, as well as steroids, which Jones described as another standard treatment for anaphylaxis.

Because the woman’s symptoms returned when she was taken off epinephrine, she was moved to the ICU for observation and kept overnight. Providers plan to discharge her Wednesday evening, “assuming there’s no further symptoms now that she’s off all medication,” Jones said.

CDC employees are now working with Bartlett clinicians to analyze results of lab tests given to the Juneau woman, “so that they can learn from this experience more,” Zink said.

“The system worked exactly as you would hope it would in this situation, to make sure that we’re able to respond and to learn,” she said.

Bartlett, along with Anchorage’s Alaska Native Medical Center, was one of the first places in the state to inject workers with the COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday. Bartlett officials said 144 people had been vaccinated at the hospital by Wednesday evening, with a total of 400 who have signed up to receive shots.

A spokeswoman for ANMC, Shirley Young, said no allergic reactions have occurred at the Anchorage hospital.