First vaccine shot a breeze at Dover speedway, but does ‘hangover without the fun’ loom?

I’ve been anticipating getting a COVID-19 vaccine since the pandemic began. Last weekend, I was one of about 8,000 educators who got the first shot during a mass event in Del.

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Nurse Debbie Petro and the author celebrate after the shot

Nurse Debbie Petro and the author celebrate after the shot. (Delaware National Guard)

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I wheel into the vast sea of mostly barren pavement that encircles Dover International Speedway, which radiates with the glint of orange traffic cones.

My long wait is over.

I’m about to get my first shot.

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Ever since the novel coronavirus struck the globe more than a year ago, I’ve anticipated getting vaccinated.

That’s because I’ve read ad nauseum that developing and distributing a vaccine was the best way to protect myself and others. I believe that.

I don’t want to get gravely ill or sent to an early grave if I get COVID-19 and the insidious and unpredictable disease wreaks havoc on my system. If just one virus-laden droplet got into my eye or penetrated my mask, would I be doomed?

Orange traffic cones line the lanes in the speedway's vast parking lot.
Orange traffic cones lined the lanes in the speedway’s vast parking lot. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

I’ve been tested a half-dozen times and the result has always been negative. Though I have been careful both at work and in my personal life, I have at times put myself at limited and calculated risk.

There were those two protests to reopen the state that I covered in person where many were unmasked and crowded together. Some stories just can’t be reported remotely. I do work out at the YMCA regularly but wear the required at all times and get in and out quickly.

But I want to live fully again — safely — for me and everyone else I encounter. I want to eat in restaurants, which I’ve assiduously avoided. Get on a plane. Hug my two adult children.

So I’ve been beyond anxious to get the doses that medical experts say will almost guarantee that I won’t die or even get sick enough to need hospital care. My eagerness grew more intense after the feds greenlighted two candidates for emergency use in December.

But I’m not in health care, and I’m not 65 — the focus of Delaware’s initial effort to deliver its limited vaccine supplies.

I am, however, an educator, by virtue of working as a journalism adviser for a Wilmington middle school.

So, with Delaware officials focused on trying to fully reopen schools, and me interested in finally meeting my students in person instead of just on Zoom, I immediately registered when the educator’s vaccination portal opened last month.

The selection process was a random lottery and I didn’t get picked initially for educator-centered events. But last week Gov. John Carney announced during his weekly briefing that 8,000 spots were opening up over the weekend for educators at the speedway that hosts NASCAR races.

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And then … voila! I got the invite.

Drivers wait in line to receive COVID-19 vaccinations
The line was steady but not crowded at the check-in spot. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

‘Glad you are getting it, man’

So after an hour-long drive Saturday, I’m lined up behind a handful of vehicles, ten minutes early for my 10:15 a.m. appointment.

It’s not crowded, as the slots were staggered to avoid long lines and waits that hampered previous mass events. Though I was skeptical of Carney’s claims that people were getting in and out in a half-hour, I hoped that proved true and I could be back home in Pike Creek by noon.

Lara Brown of DelDOT approaches my car. She’s chipper and pleasant but ultra-efficient too.

She asks if I have an appointment.

“I just need to take a look at your confirmation. You have your form filled out, correct?’’ she asks, peering into my vehicle. “I just need to make sure you checked ‘first vaccine,’ signed and printed your name, and all the questions on the back are filled out.”

I show her the two-page immunization form I completed before arriving. She stares at the paperwork.

“Perfect,’’ she decrees, directing me forward. “Here’s an information packet. Your wait time shouldn’t be any more than 15 minutes.”

DelDOT's Lara Brown wears a reflective vest and face mask
DelDOT’s Lara Brown was the epitome of efficiency at check-in. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

I am not really worried about side effects, at least for dose number one. But perhaps because, the previous day, a friend posted a photo of his badly swollen face after getting the initial shot, I blurt out, “‘Should I be scared?”

“No, you should not be scared,’’ she replies, comfortingly. “Put your arm at your side and just relax.”

I follow the meandering lane, one of many lanes that are mostly empty. If there were more doses available, it appears the speedway lot could handle tens of thousands of people a day.

Pfc. Cynthia Agramonte inspects paperwork at a checkpoint
Pfc. Cynthia Agramonte of the Delaware Army National Guard inspected paperwork at one checkpoint. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

A few hundred yards later, I hit my next checkpoint in the form of Delaware Army National Guardsman Cynthia Agramonte. She verifies my documents and directs me onward.

As I continue moving down my narrow lane, I spot several large military-style canvas tents. Two more DelDOT workers direct me to the least-crowded one.

Near the entrance, there’s one more checkpoint, stationed by Guardsman Denzel Dalton.

Pfc. Denzel Dalton wears a face mask and a National Guard uniform
Pfc. Denzel Dalton of the Delaware Army National Guard manned the document checkpoint at the entrance to the dosing tent. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

I ask him how the event is progressing. He’s both convivial and professional as he inspects my documents.

“It’s going pretty well, sir,” Dalton says. “So far everybody’s moving smoothly. I get to meet great people, nice people. Everybody’s been a pleasure to work with, a pleasure to meet.”

I mention that I’ve been anxious to get vaccinated.

“You’re excited for it?” he asks. “Glad you are getting it, man.”

No side effects, but second shot could be ‘hangover without the fun’

I drift into the open-air tent, where nurse Debbie Petro, dressed in blue scrubs and wielding a long syringe, greets me with a hearty, “Good morning. How are you?”

Another guardsman orders me to put my car in park and provide my ID and forms. Just as in drive-thru testing events, I stay in the car.

Petro tells me she’s a member of the Delaware Medical Reserve Corps and she’s volunteering to administer doses.

Nurse Debbie Petro wearing a face mask and winter coat
Nurse Debbie Petro volunteered for the mass vaccination event. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

She informs me I’m getting the Pfizer vaccine — not Moderna. Again, I ask about possible side effects.

“Honestly, most people just have sore arms,’’ she reassures.

But in the next breath she issues a warning: “It’s the second that I describe as a hangover without the fun.”

She recounts her own experience with the second dose.

“Chills, low-grade fever, no energy,’’ she explains. “But by the next day, I was fine.”

Cris Barrish gets his first injection of the Pfizer vaccine at Dover International Speedway
The author gets his first injection of the Pfizer vaccine at Dover International Speedway. (Delaware National Guard)

I roll up my sleeve, barely feel a pinch, and we’re done.

The military man snaps a photo of us giving a thumbs up and I’m sent to the post-shot area. Another guardsman instructs me to park and wait about 15 minutes.

Should I experience any discomfort, I’m told to signal to the roving medical van to get examined. She assures me it’s rare for anyone to need assistance from the medical staff.

I park, get out to stretch my legs, and approach two women sitting in their cars in self-observation.

Susan Smith wears a face mask while sitting inside her car
School food service worker Susan Smith praised the vaccination process. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Susan Smith is a food service worker for the Appoquinimink School District in the Middletown area. Kim Nickle teaches eighth-grade English at George Read Middle School near New Castle.

The three of us agree the experience was smooth and simple, perhaps even better than advertised.

“I can’t believe how well-run this organization was. Everything!’ Smith crowed. “I just expected kind of turmoil and chaos. But I just think it was wonderful. They were friendly. They were professional. Whatever they said was going to happen, that’s exactly what happened.

Added Nickle, “The wait time just after [dosing] here was longer than anything else.”

A medical van patrols the post-shot, self-observation area
A medical van patrolled the post-shot, self-observation area. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

I was back on the road by 10:35 a.m. — in and out in exactly a half-hour.

Three days later, the only thing close to a side-effect that I had was a mildly sore arm at the site of the injection. But it was gone by midday Sunday.

When I get the final shot in about three weeks, I hope to get by with just a mild hangover.

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