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Local nurse shares what convinced her to get COVID-19 vaccine while pregnant

“The more you look into the science behind it, the more reassured that you should be that this is a safe thing to do,” said Brit Teson, labor and delivery nurse with Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital

WOODSTOCK – Brit Teson, a labor and delivery nurse at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital in DeKalb, has been at her Woodstock home since July on maternity leave with her 1-month-old infant.

Months before that and during her pregnancy, though, she had been hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine. She said she’s sharing her story now to encourage people to thoroughly research the science behind the vaccine’s inception, and why she believes “it’s a safe thing to do.”

Around the time the vaccine began making its rounds in the United States, Teson said she also happened to be in an ethics class for her master’s degree in nursing. In the class, she said there was a lot of discussion regarding vaccine development, control groups for testing, and those who were historically excluded from testing – including “people who are pregnant, because they are considered unsafe in the U.S. for testing.”

“So that hit home, being that I was pregnant and knowing that the pregnant population can’t have the vaccine tested on them,” Teson said.

The science behind the science

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnant people are at an increased risk for severe cases of COVID-19, including hospitalization, intensive care, requirement of a ventilator or special equipment to breathe, or illness that results in death. Pregnant people with COVID-19 are also at an increased risk for preterm birth.

While data surrounding vaccination trials specifically tracking pregnant people’s reactions is more limited, pregnant people are encouraged to consider “the limited but growing evidence about the safety of vaccinations during pregnancy,” according to the CDC.

Teson said her ethics class also addressed other common questions about the vaccine approval process: Were federal authorities jumping red tape lines to get this vaccine available to the public sooner? Did that mean it wasn’t going to be as safe as other vaccines who went through the full length of trials and testing? All things considered, she said, she learned there were no steps cut and that safety was at the utmost concern during the development of the vaccine.

“It just goes to show you what science can do when there is a public interest and vested interest in something like this, where you can make these developments at rapid pace versus the decades that it can take for other vaccines,” Teson said. “So I thought that was really cool.”

Teson also consulted with her own obstetrician, along with her health worker colleagues, and the professional consensus she got at that time back in December was to wait. Nearly eight months later, the guidance from the CDC is such: pregnant and breastfeeding people can get the COVID-19 vaccine, which serves as protection for severe illness. The recommendation to consult healthcare professionals remains.

Clinical trials specifically for COVID-19 vaccines are underway or planned, according to the CDC, and major vaccine manufactures including Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson are also collecting and reviewing data from people in the completed clinical trials who received the vaccine and then became pregnant.

“Early data from these systems are preliminary, but reassuring,” the CDC states. “These data did not identify any safety concerns for pregnant people who were vaccinated or for their babies.”

For Teson, more aware of scientific terminology and protocol than others, digging more into the genesis of the vaccine, and its scientific components, was reassuring.

She said she dug up an old biology textbook – along with some additional research articles – to brush up on mRNA technology that the vaccine uses and the efficacy and safety of it. The research shows that mRNA technology allowed for the creation of a non-live virus vaccine that triggers an immune response for protection and does not affect, alter or interact with a person’s DNA in any way, according to the CDC.

“I think that piece of information was the most reassuring to me, to look back on the history of that [mRNA] technology itself and how it’s worked in the past,” Teson said.

Teson said she also had concerns about the COVID-19 virus itself, since she has health issues of her own that affect her immune system – though she said she has been in remission for those issues for about a decade. She said her doctors thought it would be a good idea for her to get the vaccine.

“Because the side effects of that were much less than the side effects of actually contracting COVID,” Teson said.

First dose down

Right after Christmas, Teson received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

She said she spent about 24 hours on the couch recovering from the first dose.

Then days later, she “came down with full-blown COVID,” she said, believing that she was exposed at Christmas after gathering with her family.

“So shame on me as a healthcare worker,” Teson said. “I knew better than to go mingle with family who I hadn’t seen, because we had been doing very well with quarantining and isolating from family. “But we were letting our [other two] kids announce the pregnancy to family. And so we went and had Christmas together with family, who were asymptomatic at the time.”

And so COVID-19 spread through her family, Teson said. Her two children didn’t get sick, but she and her husband did.

“I was pretty miserable for about 10 days,” Teson said.

Teson said she wasn’t hospitalized, though she “thought about it a few times.”

“I think my husband really wished he could have convinced me to go to the ER, but you know, those stubborn nurses, we make terrible patients,” Teson said with a chuckle. “I was not about to be dragged into an ER with other sick people. I was going to stick it out at home.”

Four weeks later, Teson said she got her second dose.

Yes, getting vaccinated even after contracting COVID-19 still is recommended, according to the CDC, a message ramped up in recent weeks as the delta variant, highly contagious, rampages through the country and becomes the dominant strain.

“That’s because experts do not yet know how long you are protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19,” according to the CDC. “Even if you have already recovered from COVID-19, it is possible —although rare — that you could be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 again. Studies have shown that vaccination provides a strong boost in protection in people who have recovered from COVID-19.”

Teson said it was “an ugly couple of days” after getting the second dose. She said her symptoms – which included a 102-degree fever, chills and a migraine-like headache – were significant enough to have her sent home from her night shift.

“But had I [had] to do it all over again, I would,” Teson said.

On to clinical trials

Since she’s a healthcare worker who was pregnant and also contracted COVID-19 and then was vaccinated, Teson’s unique experience has allowed her to begin participating in multiple clinical studies, she said, helping medical researchers compile needed data on the experience to better inform future steps.

Teson said she wanted to do so to contribute to science and data collection, for her own personal health knowledge and to contribute to herd immunity for those who are too sick to get vaccinated or “for my younger kids, who are under 12, who don’t even have the option to get it.”

“That means a lot to me, just being able to contribute to public safety,” Teson said.

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor poll, one-fifth of participants who said they would wait and see before getting the COVID-19 vaccine in January now report being vaccinated in June.

Conversations with family and friends played a role in decision making for those participants: “17% of adults who are now vaccinated after saying in January they planned on waiting to get vaccinated, would only get it if required, or would definitely not get vaccinated, say they were persuaded to do so by a family member and 5% say they were persuaded by a friend,” the findings stated.

Teson said she still believes that, “especially with the newness of this and the fact that it’s not FDA approved, it’s a personal choice for everybody.” She said she believes “nobody should be bullied or pressured into it because someone else says so.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized three COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use, including the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, and the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot. Emergency use comes with its own set of carefully researched, data-driven criteria, including doctors and scientists analyzing data collected through clinical trials, and determining sufficient efficacy and safety.

The emergency use authorization is based on the evidence which shows that the known, recorded and potential benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine outweigh any unknowns, according to the FDA.

COVID-19 vaccines are the best way to prevent serious illness or death from COVID-19, and vaccines are encouraged to help present the spread of more contagious variants, according to the CDC. Pfizer has already begun the process for full FDA approval.

“I don’t want my story to be to pressure somebody else and to get it,” Teson said. “But what I would say is, advocate for yourself, do the research, look into the technology, look into the ingredients, look into how this is made and how herd immunity works. And that, for me, was reassurance that, you know, science is good.”

If someone is a proponent of vaccines for other purposes, Teson said, the COVID-19 vaccine shouldn’t be looked at as any different. However, she reiterated “it’s a personal decision.”

“I just would encourage anybody who’s hesitant or still considering it that hasn’t to just advocate for yourself and do the research,” Teson said. “I think the more you look into the science behind it, the more reassured that you should be that this is a safe thing to do.”