Public health officials agree that vaccination is key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. However, despite the fact that 55 percent of the population of the United States is fully vaccinated — with 64 percent having received at least one dose — many remain hesitant, with some pointing to potentially dangerous side effects or adverse reactions. While medical professionals stress that both are extremely rare, some people will experience them — and, understandably, many of these people are eager to share their stories.
Many experts, who acknowledge that vaccines can have any potential side effects, stress that these rare reactions must be weighed against the realities of COVID-19 and that stories about them should not scare people away from receiving what can be life-saving shots.
John Stokes, a 21-year-old senior and student athlete at Tennessee State University, is one such person who says that he had an adverse reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine.
In a since-removed TikTok posted earlier this month, he explained that he was hospitalized with myocarditis — an inflammation of the heart and a previously known potential reaction to the vaccine — shortly after receiving his second shot of the Pfizer vaccine. Stokes, who filmed the video from his hospital bed, was ultimately told that he was ineligible to continue to play at least the fall portion of his senior golf season, as he was warned against elevating his heart rate.
Before TikTok removed the video, it had received 4.5 million views, as well as hundreds of thousands of likes. Stokes, who denies the video violated any of TikTok’s community guidelines, filed an appeal to have the video reinstated, which the social media platform allegedly denied. Many commenters applauded Stokes for telling his truth, some of whom made it clear that they had no interest in ever receiving the vaccine.
Stokes tells Yahoo Life that he received his second COVID-19 vaccine shot on Aug. 31. Shortly after, he says, he developed common, temporary “flu-like” side effects, which included body aches. However, his chest pain, which he initially likened to a “gas-like” feeling, soon got worse.
“I told my parents something wasn’t right, and we called the doctor,” Stokes says. “He told me to go to the ER. They diagnosed me with myocarditis, and they told me it was from the vaccine. I was hospitalized for several days after.”
While in the hospital, Stokes says his heart initially hurt so much that he was unable to sleep. He was monitored by doctors and given Tylenol and a second anti-inflammatory agent whose name he was unable to recall. His doctors, he explains, did not want to give him additional medication and advised him to rest. Eventually, the extreme pain subsided, though he says he still has chest pain that is, however, more manageable.
It is easy to see why Stokes’s story would read as a warning against the vaccine. He is a young, seemingly healthy college athlete, whose time on the golf course was seemingly shortened after receiving the inoculation. (Stokes tells Yahoo Life that the concern about playing golf specifically focused on carrying heavy equipment long distances during tournaments, and he says that he was informed that even game-time nerves could negatively affect his heart.) Stokes says he is now an advocate against mandates from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and says he is unhappy that TikTok has seemingly “censored” his story, despite it being the truth.
Yet many medical professionals are concerned about how quickly Stokes’s video circulated — not because he was sharing misinformation but because stories like this, especially those that come with a call to action to reconsider the vaccine, can give people false sense of the real risks.
Dr. Eric Stecker, chair of the American College of Cardiology Science and Quality Council, tells Yahoo Life: “It is very natural and appropriate to wonder whether the risk of myocarditis is worth taking, when the risk of critical illness or death is very low for people under age 30. The key is to recognize that the risk COVID-19 poses to adolescents and young adults is far from zero. In fact, because the Delta variant is so transmissible and vaccination rates in younger age groups are low, ICUs across the country are filling with younger patients than they did at any point in the pandemic.”
Stokes’s experience may make people feel uncertain or even scared, but Stecker stresses that the data is still on the side of getting vaccinated.
“The CDC has analyzed the risk-benefit trade-off and found that for every million doses administered of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines for people ages 12 to 29, approximately 6 deaths, 138 ICU admissions, 560 hospitalizations and 11,000 infections from COVID-19 will be avoided,” he notes. “This comes at the ‘cost’ of 39 to 47 cases of myocarditis, almost all of which are mild and do not cause long-term heart problems. Strictly considering myocarditis risk and ignoring the other severe problems from COVID-19, people under 25 years old are 7 to 37 times more likely to get myocarditis from infection with COVID-19 than they are from the vaccine.”
Dr. Nathan Anderson, a fellow of the American College of Cardiology, says that while the exact reason for myocarditis post-vaccination has not yet been confirmed, this kind of myocarditis may be easier to recover from than myocarditis caused for reasons other than an immune response.
“We don’t know for certain why the mRNA vaccines may cause myocarditis. However, inflammation, which is the root cause of myocarditis, is an immune system reaction, and since the vaccination is intended to train your immune system to recognize an invader by provoking an immune response, it makes sense that an overreaction within the immune system can result in other effects,” he explains. “In fact, the most common cause of myocarditis in America prior to the coronavirus pandemic was viruses that cause mild illness in the vast majority of people; but in a small number of people, for unclear reasons, they either infect the heart muscle or provoke a hyper-response in the immune system which results in myocarditis. In very severe myocarditis cases, the virus actually replicates within the heart muscle cells, damaging them directly. These cases are often much more difficult to treat than cases related to immune response.”
Yet data points, no matter how thoroughly researched, do not have the appeal of a passionate video. That is part of the reason why TikTok’s Team Halo was created: The social media campaign, organized by the United Nations and the Vaccine Confidence Project, was established in order to build trust in COVID vaccines and cut through the noise surrounding them.
Team Halo member Dr. Siyab Panhwar, who made a video in response to Stokes’s initial post about myocarditis, stressed that the risks from the vaccine are extremely rare, while the potential risks from COVID itself are “much, much worse.”
“The answer is overwhelmingly in favor of the vaccine,” he explains. “The mandates are more complicated — they are more a political issue than a medical issue. I believe people should make their own decisions, but having properly assessed the data and their risk.”
Team Halo’s Jess, a registered nurse who posts under the name @jesss2019 on TikTok, worries that “fear” will cloud facts.
“Even though his story is sincere, the message and the way it’s put out can cause fear,” she notes. “What vaccine-hesitant viewers are not realizing is the perspective. Is this a risk with the mRNA vaccines? Yes. Is it a rare risk? Absolutely."
Ultimately, some people will be left in a far worse position than if they had chosen to be vaccinated, she warns.
"There are people who are COVID long-haulers, in their 30s, who are now on a ton of heart medication or had valve replacements," she says. "We’re not seeing those kinds of heart issues with the vaccine — but we’re seeing it with COVID-19.”