A day after getting his first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at A-B Tech, Matthew Cash, an asthmatic but otherwise healthy 31-year old from Asheville, developed tiny blisters on his palms. Two days later, he says, the rash had spread “everywhere,” including inside his ears and on his lips, eyelids and the soles of his feet.
“It itched and it burned and it hurt,” Cash says.
By the fourth day after the shot, he had a pounding headache and shortness of breath. Cash says his eyes, tongue and throat had swollen to the point where he “had a pretty hard time breathing or talking.” He improved after being administered IV steroids at Mission Hospital, but six months later, he still has “hot spots.”
Cash says Mission doctors suggested his rash might have been caused by a change in detergent and diagnosed him with an unspecified allergic reaction. When he brought up that he’d recently gotten a COVID-19 shot, he says, they “did not want to entertain that it was anything to do with that vaccine whatsoever.” But according to Cash, nothing else in his life had changed, including his detergent.
“I’m a constant. … The only thing I did was get this shot,” Cash says. His allergy doctor in Biltmore Village advised him not to get the second dose, which he has no plans to do.
Stories such as Cash’s are supposed to be collected by the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a database of possible reactions to shots voluntarily submitted by health providers, vaccine makers and members of the public. (Neither Cash nor his doctors submitted a report.) Despite inconsistent reporting, VAERS is capturing many such events.
As of Dec. 31, over 1 million reports had been filed with VAERS following more than 504 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered, including over 113,000 hospitalizations and more than 21,000 deaths. Prior to the pandemic, the VAERS database averaged 40,000 adverse events for 317 million annual vaccinations, primarily administered in children.
Reports from North Carolina have detailed over 1,300 serious events after more than 14.8 million COVID-19 vaccine doses. According to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Bailey Pennington, serious events involve permanent disability, hospitalization, life-threatening illness or death.
VAERS reports do not prove a causal link between vaccination and any adverse event, says Buncombe County Health and Human Services spokesperson Stacey Wood, but they do help officials identify possible safety concerns. Stacie Saunders, the county’s public health director, notes that VAERS helped spot blood-clotting issues associated with some COVID-19 vaccinations. Due to that issue, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now discourages use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in favor of the Pfizer and Moderna shots.
Federal data, however, is only as good as local reporting. In speaking with Western North Carolina’s county health officials and hospitals, Mountain Xpress found inconsistencies in how adverse events are reported. And a local canvass of online groups, community members and health care providers by Xpress found at least 25 adverse events from the Asheville metro area, many of them serious. Only a handful had been reported to VAERS.
Many WNC residents who spoke with Xpress say they shared their negative responses after vaccination with health providers. But they also say their concerns have been minimized or ignored, driving mistrust about COVID-19 vaccines and the medical establishment.
According to the CDC, health care providers who administer COVID-19 vaccines are legally required to report any serious adverse event to VAERS, “regardless of whether the reporter thinks the vaccine caused the AE.” No public entity enforces that reporting requirement.
After giving tens of thousands of shots over the past year, the Haywood, Madison and Henderson county health departments have not filed any VAERS reports for COVID-19 vaccines. Buncombe County’s health department has filed 20 reports, says Wood, just one of them serious — an allergic reaction that required epinephrine injection and hospitalization.
However, some workers with local emergency services say they regularly respond to vaccination-related events. A firefighter with a Buncombe County department, who asked to remain anonymous due to concern for his job security, says his station responds to “a couple” of COVID-19 vaccine reaction calls every eight-day cycle, amounting to between 50 and 100 calls over the past year.
“In the last week or two, I’ve run more strokes than I usually would in months,” he says. “It’s just insane.” Most people say they feel tired or want to pass out, he says. If he spots one of those common symptoms, he says, experience has taught him to ask whether that person has recently received a COVID-19 vaccine.
The firefighter says that in his view, it’s “100% useless to send reports up the chain.” He believes his department’s fire chief takes cues from county officials, who he says are pro-vaccine.
And a Buncombe County EMT, who also asked to remain anonymous for job security, says crews have responded to dozens of calls for people who have had adverse events after receiving the vaccine, including a 20-year-old who got his first dose two hours before he “face-planted, unconscious” while walking into a gas station in Asheville. The EMT says he woke up with neurological issues that have not gone away since.
Neither the Asheville Fire Department nor Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services responded to requests for comment.
Madison County Health Director Tammy Cody says two individuals have been transported from mass vaccination events in the county to the hospital for “panic attacks” and were discharged soon afterward; neither incident resulted in a VAERS report. Meanwhile, Henderson County’s health department has asked individuals to “self-report” adverse reactions, says spokesperson Anthony Mundhenk. While he notes that the county has helped some people file VAERS reports, he did not share those numbers.
Everyone who receives the vaccine at a Henderson County clinic is given a flyer with instructions on how to report a reaction, Mundhenk says, as is common practice with other county health departments. (Cash and several other local vaccine recipients who spoke with Xpress said they did not remember receiving that paperwork.)
Local hospitals were also inconsistent in their description of reporting requirements. In contrast to the CDC’s mandate that adverse event reports be filed regardless of apparent causation, Adrienne Giddens, pharmacy director for Pardee UNC Health Care in Hendersonville, says that providers who treat events that occur after a 15- to 30-minute post-shot observation period are only responsible for reporting to VAERS “if they feel the symptoms are potentially a response to the vaccine.” She recalls “only a couple immediate, minor reactions out of the more than 30,000 doses we administered.”
Mission Hospital spokesperson Nancy Lindell emphasizes that staff members are only legally mandated to report adverse events to vaccines given at the hospital, not reactions of patients who have gotten the shot elsewhere. “If we didn’t administer it, then we’re not required to report. I’m not saying we’re not [reporting],” she adds. She did not disclose whether the hospital had filed any reports for patients claiming to have had vaccine reactions.
Although Mission did not offer the vaccine to the general public, the hospital did vaccinate many of its own staff. Lindell notes that some employees experienced adverse events but she did not provide specific numbers.
‘Nothing to see here’
Almost all of those who shared their experiences with Xpress say health care providers have downplayed any potential link between their adverse event and the vaccine.
One 47-year old health care worker in Asheville, who requested anonymity due to fear of professional repercussions, says doctors think she’s “crazy” for believing the vaccine injured her. “But I’m not. My body shows what’s going on,” she continues.
She says her life has been “hell” since the day she got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at an Ingles pharmacy in Fletcher. After two weeks of headaches and debilitating joint pain, her body broke out in blisters that scabbed over.
“They just keep getting bigger and bigger, on my face, up my nose, in my ears, between my fingers, all over my body. It’s painful to the point where you don’t want to wear clothes,” says the woman, whose employer mandated the shot. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”
About five months have passed since the shot, she says, but she still cannot return to work in person. She is often bedridden and has developed anxiety, depression and a rapid heartbeat, despite being previously healthy. Doctors have yet to offer a clear explanation for her illness or provide effective treatment.
The woman says her social life has been ruined, as she often cannot get out of bed. She says she feels hopeless, alone and afraid to share her story with friends on social media out of fear it would jeopardize her career.
“Is this ever going to end?” she asks. “Will I ever get my life back, will I ever get back to my normal job, will I ever get to hang out or make plans again?”
Debra and Danny Jones, a married couple in Candler, both believe they were injured by their second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. The 67-year-olds complain that their primary care doctors have disregarded their suspicions and not filed VAERS reports.
“I’ve had headaches worse than I’ve ever had in my life; every joint in my body ached,” says Danny Jones, who previously operated heavy machinery 10-12 hours a day and walked 4 miles a day to keep his prediabetes in check but has been forced to stop both activities. “I fatigue out at nothing now.”
For months after receiving the vaccine, Debra Jones reports that she had “no energy” and a combination of aches, pains and itching. Just as she began to improve, she had a heart attack. She now believes the vaccine is designed to “get rid of” older people.
Local county health departments have emphasized the CDC’s message that the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines, including significantly lower hospitalization and death rates after coronavirus infection, outweigh potential adverse events. Most side effects in Buncombe County have been “common and mild, like soreness at the injection site,” says Wood. “The risks of COVID-19 illness are much greater than the rare risks of serious adverse events following COVID-19 vaccination.”
(The package insert for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine lists pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache and muscle pain as the most common reactions. Vaccine reactions reported to VAERS have included seizures, paralysis, blood clots, brain bleeds, heart problems, extreme fatigue, menstrual irregularities, shingles, Bell’s palsy, anaphylaxis, worsening of autoimmune disorders and death.)
To Dr. Patrick Hanaway, an integrative physician at Family to Family in Asheville and chair of the national nonprofit Institute for Functional Medicine’s COVID-19 task force, the medical community’s approach to talking about risk may be counterproductive. Questions about COVID-19 vaccines, he says, tend to be “minimized” by authorities “so as not to create alarm. … The CDC’s saying, ‘There’s nothing to see here.’”
That strategy, Hanaway continues, “can lead the public to see legitimate medical research as an agent of the medical-industrial complex, which is not to be believed, which is trying to serve itself, and that’s unfortunate.”
Hanaway believes VAERS signals and emerging studies challenge the idea that the shot is safe for everyone, especially given what he estimates to be substantial underreporting of adverse events. One major study, published in 2011 by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care in Massachusetts, found that fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events were reported.
The COVID-19 vaccination campaign remains important for public health, Hanaway continues; he notes that vaccines reduce severe infection by sixfold, hospitalization by 12-fold and death by 20-fold. But he is taking a “hold off” approach to vaccination for some of the patients in his practice with severe autoimmune problems.
“If there is some finite degree of adverse events that happen from vaccination, why would we want to booster, booster, booster?” he asks.
A matter of timing
Some of the limited recording of adverse events by health officials may be due to the delayed onset reported by many vaccine recipients. Because those being vaccinated are typically only monitored at county sites for 15-30 minutes after their shot in accordance with CDC guidelines, says Mundhenk with Henderson County, reactions that occur after the observation period “would be difficult to attribute to vaccination” and are “extremely rare.”
An October study published in Toxicology Reports found that 60% of all deaths reported to VAERS in association with COVID-19 vaccination between December 2020 and May 2021 occurred within eight days of receiving the vaccine, an acute temporal relationship. The CDC mandates that serious adverse events occurring within seven days be reported for most vaccines.
Hanaway suggests that the technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines may be prone to generating delayed adverse events. Unlike most other vaccinations, which evoke a response by exposing the immune system to a weakened version of a pathogen, the coronavirus vaccines instruct the body to produce a piece of the coronavirus itself: part of the “spike protein” found on the virus’s surface.
According to the CDC, both the messenger RNA genetic instructions delivered by the vaccine and the coronavirus proteins made by the body are quickly broken down. But Hanaway points to a study conducted by Harvard University researchers that found spike proteins can endure in the body for at least a week; he says the true timeline remains a mystery.
Those proteins and mRNA strands, Hanaway continues, may cause harm if they linger in the body. A study published by the Salk Institute in April, he says, determined “that the spike protein in and of itself induces vascular inflammation.”
“We may not yet clearly understand all the mechanisms at play when it comes to adverse reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines,” Wood acknowledges, although she says “stimulation of the immune system” is one possible cause.
Asheville integrated and holistic medical practitioner Dr. Mark Hoch, who has treated three patients for what he believes are severe reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine, calls advising the vaccine for everyone without medical consultation a “cookie-cutter” approach and “completely against good medical practice.”
“You don’t treat a two-year-old like an eight-year-old; you don’t treat a person with a million comorbidities as you treat a healthy person,” Hoch continues. “There is no standard answer.”
And Sara Fields, a doctor of acupuncture with offices in Asheville and Brevard, says she has treated three patients for what she believes to be long-term side effects to COVID-19 vaccines: an older woman who suffered a blood clot and now has debilitating leg pain and trouble walking; a formerly healthy patient who experienced heart palpitations, can no longer do strenuous activity and now suffers from anxiety and depression; and a patient whose decline in cognition and energy levels have interrupted her “daily life tasks.”
‘Begging for awareness’
Kristi Simmonds, a previously healthy 41-year-old nurse from Mitchell County, says she has felt abandoned by the medical system following her COVID-19 vaccination.
A week after receiving the Moderna vaccine, Simmonds had 16 consecutive seizures and was transported to Mission Hospital by helicopter. Nearly a year later, she says she still has intermittent seizures, periodic Bell’s palsy and chronic pain in the left side of her head that radiates down the arm — the side where she got the injection. She can no longer work or drive.
“I went from being completely independent to being dependent. I can’t be left home alone because some of the seizures cause me to stop breathing, and if I’m home alone, I could die. My husband has gotten very good at bringing me back,” Simmonds says.
After seeing dozens of doctors, Simmonds says, none will confirm her injury is related to the vaccine. Her adverse event report to VAERS does not mention seizures, and Simmonds believes it was altered after submission. She also says that Mission Hospital tried to pin her reaction on a decades-old psychiatric event.
Simmonds’ medical records show that a variety of tests at Mission Hospital, including an electrocardiogram, failed to show any irregularities, and she was diagnosed with psychogenic non-epileptic seizures and conversion disorder.
“They pretty much tried to say she was crazy and report her to psych, so I took her out of the hospital,” says her husband, Nigel Simmonds.
While Kristi Simmonds had mental health problems a dozen years ago after an abusive marriage, she says she has not seen a psychiatrist in a decade and has no history of seizure or tremor disorders. Mission medical staff failed to confirm that she was no longer on psychiatric medication, she says.
Mission spokesperson Lindell said she could not comment on Simmonds’ specific case due to patient privacy laws. But she said the hospital treats symptoms as they appear in medical tests, not based on a patient’s claims.
Anissa Sain, the North Carolina administrator of volunteer-run RealNotRare.com, says Simmonds’ account echoes many of the themes found in the website’s thousands of self-reported reaction stories. Complaints about doctors, she notes, are common among those claiming to be injured by COVID-19 vaccines.
Those reporting to RealNotRare, Sain continues, often say their health providers haven’t read manufacturer fact sheets on the risks posed by COVID-19 vaccines, fail to include a full accounting of post-vaccine symptoms in their medical charts and imply that the suffering from coronavirus infection is greater than that from the vaccine.
“We are literally begging for awareness,” she says. “Until we get recognition and awareness, we are not going to get the appropriate support and medical care.”
Those who believe they were injured by the vaccine, Sain says, are socially stigmatized and often called “anti-vaxxers,” despite having gotten the shot.
“Some nurses go so far as to advise people not to mention the vaccine to their doctors, since once a doctor hears anything about this vaccine, we are looked at totally differently,” she notes. “They do not want us on their case list.”
“The suicide rate in our group is astounding because of the social stigma and health issues we go through. People live in dark days,” Sain continues. ”It’s one of the saddest parts of this.”
Edited at 12 p.m. Jan. 18 to clarify Dr. Hanaway’s position on adverse event underreporting.