How life changed for 10 Florida health experts who got coronavirus vaccines

Some have started returning to normal activities. Others aren’t letting up on safety measures until more people get shots.
Medical assistant Diane Frazier, left, and registered nurse Pat Blackwell, center, with the Pinellas County health department, check in nursing student Emily Peters, 20, of Land O’ Lakes, right, for her coronavirus vaccine shot on Monday at the county’s vaccination site in Largo. Peters received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the appointment.
Medical assistant Diane Frazier, left, and registered nurse Pat Blackwell, center, with the Pinellas County health department, check in nursing student Emily Peters, 20, of Land O’ Lakes, right, for her coronavirus vaccine shot on Monday at the county’s vaccination site in Largo. Peters received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine during the appointment. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 30, 2021|Updated March 30, 2021

As Florida continues to roll out coronavirus vaccines, some health experts who were among the first to receive shots are taking baby steps back toward regular life.

Ten from across the state spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about how they’ve changed their habits since vaccination. They specialize in infectious diseases, public health and epidemiology. One is at the forefront of the effort to make the state’s vaccine distribution equitable. Another is head of operations at Tampa Greyhound Track, where thousands of doses are administered each day.

Here’s what they had to say about their own experience with the vaccines:

Michael Teng

Immunologist, University of South Florida

Michael Teng
Michael Teng [ University of South Florida ]

Teng, 53, got his first dose of the coronavirus vaccine produced by Pfizer-BioNTech on March 20 at the Tampa Greyhound Track. That was before the state’s eligibility age for shots lowered to 50, so he brought along one of the state’s vulnerability forms signed by his doctor.

It was quick and easy, he said, and he didn’t experience any side effects. Once he gets a second shot in a couple weeks, Teng plans to travel to Chicago to see his elderly parents, who also have been vaccinated. He hasn’t seen them since Christmas 2019. They canceled holiday plans, as well as trips to various national parks last year because of the pandemic, he said.

Otherwise, Teng is looking forward to gathering again with fellow faculty members at USF for in-person meetings. It’s been a challenge to communicate education goals via video conference, he said.

“There’s a lot of stress that having a vaccine takes away,” Teng said. “There’s a release … because we have been stressed out for a year, trying to be as careful as possible. This is really getting to the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Dr. Allison F. Messina

Chairwoman of the Division of Infectious Diseases, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital

Dr. Allison Messina [Courtesy of Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital]
Dr. Allison Messina [Courtesy of Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital]

In December, Messina received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. After the second dose, she experienced some side effects, including body aches, a headache and chills, but she said they were short-lived, only lasting about 24 hours.

As many of her friends and family members are just starting to get vaccinated, Messina said her life hasn’t changed much. But she’s looking forward to reuniting with her parents, who live in Connecticut, and gathering in small groups with vaccinated loved ones. Once community vaccination rates increase, Messina’s also looking forward to visiting restaurants and cafes again.

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“A lot of people are asking which vaccine to get and my response has always been the one you can get first,” she said. “That was my only criteria.”

Dr. Michael Lauzardo

Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine, University of Florida

Dr. Michael Lauzardo [University of Florida]
Dr. Michael Lauzardo [University of Florida]

Lauzardo, 56, got his first dose of coronavirus vaccine early, on Dec. 23, because of his role as a physician. His arm was a bit sore that evening and he felt fatigued, but all was back to normal the next morning, he said. His second shot caused body aches. He woke up in the middle of the night to take ibuprofen and again felt fine the following day.

Lauzardo says he’s still taking precautions for the sake of his patients. But vaccination has given him the mental boost he needed. “The changes have been more psychological than anything,” Lauzardo said.

“Getting the vaccine and giving it to other people, that has probably changed my life more than my day to day. It’s been a huge boost, a huge kind of emotional lift. Like, hey, we are fighting back. This is real … I’m helping fight this virus off.”

In the vaccine clinics where he’s administered shots, patients have been so grateful, appreciative and motivated, Lauzardo said — a very different mood from testing clinics he worked in earlier in the pandemic.

“Here, it’s a sense of relief, and being associated with that has really lifted my mental state,” he said. “It gives me that much extra energy to say, ‘Just hang on with the masks just a little bit longer and we’ll be through this thing.’”

Mary Jo Trepka

Department of Epidemiology chair, Florida International University

Mary Jo Trepka [Courtesy of Mary Jo Trepka]
Mary Jo Trepka [Courtesy of Mary Jo Trepka]

Trepka’s second dose of the Moderna vaccine gave her aches, chills and a headache for about 30 hours, then the side effects abruptly ended. “If you suddenly work out a lot, you’re sore the next day,” the 56-year-old professor said. “To me, that’s what this is, your immune system working out and you feeling the effects of that.”

She hasn’t changed anything about her daily life since being vaccinated, she said, because many of those around her haven’t been. But her mindset has changed some. There’s less dread and anxiety — and she’s seen the same happen for others she knows who have gotten shots.

“I certainly don’t worry as much, but I am still being careful because of the people around me,” Trepka said. “I won’t feel good until most people are vaccinated.”

Jay Wolfson

Public health expert, University of South Florida

Jay Wolfson
Jay Wolfson [ University of South Florida ]

Through the pandemic, Wolfson and his wife, Olga, have been creative about seeing friends. Zoom dinners became regular occurrences with one couple they’re close to, where they’d set the same menu and decide on a particular wine to share through their computer screens.

But now all four of them are vaccinated, said Wolfson, 68. And they’re meeting next week for in-person dinner for the first time in a year.

“We feel that we can get together indoors,” he said. “Olga and I have become very optimistic.”

Wolfson hardly felt his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, he said. The second, administered three weeks ago, came with mild side effects for less than a day, he said, including achy joints, haziness and fatigue. The couple felt fine the following day, Wolfson said.

The best part of being vaccinated, Wolfson said, is being able to see his adult sons who live locally and have gotten shots, too. “Instead of meeting completely outdoors and being at separate tables, we can be indoors now. They can come over to my house and I can go over to theirs. We can act as though the disease does not exist in our bubble.”

Wolfson and his wife have also made December reservations to fly to Greece, where Olga’s parents live. They aren’t sure yet if they’ll be able to go, but they’re hopeful for the first time in a while.

Dr. Ulyee Choe

Director, Pinellas County health department

Dr. Ulyee Choe [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Dr. Ulyee Choe [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Choe, 41, received his two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine around the beginning of this year. He experienced some muscle aches and fatigue, but said the side effects weren’t any worse than the symptoms of COVID-19, and that the outcome of getting the virus could have been worse.

He is continuing to wear masks and practice caution as he waits for more data to see if the vaccine protects against virus transmission, rather than just serious symptoms. Choe said he’d also like to see vaccination rates increase and coronavirus cases to continually decrease before loosening precautions. At the same time, the vaccine has given him some peace of mind.

He emphasized that the vaccines underwent rigorous studies and said it’s important to dispel myths around the process. “Personally I do feel more protected,” he said.

Rev. Dr. R.B. Holmes Jr.

Chair, Florida Coronavirus Vaccination Education and Engagement Task Force

Rev. Dr. R.B. Holmes Jr.
Rev. Dr. R.B. Holmes Jr. [ Courtesy of Linda Fortenberry ]

As pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Holmes has been leading a statewide coalition aimed at getting vaccinations to people of color, who have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus yet underrepresented among the vaccinated.

In early January, the 71-year-old received his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. He felt a bit of stinging but no other side effects, he said. After that dose and the next, he was back in the pulpit the following day.

Holmes opted to see his youngest grandson, who is 2, for the first time. His daughter and her husband came to visit, along with his other grandkids.

“I was able to touch and hug and embrace my family,” he said. “I’ve encouraged all of my siblings and in-laws to take the vaccine.”

Dr. Ricardo Izurieta

Director of Global Communicable Diseases, University of South Florida

Dr. Ricardo Izurieta
Dr. Ricardo Izurieta [ Courtesy of Dr. Ricardo Izurieta ]

It’s been over a year since Izurieta has been able to see his 91-year-old father, who lives in Ecuador.

Now Izurieta, 59, has received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine, with a second shot scheduled for April. He’s hoping to reunite with his father in late May after they’ve both been vaccinated — and the first thing he plans to do is give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“We Latinos, we give a lot of hugs and kisses,” Izurieta said. He’s said he’s also excited to travel again with his 24-year-old son, who lives in Orlando, and visit a national park together.

“I can tell everybody that I know how the vaccines work, what are the side effects and everything,” he said. “I feel very confident.”

Cindy Prins

Epidemiologist, University of Florida

Cindy Prins [University of Florida]
Cindy Prins [University of Florida]

Prins, 49, got her first dose of the Moderna vaccine in January. Her arm was sore, but she had no other side effects, she said. The second shot brought fatigue and some chills, but nothing bad enough that she had to miss work.

As an epidemiologist and director of UF’s master of public health program, Prins has been fairly conservative in returning to normal activities since being vaccinated. She wants to keep being careful until more people get shots, she said. But she did return to playing tennis, a hobby she’s missed through the pandemic, about a month after her second dose.

The other day, Prins stopped by a colleague’s house to drop something off. Both had been vaccinated at that point, and they did an awkward dance about how they should see each other, she said.

“It was the funniest interaction,” Prins said. “She was like, ‘Do you want to come in?’ And I was like, ‘Yes? I think that’s okay.’”

They still sat 6 feet apart, but for the first time in a while were able to see each other’s maskless face.

Carole Covey

Director, Tampa Greyhound Track vaccine site

Carole Covey [Courtesy of Carole Covey]
Carole Covey [Courtesy of Carole Covey]

Covey, a registered nurse who runs the federally supported vaccination site at Tampa Greyhound Track, hasn’t changed much since her vaccination in February. But her family in Texas feels better knowing she’s had shots, she said.

She’s in Tampa temporarily to help with Florida’s vaccine rollout. She spends every day at the track, interacting with tons of people to make sure distribution of thousands of shots per day runs smoothly.

Her own vaccination is “an extra layer of protection” for her as she does that work,” Covey said. “My family feels more comfortable knowing that I am protected while I’m out traveling on the frontlines of COVID.”

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