I’m 30 years old and I received my first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the beginning of March. Then the news broke about problems with thrombosis. This is a story about trust – and how quickly it can be lost.
By Maria Stöhr
It’s a Tuesday in early March and I’m standing in line in front of the vaccination center at the Hamburg convention center. I have the QR code for my vaccination appointment in hand, printed and neatly packed in a clear sheet protector. Maybe I’ve overdone it a bit, but the elderly man in front of me has done the same.
Everyone here – the helpers and the people who are among the first few million Germans to receive a coronavirus vaccine – is reverently quiet. I told very few people that I was coming here today. I can’t quite believe it myself.
A door to a large hall opens, revealing orderly queues with a capital A lit up in one line for AstraZeneca and a B for BioNTech/Pfizer. The older man in front of me turns with his walker into the BioNTech/Pfizer line. A nice helper says to me: “I don’t want to offend you, young lady, but you look very much like you’re here for AstraZeneca.” Line A.
At the time of my appointment, based on a recommendation by the Standing Commission on Vaccination (STIKO), only people between the ages of 18 and 64 can be vaccinated with AstraZeneca in Germany because important data for people 65 and older is still lacking. It is largely medical personnel who are getting it. And people like me, younger ones who belong to Priority Group 2 because of chronic illness.
Just before I’m to get my jab in the vaccination center, the doctor says, “We have all gotten through this ourselves.” By that point, the syringe is already in.
When I leave the vaccination center that morning, I feel lighter than I have in a year. That feeling continues for the next few days – despite the fact that I’m laid up in bed experiencing severe reactions to the vaccine because I know that this is normal. I celebrate my immune system and the vaccine.
But this is not a story about gratitude. It’s one about trust. How quickly it can be lost. And how hard it is to find it again, no matter how hard you try.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn steps in front of the cameras. He announces a temporary suspension of COVID-19 vaccinations using the drug developed by AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company. The Paul Ehrlich Institute, Germany’s federal medical regulatory body, writes that a conspicuous number of cases of a rare cerebral vein thrombosis have happened suspiciously close to the time of vaccination. Spahn says the move is purely a precautionary measure. And that “there is no risk at all for the vast majority of people.”
Fuck, I think to myself.
That afternoon, I have a hard time taking my eyes off Twitter. I spend hours searching for tweets to calm me down, but what I find is anger, cluelessness and confusion. And that’s no good if you’re angry, clueless and confused yourself.
One headline follows the next: Denmark suspends vaccinations. Slovenia halts vaccinations. Spain stops vaccinations. France ceases vaccinations. Karl Lauterbach, a member of the federal parliament who is the main health care expert for his center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), then speaks out. “I think this is a mistake,” he says. Later, he adds, “I don’t know of any analysis that would warrant this suspension.”
I think to myself: I hope he’s right.
During the morning editorial meeting the next day, a colleague notes that Switzerland and the United States never even approved the use of AstraZeneca. Another says that vaccinations stopped in Norway and never resumed. I ask myself: Why? I read that the condition is mostly happening in young women. I am about to write to a friend. But what am I supposed to write? “I’ve been vaccinated, I’m scared”? No.
I can’t sleep for two nights.
I don’t want to give in to panic. I don’t want the skepticism to keep eating away at me in my head. It’s not going to affect you, Maria. Everything is fine. But how do capture fear once it’s out of the bottle? How do you shake off the feeling that something might be wrong with the vaccine? That you may have allowed something dangerous to be injected into your own body?
I flip open the laptop. I want to dispel my panic with the facts, like the fear of a ghost. But words don’t do the job. When I read “very rarely” in one article, I twist it in my head to “it could be that.” When I read, “based on what we know,” I interpret it as, “We still lack experience with the vaccine.”
Numbers are more helpful. I write the number of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis cases on a piece of paper and offset it against the number of people vaccinated. At this point, of the 1.6 million first shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine given in Germany, seven cases of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis have been reported. In other words: There is one case in every 229,000 vaccinations. Very, very few. I write that down in my notebook.
DER SPIEGEL’s website is reporting that 13 incidents have now been reported in Germany involving the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Two days before, I saw a video from a doctor administering vaccines in Cologne. In it he says, “Astra is a super vaccine.”
I am writing to my former host family in the UK, where AstraZeneca is the only vaccine being given at the time. “Dear Angela, have you been vaccinated yet? With AstraZeneca? How are you doing?” Angela writes back that she and her husband received their first shots three weeks earlier. “A few side effects, but nothing serious.” She writes that she hadn’t heard anything about thromboses and says that everyone in London calls AstraZeneca’s drug “the Oxford vaccine.”
The Oxford vaccine. Wow. I think: That’s what we should have called it, too.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) stands behind its decision to recommend the drug, saying the vaccine is “safe and effective.” Vaccinations in Germany resume.
I am getting calmer.
I’m not well. I’m irritable. Every mail I write takes all my strength. I go jogging at night in the hope of freeing my mind. My legs feel like I’m dragging a heavy blanket. Am I having trouble breathing? I cut my run short and walk home very slowly. Later, I get a headache. I almost never get headaches.
My father sends me a photo on WhatsApp of an article from a newspaper in the city of Augsburg: “Death of Colleague Triggers Grief and Horror.” A nurse at a hospital in the nearby town of Immenstadt apparently died 17 days after getting vaccinated with AstraZeneca. She had gone to the emergency room with a severe headache. Immenstadt is located a few kilometers away from my hometown. Yet again, I think to myself: fuck.
When a case happens near your own parents’ house, a very, very small probability suddenly feels like a very, very big one. I leave the phone on as I go to bed. I pop an ibuprofen in my mouth. It’s a blood thinner, I think to myself. I don’t sleep. In the morning, I write an email to my former family doctor in Bavaria, whom I trust a great deal.
“Hi, you can probably file this under hypochondriacs, but … I just feel like … risk of thrombosis … from all the reports we are reading right now …”
Once again, what I really want is to just dump my anxiety on someone else without feeling judged. I go to the park. I look at myself and my fear like some figure in a dollhouse. When you’re healthy, you don’t spend time thinking about how lucky you are to be healthy. You go through life with little fear, even though real dangers are lurking around you all the time. I bet there are risk researchers who can compare the probability of dying in a car accident with the risk of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis. We are vulnerable all the time. But we’re also usually very good at blocking that out.
That hasn’t been the case since the pandemic. We are constantly thinking about avoidance strategies. We’re pulling emergency brakes. All of a sudden, an otherwise very nebulous danger feels very real, to the point that you fear suddenly losing your health. It strikes me as absurd that the greatest fear I am having in this pandemic is of the very medicine that can keep me healthy and perhaps even save my life.
The family doctor in Bavaria writes back: “Dear Maria, … if you have persistent shortness of breath and a drop in energy, go to your family doctor at once and have what are known as your D-dimers measured. This is a coagulation value that is used for thromboses, and if it is negative, then you’ll surely have nothing to worry about.”
It immediately makes me feel better. In my reply, I apologize for getting in touch in the first place.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is on TV. The “Anne Will” show. I can’t watch it, even though monitoring the political talk show is unofficially part of my job description as a reporter. I’m afraid Merkel might say something about vaccines and that on the whole, nothing has gone wrong.
DER SPIEGEL’s website: STIKO is only recommending AstraZeneca for people over 60
In Germany, 31 cases of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis have now been reported. Of those cases, 29 were in women. Nine died.
Health Minister Spahn and Chancellor Merkel appear before the cameras. They announce that younger people can continue to get vaccinated with AstraZeneca if they wish “at a doctor’s discretion and after being carefully informed and provided with an individual risk analysis.”
I think to myself: “At your own risk” really isn’t what I need right now.
A health minister who takes his job seriously has no other choice than to make decisions based on the facts. I know that. But I still keep yelling at my computer screen as the livestream plays. Do you know what you’re doing to me? Do you know what it does to me when you no longer have faith in the vaccine that you prescribed to me?
Merkel: “Communication is very important right now.”
Spahn: “Vaccinating is almost always the better decision.”
Merkel: “I am nevertheless under no illusion as to what message this means.
Meanwhile, SPD health expert Lauterbach tells the Rheinische Post newspaper, “People who have already been vaccinated with AstraZeneca have nothing to fear now.”
Bavarian Governor Markus Söder says he no longer expects AstraZeneca’s vaccine to “sell like hotcakes.”
So, what happens on June 1, the date of my second vaccination? STIKO is still reviewing to this day whether people like me, who have already been given their first jab of AstraZeneca, might be able to get a different vaccine for the second dose.
I’m confused and very, very tired.
For the past year, I’ve been waking up in the morning and checking the infection rates the same way I used to check the weather. I divide friends into households. I’ve had very large cotton swabs jammed into my sinuses. I’ve acted as though I could get a grip on the intangible threat of a virus. But I can’t. If I can’t really imagine a one-in-something risk of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis after getting vaccinated with AstraZeneca, then maybe taking responsibility for my health means this: handing it off to others.
This is probably the point where I should stop writing, because I don’t think there’s really a good place to end to this story. Then I see a post on Instragram from the newspaper Die Zeit.
“President Steinmeier has received his first coronavirus vaccination. The German head of state was given a shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine at the military hospital in Berlin.”
Steinmeier says he trusts the vaccines approved in Germany. And then he directs a message to the rest nation, me included: “Take advantage of the opportunities. Be a part in this.”
Maria Stöhr, 30, is an editor at DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk and part of the team responsible for the Global Societies section