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21 Aug 2021

One down... – This past Tuesday I received my first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine rollout has been a lot slower here than in the US, partly because the government wasn’t on the ball early (as the pandemic wasn’t as bad in Korea as it was elsewhere), and partly because we’ve been screwed by various supply issues even after the government started trying to procure doses.

“ to go.”

My age group got the short end of the stick when it came to our turn to register for the vaccine, but as university faculty I was given special preference; HJ won’t get her first shot until the beginning of September. I was able to sign up at the beginning of this month, though. It was a relatively painless process, once I realized that the mobile registration site was a little flaky and decided to register from a computer. I was a little worried, having heard stories of the system crashing from too many people trying to connect at once, but they must have worked out the kinks by the time my turn came around.

So, this past Tuesday, at half past three in the afternoon, I left my office to walk down to the Gwanak District General Sports Center, which has been turned into a vaccination center. I arrived five minutes before my four o’clock appointment, and upon entering the building my temperature was taken and I was ushered toward a desk, where a staffer at a computer checked my ID against the register. I was then told to head up to the second floor. There was a line of yellow tape on the floor with big arrows and staffers stationed along the way, so I think it would have been impossible not to get where I was supposed to go even if I had tried to get lost.

On the second floor, I was shown into a large room filled with socially distanced chairs; people took seats in the order that they entered the room, and then one column at a time was called to leave the room and enter the actual vaccination center. The idea, I think, was to prevent too many people from having to wait in line at once—where we would naturally bunch up. At any rate, when my column was called, I was almost immediately able to go to the first station in the process: a desk where I was given a form that was half health questionnaire and half information sheet. The woman at the desk asked me if I spoke Korean, and when I answered in the affirmative she proceeded to guide me through the form in English.

Normally I find such experiences mildly annoying, since my Korean is usually better than the English of my interlocutor, but this time I was partly amused and partly impressed. I glanced around at the other desks—there were about ten in total—and realized that all of the staffers here must have been trained to guide people through the forms in both Korean and English. There was another foreigner going through at the same time, and he turned out to be French. He spoke some Korean, but they actually had a staffer come over who could communicate with him in French. That impressed me even more—it’s hard enough to prep all your staffers to handle English, but they must have had at least one staffer for each of a variety of other major languages as well.

Once I finished the form, I asked the woman if I could change the date for my second shot while I was there, because it said in one of the text messages that I got that if I wanted to change the date I should do it at the vaccination center. The women pointed at a sticker on the desk with a phone number labeled “call center.” Then she laughed and said, “Are you Korean? Your pronunciation is so good!” I just smiled, thanked her, and went off to the next station.

That next step was the actual registration, and there seemed to be a bit of a bottleneck here because this was the longest wait of the entire process (about ten minutes, I think). Again, we all sat in chairs in the order that we had arrived and were called up to the registration desks in that order. Registration itself only took about thirty seconds, and then I went on to the next stage, where I took a number (like you do at a bank) and sat down. There were little tents set up with numbers on them and a big sign that said “Preliminary Examination Rooms.” When my number came up on the screen, along with a tent number (again, exactly the way they do it at a bank), I stood up and went to the indicated tent. I handed my form to the doctor who was sitting inside and then sat down in the chair next to him. He also asked me if I spoke Korean, but this time when I said yes he immediately launched into his examination in Korean without batting an eye. When he was finished, he asked me how long I had been in Korea and where I was from. His response to my first answer was the typical one (“Really? You’re basically Korean now!”), and his response to my second answer was, “My daughter lives in New York!” I’m not sure if he was supposed to keep me for a certain amount of time or if he was just bored and wanted to chat about New York, but we did talk for a little while. Whatever the case, when I did leave the tent, I only had to wait about five seconds for a vaccination booth to open up, so his timing turned out to be impeccable.

Upon entering the vaccination booth, I got a glimpse of the needles in a basket. I remembered hearing that the needles for the vaccine were bigger than normal needles, but they didn’t look all that different. Still, I was not really looking forward to the experience, as I dislike needles. This is kind of a silly thing to say, I suppose—does anyone actually like needles? And I know I’m better than some when it comes to handling shots. I used to get very nervous when I was younger, but now I just look the other way and remain calm, and it never ends up being as bad as you think it will be. This shot was honestly so mild that I barely felt it at all—or maybe the young woman who administered the shot was just really good at her job.

While she was putting a circular bandage on the injection site, I decided to ask again if it was possible to change the date for my second shot. My second shot, like the first one, was scheduled for a Tuesday, but I have class on Wednesday this semester, and I’ve heard that the side effects can be more severe after the second dose. There was a doctor walking around outside the vaccination booths, and she took my form and told me that she would have someone call me about making the change. A staffer then gave me a sticker that said “15 minutes” to put on my shirt, and I was directed toward the final waiting room, where I was given a buzzer (like what you might get at a coffee shop) set for fifteen minutes. I later found out that people with a history of allergic reactions to shots had to wait for thirty minutes to make sure nothing went wrong, but everyone else only had to wait for fifteen minutes.

I sat down in the waiting room and moved my arm around a little. So far it felt fine, and I wasn’t experiencing any immediate side effects. Not long after I sat down, I got a call from a woman who asked me when I wanted to get my second shot; I could schedule it any time in the week before the originally scheduled date, but not after. This is because everyone’s second shots had already been pushed back two weeks due to supply issues, and apparently they did not want people pushing their second dose back any further. I chose the Thursday of the week before, 23 September, right after the end of the Chuseok holiday. When my fifteen minutes was up I handed the buzzer in and left the room. The time was 16:35, which means the whole process took forty minutes. Considering all the steps we had to go through, it was pretty quick. I have to say that I am impressed with how organized the whole thing was, and how easy they made it for everyone getting vaccinated.

Once home, I didn’t feel much of anything until about four hours after the shot, when my arm started feeling sore. It wasn’t a debilitating pain, and I was still able to use my arm, but it did prove annoying when I tried to sleep that night, because I usually sleep on my left side, and of course that was the arm where I had gotten the shot. It still hurt the next day, so after lunch I decided to look up what, if anything, you were supposed to do about a sore arm after the shot. Turns out the best thing to do is to regularly exercise your shoulders, doing reps of simple exercises once an hour. I immediately did some of the exercises that I saw recommended, and then I repeated the process about every ten minutes; I had to make up for lost time, after all. Sure enough, not long after I started doing the exercises, I could already feel my arm starting to get better, and by that evening—about twenty-four hours after the soreness had first appeared—I was fine again. I guess I should have looked up that info before I got the shot. I probably could have saved myself some discomfort.

It is now four days later, and other than that one day of soreness, I haven’t experienced any other ill effects. Of course, the first shot isn’t supposed to be that bad—it’s after the second shot that people usually suffer whatever side effects they are going to suffer. But I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. For now, one down, one to go.

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