Dr. Nyan Pyae, who is training as a nephrology fellow at Hennepin Healthcare, received his first COVID-19 shot on December 18, months after contracting the virus. Credit: Saugar Maripuri | Hennepin Healthcare

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About 3,000 Minnesotans have already received their first COVID-19 vaccines, many of them hospital staff: physicians, nurses, cleaning staff, and interpreters at high risk of contracting the virus from patients.

For many Minnesotans, the photos and stories of people receiving vaccines have provided a much needed ray of hope at the end of a difficult year. 

But a combination of the country’s racist medical history, misinformation about the vaccine, and fear of such a new treatment have also fueled skepticism.

Sahan Journal spoke with three doctors from immigrant communities about their experiences receiving the vaccine. Some of them initially had concerns about the vaccine, too. But they’re looking forward to their second and final dose, and hope more and more Minnesotans soon join the growing ranks of the vaccinated. Here’s what they thought the rest of us should know. 

‘I didn’t want to take any chance to have the same experience’

When Dr. Nyan Pyae got COVID-19 this spring, he spent more than 100 days in the hospital. He was on a ventilator, got a tracheostomy, and underwent stomach surgery. 

He did not want to go through that again. 

So when the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine became available for healthcare workers, Pyae, 45, signed up.

“Six months of my life was taken away,” said Pyae, who is training as a nephrology fellow at Hennepin Healthcare. “I didn’t want to take any chance to have the same experience.”

Pyae’s specialty as a doctor is kidneys, not infectious disease. In Myanmar, where he grew up, people don’t take flu vaccines–they just get sick and “get over it,” he said. He initially thought that COVID-19 was similar. When a patient infected him, he learned the hard way that his first impression of the virus was very wrong.

While he was sick, his right leg swelled up. Three months after being released, he still walks with a cane and has trouble standing for long periods of time. Recently, he turned down an opportunity to perform a kidney biopsy because the procedure required him to stand for an uncomfortably long time.

As he waited for his vaccine, he remembers regretting that it couldn’t have arrived sooner: “I wish it was right before I got sick,” he thought.

He was nervous about any potential side effects: None of his peers receiving the first round of the vaccine had gotten the virus already. On December 18, the day Pyae received his first dose, he felt fine. But the next day, he had a fever of 102 degrees and chills. (Side effects of the vaccine may feel like flu, according to the CDC, but should clear up after a few days.) He was afraid he’d been reinfected, but soon realized it was a normal reaction to the vaccine.

He hopes others will take the vaccine before they get sick, and continue washing hands and wearing a mask.

“The best thing is to not get infected,” he said.

‘I was worried it was being rushed through’

Dr. Nathan Chomilo, the medical director for the state’s Medicaid program and a pediatrician for Park Nicollet, said he originally planned to wait things out for a few months after COVID-19 vaccines became available. He wanted to see how the shots affected people first. 

“I believed I was definitely going to take one at some point,” said Chomilo, 37. “But I was worried it was being rushed through.”

Chomilo said he was especially worried when he heard rhetoric about a push to make the vaccine available before the presidential election in November. After all, the fastest-developed vaccine before now—for mumps—took four years to come to fruition. 

Chomilo acknowledged his unfavorable view of the Trump administration played a role in his initial skepticism, though he said his skepticism was “very reasonable” given the administration’s “views on science.”

That changed after Chomilo spent weeks delving into medical literature, spoke with medical colleagues, and kept tabs on how the vaccines developed. 

“If there’s any type of new treatment, you read through the background sciences,” Chomilo said. “You read through the clinical trials, you hear what the experts have to say, and you keep an eye on the data.”

Soon, HealthPartners, which previously merged with Park Nicollet, began offering trials for the AstraZeneca vaccine, which are still ongoing. Rather than take an available vaccine, Chomilo enrolled in the AstraZeneca trial. His main reason for this, he said, is because AstraZeneca’s vaccine is more likely to be used across the globe on impoverished and underrepresented populations. 

All vaccines need a pool of trial participants from diverse backgrounds to ensure they work on all populations. Chomilo’s parents immigrated to Minnesota from Cameroon, and much of his family lives there today. Chomilo said that by participating in the trial, he is helping to ensure the vaccine will work on people like his father’s siblings who reside in Cameroon. 

It’s understandable for people to hold skepticism about vaccines, given professional medicine’s racist history, Chomilo said. And he added that a part of him still sometimes cringes whenever his son gets a shot. Doctors should share these feelings with their patients, he said. 

“Sometimes, because we’re so afraid of people grasping at any type of doubt, we don’t want to admit we have that same doubt,” Chomilo said. 

Chomilo encourages other doctors and medical professionals to listen for the context and “deeper concern” when they encounter people who are hesitant to take a vaccine. “If you spend all your time citing studies, that can often backfire,” he said.

‘There was never a second thought in my mind’

Dr. Mohammed Hussain, a 52-year-old emergency room physician in Monticello, felt excited to get his first coronavirus vaccine on Monday, thinking “at least there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

In the first few months of the pandemic, Dr. Hussain’s hospital in Wright County didn’t see many COVID-19 patients. But starting in August, cases spiked. 

“We were working very hard, we were exhausted, and not able to transfer the patients,” he said. “The ER was becoming the ICU because there was no place to transfer.”

One patient in particular sticks with him. The man’s oxygen levels fell rapidly, damaging his brain. Within a few days, he had to be taken off the ventilator. The man had a wife and children, Hussain recalled.

“When you see those things, this question, ‘Should I get the vaccine or not?’ does not cross your mind,” Hussain said. “There was never a second thought.”

Dr. Mohammed Hussain holds up his vaccine paperwork as he receives his first COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Courtesy Mohammed Hussain

He hopes the early examples of people receiving the vaccine will encourage those who have misgivings. He knows some people want to wait a little longer, and that misinformation about the vaccines is already rampant on social media and messaging networks.

But the vaccine is nothing to be frightened of, he said.

He scheduled a morning appointment after his overnight shift at the emergency room. And he found that the actual experience was much less scary than watching people get vaccinated on television.

“I didn’t even feel the needle,” he said.

Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...