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Life-threatening allergies pose another hurdle to getting vaccine

Posted at 6:51 PM, Mar 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-09 19:04:06-05

MATLACHA, Fla. — Arlene Gilbert wears many hats. Grandmother, activist. On some days, she’s both, holding her “Grandmas for Justice” sign as she protests for social justice reform with Pine Island Rise Up, Organize, Agitate and Resist (ROAR). On Tuesday she said she’s just a woman ready to get back to some sort of normal life.

“I haven’t been able to hug anybody. I used to love to entertain and just have people over,” she said.

Like many senior citizens in Southwest Florida, she’s wants to get vaccinated for COVID-19. But, a near-death allergic reaction she had to a vaccine more than 40 years ago makes getting the COVID vaccine, complicated.

“I felt swelling. I - uncontrollable itching, I knew exactly what it was,” said Gilbert.

She had experienced anaphylactic shock. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 1 in 50 Americans have experienced anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that may cause hives, difficulty breathing, swelling and even throat closure.

So, Gilbert’s doctor told her in order to get either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, she would have to go to an outpatient clinic where medical professionals could monitor her after she gets the shot.

Robert Hawkes, Director of the Physician Assistant Program at Florida Gulf Coast University says following her doctor’s orders are crucial.

“Most of the medical facilities that are available have all of the equipment necessary if someone were to go into an anaphylactic shock. People would carry what we call the EpiPens,” he said.

But, her doctor’s advice posed yet another challenge because local pharmacies and county sites were getting prioritized for vaccine supplies. That left even fewer shots at those clinics.

“I had fears that it would take forever for me to get a vaccine,” said Gilbert.

After months of daily calls to local facilities, she finally turned to the Facebook group “South Florida COVID-19 Vaccine Info.” They locked in an appointment for her at Jackson Health in Miami.

“They really took care of me. And, the whole procedure didn’t take me very long,” she said. “Just the waiting to make sure I didn’t have a reaction. And I return there at the end of the month for my second vaccine.”

Even while she was looking for her own vaccine, she was working to help her elderly neighbors who are home-bound, and their caregivers in Matlacha.

“Many times they don’t have the proper PPE. Or as much PPE as we’d like to see them have,” she said. “That’s a very dangerous situation, because they’re out and about in the community at our most vulnerable people.”

Gilbert wants the local fire department to administer COVID-19 vaccines to homebound-locals, since they already have certified EMTs. She’s been asking local commissioners and legislators to make that happen. Fox 4 will bring you updates as we learn them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says if you do experience anaphylactic shock after getting the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, do not get a second.