TAMPA, Fla. — Vanessa Arroyo, a Tampa nurse believed to be among the first Americans to get a vaccine shot for COVID-19, said she still wears a mask and avoids large gatherings.
"Besides the Super Bowl," she clarified. "That’s the one exception."
Arroyo is one 7,500 vaccinated health care workers invited by the NFL to attend the Super Bowl, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers playing the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Although Bucs quarterback Tom Brady and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes are the marquee players, Arroyo has become something of a celebrity too.
"Yes, I suppose so," she said.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis was in attendance Dec. 14 when Arroyo, a front-line nurse, got the Pfizer vaccination. Three weeks later she got the second dose and plans to use the Super Bowl to advocate for the vaccine — and root for the hometown Bucs.
"We frequently have confrontations with anti-vaxxers in this hospital setting," said Arroyo, 31, who works at Tampa General Hospital. "This is nothing new. We give out influenza shots every year, so we deal with that backlash every year. We also administer pneumonia shots frequently, so we do get some negative feedback regarding vaccinations.
"I do believe it is a personal choice. However, in this pandemic, we really need for immunity to get back to whatever normal we can."
Raymond James Stadium, the site of Super Bowl LV, in Tampa, Fla. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 7. (Photo: Chris O'Meara, AP)
What she’s witnessed at the hospital has only reinforced her belief in the need for vaccines for COVID-19, Arroyo said.
She said she works in the medical intensive care unit that has been converted into the COVID-19 intensive care unit. There are 18 beds, and for much of July all 18 patients were in ventilators.
Families of patients were not allowed at the hospital, and Arroyo said she and other nurses used their phones so families could FaceTime and say goodbye to their dying family members.
One day, she said, four patients died.
"That was very sobering," she said. "We needed a lot of support."
After volunteering to be the first nurse at the hospital to get a vaccine, she said she felt no ill effects. That was not the case after her second shot, when 16 hours later she woke up in the middle of the night.
'I woke up with chills, a fever, and body aches — super comparable to the flu," she wrote on her Facebook page. "In the morning I still felt extremely achy and had a 100.5 fever."
Arroyo took Tylenol and went into work because, "I am apparently insane," she wrote on her post, adding that she felt fatigued for most of the day and continued to feel lethargic until that afternoon and recommended people take a day or two off after their second shot.
"Experiencing those symptoms was nothing compared to what I’ve seen my own patients go through," Arroyo, who is married and has two young children, told USA TODAY Sports. "So I’ll take the 12 to 24 hours of discomfort over a whole ICU hospitalization."
Though COVID-19 case numbers have not approached their peak, according to local officials, they are on the rise.
"There is some hope on the horizon, but our numbers show that we’re kind of going in the wrong direction again," Arroyo said. "So we still need to hunker down and support each other and just try to continue to do what we’re doing."
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