Winnipeg woman shocked by heart lining inflammation after COVID vaccine, but experts say risk remains low
30-year-old says she suffered chest pain, shortness of breath following 1st Pfizer shot
A 30-year-old Winnipeg woman says she was shocked to be diagnosed with a condition involving inflammation of the lining around her heart days after she got her COVID-19 vaccination in late May.
But a Winnipeg cardiologist says despite concerns about heart inflammation, vaccines are preventing illness from COVID-19.
The woman, who CBC has agreed not to name because she fears backlash, received her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on May 26 and started to feel chest pain the next day.
"Unfortunately I foolishly ignored the chest pains. I just went about my day because it wasn't super painful at first," she said.
Then the next day, she felt out of breath and used an inhaler, thinking it was her asthma. In the next two days, her chest pain persisted and worsened, finally prompting her to visit St. Boniface Hospital, she said.
There the woman was diagnosed with pericarditis, or inflammation of the pericardium, the sac-like tissue around the heart.
"Obviously I was freaked out. I have never ever had a heart issue, and I am 30. I was, 'What the heck?' This was a very shocking thing to be told," she said.
Last month, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's advisory committee said data suggests a likely link between vaccination with an mRNA vaccine, like those from Pfizer and Moderna, and rare cases of pericarditis or myocarditis (swelling in heart muscle).
The advisory committee maintained, though, that vaccination benefits outweigh the risks.
COVID poses greater risk than vaccine: cardiologist
Winnipeg cardiologist Dr. James Tam says despite concerns about heart inflammation, vaccines are doing their jobs preventing illness from the novel coronavirus.
COVID-19 "is a very concerning disease, especially with the delta variant, which is very infectious," he said about the highly transmissible coronavirus variant.
"If it wasn't for vaccines, we wouldn't be able to open up right now. We have to consider that and the risk for each person," he said.
"Also, the frequency of getting myocarditis with COVID infection is much higher than with the vaccine."
WATCH | Dr. Joss Reimer comments on heart inflammation and COVID-19 vaccines on June 24:
Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for Manitoba's vaccination task force, made similar points last month, following the release of the CDC commitee's findings.
As of July 7, one case of pericarditis and four cases of myocarditis had been reported post-vaccination in Manitoba out of the 905,789 people vaccinated, a provincial spokesperson said. Officials wouldn't provide details on the severity of the medical reactions due to patient privacy issues.
Across Canada, there had been 105 reported cases of myocarditis or pericarditis as of July 2, out of more than 38 million vaccinations to that point, according to Health Canada data.
Dr. Tam says in the past week, he's seen two cases of men who developed myocarditis following mRNA shots. He's also seen a woman with myopericarditis — a condition where both myocarditis and pericarditis are present.
"The timing suggests it may be related to the vaccine," he said, and is consistent with other reports of the inflammation developing "a couple of days to a couple of weeks after certain vaccines."
"A few years ago, we were seeing cases in the spring and fall related to viruses, but generally not in the heat of the summer."
He said he hasn't yet seen any cases of pericarditis on its own, which can be caused by infection, an immune reaction, cancer, drugs and sometimes vaccines.
Chest pain, shortness of breath
Pericarditis and myocarditis can cause similar symptoms, including shortness of breath, chest pain and abnormal heart beat.
As for the Winnipeg woman with pericarditis, she said she was initially prescribed two weeks of anti-inflammatory medication, but the pain persisted.
"My chest pain started coming back, along with shortness of breath. It was the 18th of June and while I was sleeping, I woke up gasping for breath and my heart was beating extremely loud and fast. I felt like I was dying. I literally couldn't catch my breath," she said.
She's visited an emergency department four times since her diagnosis in late May. It's now expected she'll be on medication for three months, she said.
The woman, who is a runner, says she now struggles to catch her breath while walking and wasn't able to hike on a recent camping trip. Even carrying groceries can sometimes trigger chest pain, she said.
As a result of not being able to be active, she says she's battling depression and anxiety.
The woman won't be getting her second shot and advises people to research the risks.
"The only person who has to live with the side-effects is me — nobody else," she said, adding she's disappointed she won't be able to do some of the things fully vaccinated people can.
"But I don't think it's worth risking my health just to travel or sit at a bar top in a restaurant."