Angela Marie Wulbrecht jumped at the first chance to get a COVID-19 vaccine, driving three hours from her home in Santa Rosa to a mass-vaccination site on Jan. 19. Twelve minutes after her Moderna shot, she stumbled into the paramedic tent with soaring blood pressure and a racing heartbeat.
So began a calvary of severe fatigue, brain fog, imbalance and other symptoms that are still with her eight months later.
Wulbrecht, 46, had been a nurse for 23 years before the fateful shot. She was healthy, ate a vegan diet and was an accomplished salsa dancer. Since January, she’s had to leave her job and has missed out on many activities with her husband and 12-year-old daughter, Gabriella. She has spent about $35,000 on out-of-pocket medical bills, despite having insurance.
“I wanted to get vaccinated as soon as I could to help fight the pandemic,” said Wulbrecht, who still supports the vaccination campaign. Her husband got his shots despite her reaction, and Gabriella was scheduled to get her first dose Wednesday. “But it would help those who are hesitant if they took care of those of us who got injured.”
The options are slim for people who suffer rare life-altering injuries after a COVID-19 shot. It's a problem whose significance is growing as states and the federal government increasingly ponder vaccine mandates.
A federal program compensates people experiencing vaccine injuries, but not injuries from COVID-19 vaccines — not yet, anyway.
Such injuries are rare, but “if you’re going to take one for the team, the team has to have your back,” said Katharine Van Tassel, a vaccine law expert at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland. “That’s a moral imperative.”
Thirty-five years ago, Congress created the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, known as the vaccine court, for children hurt by routine immunizations administered as a condition of school entry. Since it began operations in 1988, the vaccine court has paid more than $4 billion to over 8,000 families who could provide a “preponderance of evidence” that vaccines against diseases like measles and pertussis hurt their kids.
The court also covers vaccine injuries in pregnant women, and from the flu vaccine. But it does not cover aftereffects from COVID-19 shots.
A smaller federal program, the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program, addresses illnesses resulting from drugs or vaccines administered during a public health emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. But that program requires evidence that’s harder to pin down, does not pay attorney fees and rules by administrative fiat, while the vaccine court has judges.
The countermeasures program has yet to pay anything to anyone hurt by a COVID-19 vaccine, and its largely invisible decisions are “an inscrutable enigma,” said Brian Abramson, an expert on vaccine law.
David Bowman, a spokesperson for the Health Resources & Services Administration in the federal Department of Health and Human Services, said the countermeasures program had a total of seven staff members and contractors and was seeking to hire more. He declined to answer questions about how COVID-19 vaccine claims could be handled in the future.
In June, a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Reps. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) introduced legislation to address problems with the original vaccine court, including a two-year backlog of cases. That bill would also increase the pain and suffering or death payments to people who can prove an injury, from $250,000 to $600,000.
A spokesperson for Doggett said he hoped the bill would eventually allow patients injured by COVID-19 vaccines to get compensation through the vaccine court. But that’s far from guaranteed.