The United States has administered more than 420 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines. While most side-effects are mild to moderate and brief, there are rare cases of severe reactions.
Tiffany Daly is one of those rare cases.
“I was very active, hiking all the time, camping — you know, all sorts of stuff," Daly said. "Anything I could do outside I would try to do."
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Daly was working at her job at a Long Beach, California, metal shop on July 22 when she suddenly lost feeling in her legs and collapsed. She spent more than a week in the hospital undergoing numerous brain scans and MRIs. A neurologist finally diagnosed her with transverse myelitis.
Daly, who had never heard of the condition before, explained: “It's inflammation that is in your spine. Most people have it from their neck to all the way to their toes, which I'm very blessed to have it just from my waist to my toes.”
Transverse myelitis causes pain, muscle weakness, paralysis, sensory problems or bladder and bowel dysfunction. There are many causes, including infections and immune-system disorders like multiple sclerosis. Daly said, however, that she was completely healthy before the incident and was shocked when the doctor said her sudden case was likely caused by her first injection of the Moderna COVID vaccine, which she received more than six weeks before her legs went numb.
“I was just confused, because I was paralyzed and I was scared, you know?" Daly said. "And that's like the last thing I kind of wanted to hear: I was paralyzed by the Moderna vaccine."
Despite rare cases like Daly's, the CDC and medical experts reiterate the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines under the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.
Tiffany Daly, who does not have health insurance, hadn’t been working at her temp job long enough to qualify for full-time benefits. After she became ill, she moved into her mom's Oceanside home in a retirement community, where her mom is now her full-time caretaker.
A Personal COVID Connection for a Medical Expert
William Fitzsimmons, who is the founder of Tutela Pharmaceuticals, is also an adjunct assistant professor in the department of physiology and biophysics at the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois Chicago.
“Actually, a large portion of myelitis cases are idiopathic, meaning we never find out the cause, but vaccines have also been associated with myelitis,” Fitzsimmons told NBC 7 Investigates.
Fitzsimmons documented the relationship between COVID vaccines and transverse myelitis, publishing a paper on the Social Science Research Network.
“I wanted to make health care professionals aware that this could be an adverse reaction to these vaccines so they would report them and appropriately diagnose and treat the patients,” Fitzsimmons explained.
Fitzsimmons' research is also personal. The case he studied was his brother, Bob.
“My brother was 63 years old," Fitzsimmons said. "He was healthy, jogging almost every day and received his second dose of the Moderna vaccine in April. After receiving that dose, within one day he started experiencing numbness, tingling sensation, pain in his lower extremities. Within two days of being vaccinated, he was unable to walk. He was hospitalized in severe pain and was in the hospital for one week.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks vaccine reactions through its Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) database. Anyone — health care professionals, vaccine manufacturers, the general public — can submit a report to VAERS. So far, out of the more than 420 million doses administered, there have been 219 reports of unverified cases of COVID vaccines and myelitis; 84 of those were connected to the Moderna vaccine, 103 to the Pfizer vaccine and 30 to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Two are unknown.
Fitzsimmons believes those numbers are underreported.
“It’s based on spontaneous reports," Fitzsimmons said. "It’s not collecting all of the information."
Tiffany Daly and her mother, Cathy, reported her case to the CDC and submitted it to the VAERS database. They also filed reports with Moderna, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services. In all cases, the Tiffany said, they received a generic reply and were assigned a case number.
Fitzsimmons, on behalf of his brother Bob, reported his case to Moderna and the CDC and also said he received no feedback.
“They weren't interested in following up with me, and they indicated to me at the end of April that they didn't think this was a safety signal because they didn't see a disproportionate reporting of myelitis with COVID vaccines compared to other vaccines,” Fitzsimmons said.
NBC 7 Investigates reached out to Moderna and HHS to ask about reports of transverse myelitis and COVID vaccines, but they did not respond before our deadline.
“You know, I live on very little Social Security,” Cathy Daly told NBC 7. “They basically just said, ‘Do what you got to do.’ There was no, 'Go here for help, go there for help.' There was nothing.”
Tiffany Daly, who doesn't want to be a financial burden on her mother, said she’s been denied disability benefits. Legal action against the drugmaker is not an option.
“There are several things that complicate the situation for people like Tiffany and my brother,” Fitzsimmons said. “Last year the secretary of HHS signed the PREP Act, which actually limits the liability of manufacturers as well as health care professionals related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Tiffany Daly also has to worry about protecting herself against COVID-19 since she was unable to get her second shot.
“We have antibodies that are already under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for treatment of outpatient mild-to-moderate COVID-19," Fitzsimmons said. "These antibodies are directed specifically against the spike protein within the virus, and therefore one of the approaches that has been used is for prevention of COVID-19. So, I think that one of the good things to do is to research the people that can no longer receive the vaccine, could get the antibodies and can therefore be protected.”
A Mother's Promise to Her Daughter
At this point, Daly cannot drive or return to the type of work she used to do.
“I could stand up with the cane, but if I didn't have a cane, it would hurt," Daly said. "It kind of feels like pins and needles.”
Cathy Daly was supposed to be traveling and enjoying her retirement but now is taking care of her only child, vowing to never leave her side.
Cathy becomes emotional talking about her daughter.
“So, yeah, that's why I'm willing to give up everything," Cathy said. "I just have to get her back where she needs to be because this isn't fair. You know, it's just not fair. But I'm here and I'll always be here, and I will always be her advocate. I think it's really important.”