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Goldstein Investigates: Shoulder Injury Linked To COVID Vaccination From Medical Volunteers

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — As millions are awaiting their COVID-19 vaccines, one Los Angeles man is warning people that who gives the shot could make a difference.

Healthcare worker Sung Cho said he received his vaccine from a pharmacy student and has been paying the price of a mistake that student made.

"I couldn't move my arm," he said. "I could only move it about 10-degrees lifting my arm before excruciating pain like a knife going through my shoulder."

In the days after getting the shot at a city-run site in Lincoln Park, Cho said he couldn't function normally.

"I can't lift my kids up anymore," he said. "I can't play basketball. I can't play with them anymore. I thought my life was over."

Cho was diagnosed with Shoulder Injury Related To Vaccine Administration, or SIRVA, which happens when a vaccine is mistakenly injected into the bursa space below the deltoid muscle in the arm instead of in the muscle itself. Doctors say the pain can last anywhere from a few days to a few months.

In Cho's case, he believes a pharmacy student administered his vaccine and made a mistake.

"I think she's innocent to it, but didn't get proper training," he said. "And I find that very infuriating."

Investigative reporter David Goldstein found that hundreds of medical volunteers have been enlisted to administer vaccines, including some students.

When he contacted the city about what happened, a spokesperson responded:

"The message our public health experts are sending couldn't be clearer: these vaccines are safe, they're effective, and Angelenos should get vaccinated as soon as they're able. Every one of the over 190,000 vaccines given at our sites has been administered by trained and certified clinicians that include professional staff and students. The Mayor, and our public health professionals, have full confidence in the work they're doing."

The University of Southern California said its pharmacy students are "supervised by USC pharmacy faculty," "licensed by the state as intern pharmacists," and have "vaccinated nearly 27,000 people at the COVID site in Lincoln Park."

While SIRVA is considered a rare occurrence, Congress set up the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program in the 1980s to compensate victims. But, days before former President Donald Trump left office, then Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar set in motion a plan to eliminate shoulder injuries from the program.

Attorney Leah Durant, a survivor of SIRVA, said it would cut benefits for 65% of the victims in the program and many more who might be harmed after getting COVID vaccines.

"These are real injuries that really impact people's lives," she said. "This was something like we've never seen in the vaccine program, really talking about a change that's been made in the eleventh hour that will impact just many hundreds of thousands of Americans."

As for those concerned about getting their vaccines, L.A. dermatologist Dr. Jessica Wu said that people should be aware of where the shot is going.

"Make sure that they inject the vaccine into the deltoid muscle," she said. "It should be somewhere down here and ask the technician or nurse or the physician, 'Could you just take a minute and show me where you're going?'"

Cho said he would use Wu's advice for his second dose and, despite what happened to him, he still strongly believes that everyone should be vaccinated.

"Everyone needs to get it, but they need to be done properly," he said.

The federal government said it was reviewing the changes made to the vaccine compensation program to possibly continue to cover shoulder injuries.

As for Cho, he said he has more mobility in his arm two weeks out from the vaccine, but was still not back to normal.

More information about the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program can be found online.

Here is the full statement from the USC School of Pharmacy:

"USC Pharmacy professional doctoral students who are licensed by the state as intern pharmacists have vaccinated nearly 27,000 people in the community in our COVID-19 vaccination program at Lincoln Park, which is run in partnership with the mayor's office, the city's fire department, the county, and community groups, and is supervised by USC Pharmacy faculty.

When we received a note from someone who was vaccinated about discomfort with a shot, we informed our faculty in charge of training the professional doctoral students and reinforced best practice standards for everyone working in our immunization clinic. The Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs communicated directly with the only vaccine recipient who reached out to the program."

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