Texas family waits for recourse after 21-year-old's rare, severe reaction to COVID-19 vaccine – Corpus Christi Caller-Times


A Texas family has been in limbo for six months since seeking help from a government program to cover medical bills for a 21-year-old man who suffered a rare severe reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine.
Kartik Bhakta was a second-year pre-med student at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia while his family was living in Kingsville, Texas. His father, Mukesh, described him as a “genius” student.  
His reaction to the vaccine, the ensuing medical bills and the family’s long wait for some recourse have been “like a hell,” Mukesh Bhakta said.
COVID-19 vaccines for kids: Delays upset parents. Experts say it was the right thing to do.
A severe case like Kartik’s is rare. By some estimates, incidents of anaphylaxis — a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction — connected to COVID-19 vaccines range from 4.5 to 5.1 cases per million doses administered, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in December 2021. Other reports suggest anaphylaxis or severe allergy may be more common, at 2%.
The likelihood of death after a COVID-19 vaccine is about 0.0022%, said Dr. Brian Reed, chair of clinical sciences at the University of Houston College of Medicine.
Although anaphylaxis from COVID vaccines is “pretty rare,” Reed said, doctors are still mindful of the possibility and, before administering the shots, ask patients whether they’ve had a bad reaction to a similar vaccine.
“Anytime we do anything in medicine, there’s risk of harm and there’s also benefits,” Reed said. “Oftentimes, we make a clinical decision about the benefits outweighing the risk of harm.” 
In the case of COVID-19, the potential harm is contracting the disease and not knowing how severe an illness will be in someone, Reed added. 
“We know that we’ve had over 900,000 deaths (in the United States) attributed to COVID since 2020,” while medical experts are still learning about the aftereffects of COVID hospitalization and the lifelong disabilities people will face with long-haul COVID, Reed said. 
“When I lay out those risks for patients, yeah, there’s a risk that you could have anaphylaxis. There’s a risk that some of these things could happen,” he said. “But the greater likelihood is if you catch COVID — that’s where there’s much more risk.”
Myocarditis, or inflammation around the heart, has also been reported in connection to COVID-19 vaccines. That condition is also “very rare,” Reed said, as 2,239 cases have been reported out of 540 million doses administered.
As with other vaccines and medications, it’s unclear whether side effects are directly caused by the vaccine or were coincidental, he said. 
Vaccines are currently “our best weapon in the fight to prevent severe COVID infection,” Reed said, adding that most vaccinated people who have contracted the omicron variant have had mild cases.
Despite his own experience, Kartik said he recommends people get vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The statistics show for someone to have reactions severe as mine are very, very, very rare,” he said. “I would like to suggest people not to be scared and still continue to get the vaccine.”
Nausea and vomiting set in two hours after Kartik received his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on April 19, 2021. He’d been in good health the day before; he had no other medical conditions and had not been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Next came back pain and a severe rash. A couple of days after taking the shot, Kartik had blood in his urine. He was admitted to the hospital — and would stay there for three months. 
He developed cataracts and tinnitus in both ears that progressed to deafness; his kidney failure grew worse.
He then developed neuropathy, which his doctors said might have been induced by steroids.
As for his other conditions, the doctors “don’t know exactly what happened,” Mukesh Bhakta said. “That’s why they throw all blame on the vaccine, because after the vaccine, this happened.”
Kartik has put his schooling on hold while he recovers. He has undergone ear surgery and has another scheduled in March; he’s had two eye surgeries and needs additional procedures. He continues to use a walker and see a physical therapist for his neuropathy. 
The family moved to San Antonio in November 2021 to be closer to medical facilities.
“It’s just a really, really long journey with lots of ups and downs, problem after problem,” Kartik said.
It’s unclear what Kartik’s new normal will look like.
Kartik’s doctors and therapist say he is improving, but very slowly, Mukesh Bhakta said. They are not sure when or if he will walk without a walker or cease to use other aids for his disabilities. 
Meanwhile, his family’s expenses have piled higher and higher. 
Kartik’s university insurance plan stopped covering his medical bills in August. His father has a health maintenance organization insurance plan, which requires patients to stay within their network of providers to receive coverage. The family had a “difficult time” finding health professionals for Kartik through that plan because many do not accept HMO, Mukesh Bhakta said. 
The family does not have coverage for the additional eye surgeries that Kartik needs.
And Kartik’s parents aren’t working so they can take him to medical appointments and care for him. They made the move to San Antonio with their savings and financial help from family.
Enter the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program. The program, which is part of the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, provides compensation for serious injuries or deaths that, with thorough evidence, are found to be caused by certain vaccinations, medications or medical devices. That includes COVID-19 vaccines.
In the program’s 12-year history, more than 6,600 claims have been filed, according to the program’s website. Twenty-nine have been compensated.
More than 3,300 claims alleging injuries or deaths from COVID-19 vaccines have been filed as of Jan. 1. Almost 3,000 claims are related to other COVID-19 countermeasures, including ventilators, medications and a lack of infection control practices. 
As of Jan. 1, the CICP has not compensated any COVID-19 claims.
The family submitted a claim in August and soon received an email from a staffer promising a follow-up. But radio silence followed. 
Over the next several months, family members left voicemails and sent emails for status updates, but they say no one has responded. They also unsuccessfully sought help from U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela’s office. 
Vela’s office did not immediately respond this week to a request for comment.
In response to questions from the Caller-Times in January, a spokesman for the Health and Human Services Administration said the family should contact the CICP by email or phone to answer questions about the claim. The spokesman said he could not speak about an individual claim for privacy reasons. 
Completed reviews of COVID-19 claims have taken about six months from the time the request for benefits was received to when a decision letter was mailed, the spokesman said.
Asked what the family would do if they were denied all assistance, Mukesh Bhakta said, “I don’t know. Then why is government is forcing to take a vaccine if they’re not taking responsibility?”
Sean Greenwood heads a Houston-based law firm that specializes in claims for a similar federal initiative, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. 
That program covers vaccines that are routinely given to children and pregnant women, including the shots for hepatitis A and B, seasonal flu, measles, mumps and polio.
Greenwood said his firm has heard “quite a bit” from people who have suffered side effects from COVID-19 vaccines. But virtually no lawyers handle COVID-19 vaccine claims, he said, because the chances of success are extremely slim. 
A person can only submit a CICP claim up to one year after receiving the vaccine, or other countermeasure, in question.
And the standard for proof is much higher in the countermeasures program than the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, Greenwood said. In the latter, also referred to as vaccine court, federal judges preside over trials and hear a complainant’s case. In the CICP, there are no judges — only a medical review board. 
“It’s a whole different world,” Greenwood said. “In the NVICP, we don’t have to prove a high standard of causation because there’s not a lot of medical research on vaccine injuries. … But with the CICP, they require a ton of medical, scientific evidence to prove that the vaccine caused your condition.”
In the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, the government reimburses the attorneys’ fees and expert witness fees, which means clients don’t lose money from their own pockets. Attorneys spend about $20,000 on experts, and attorneys’ fees can range from about $20,000 to $100,000. 
If a claim is successful, the CICP does not reimburse those fees; it only pays for lost wages and medical costs not covered by insurance.
The best bet for people seeking recourse from COVID vaccine injuries, Greenwood said, is to file a CICP claim within a year of receiving the shot — and hope that COVID vaccines will be added to the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. 
But when that will happen is unclear. 
A bill filed in Congress this session would allow vaccines recommended for adults by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — including COVID vaccines — to be included in the NVICP. But after the bill was referred to a subcommittee in June 2021, lawmakers did not take further action.
Other countries, such as Japan and France, have added COVID vaccines to their equivalents of the NVICP, and people are getting compensated “pretty quickly,” Greenwood said.
“The best thing to do just to preserve your rights is to file in the CICP,” Greenwood said. “I just don’t have a lot of confidence that these people are going to get a good result.”
When his condition allows, Kartik plans to finish school. 
Waking up in a hospital every day for three months was “petrifying,” Kartik said. But he was grateful for the doctors and nurses who took care of him.
When he lost his hearing, the doctors “went out of their way” to keep him informed about his health by typing messages to him or writing them on a whiteboard.
The experience “amplified my reasoning to become a doctor in the first place,” Kartik said. “I want to make other patients feel the way I felt from the interactions that I had with the doctors, especially in the ICU. … Their hospitality and care was, like, phenomenal.”
Vicky Camarillo covers Nueces County government and enterprise topics in Nueces County and Texas. See our subscription options and special offers at Caller.com/subscribe.

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