Battling cancer and unable to get vaccine, teacher dies from COVID-19 complications

Now that the FDA has given full approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, vaccine mandates may become more common. Some employers are requiring vaccines and many cruise lines are telling passengers they need to get the shot before coming aboard.

However, there are a few exceptions being accepted in places where vaccines are being required. Religious and medical are the most common exemptions but qualifying for a medical exemption is limited to a handful of circumstances.

Those who cannot get vaccinated due to medical reasons have to rely largely on those around them to protect them from becoming infected. 

Unfortunately for Polk County teacher Kelly Peterson, whose doctor advised her not to get the shot because she was undergoing treatment for leukemia, wearing a mask wasn’t enough. She died from complications due to COVID-19.

kelly peterson polk county teacher dies of covid

Kelly Peterson

The teachers union says the 41-year-old contracted the virus in the classroom at Lake Shipp Elementary. Her family is heartbroken over the fact that she was put at risk in the school that she loved and wasn't able to get the vaccine due to her doctor's orders. 

They say they take solace in knowing she improved lives hope her death sparks others to take action to prevent the spread. 

RELATED: Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine gets full FDA approval

Her sister, Christin, says Kelly put everything she had into teaching fifth grade at Lake Shipp Elementary.

"She gave everything she had for them every day," Christin said. "She treated every one of them like they were her own children."

After teaching virtually last year, Kelly Peterson, who is immune-compromised, was back in the classroom this school year, per state regulations.

That's where her sister says she contracted COVID 19, despite wearing masks and constantly sanitizing her classroom. 

"Because her leukemia was so bad at this point, their concern was by getting the vaccine that potentially could put too much stress on her body," Christin explained. "She had voiced concerns many times that if she contracted COVID, she was afraid that it would kill her, and unfortunately that's what happened."

MORE: FDA approval makes COVID-19 vaccine mandates easier

There are rare cases where doctors may urge a patient to hold off on getting a COVID-19 vaccine. For example, anyone who is hypersensitive or prone to allergic reactions. 

"Generally, the hypersensitivity reactions that people get are treatable and they can get good immunity from the vaccine as well," explained University of South Florida virologist Dr. Michael Teng.

The Polk County school district is the seventh-largest in the state and does not have a mask mandate in place. At least seven other school districts do, challenging the governor's order. 

"Polk County has lost a great soul," said Stephanie Yocum, the president of the Polk County teachers union. "I hope that adults start to set good examples for our kids. If wearing a mask can keep somebody from dying, that should be something that every person should do right now."

"If it helps even one more person decide, ‘Let me get vaccinated,’ it’s worth it. People like Kelly can be saved," Christin added.

Her family says Kelly considered going against her doctor’s orders to get the vaccine before school started but ultimately decided to wait.

Her sister says, despite what happened, Kelly would have no regrets about going back to school because that's how dedicated and selfless she was.