There is a daunting amount of information to sort through to understand the role that vaccines will play in fighting this pandemic, when we will begin vaccinating at Sharon Towers at SouthPark and what we can expect to see in terms of a timeline, side effects and safety. With the first eagerly anticipated COVID-19 vaccines imminently available, I wanted to respond to some of the most common – and important – questions from residents and families.
1. When will the COVID-19 vaccine be available, and who will get it first?
After the FDA provides Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), vaccines will be distributed nationally to those persons belonging to a high-priority group. High-priority groups are those with increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, such as healthcare workers, and those at increased risk of COVID-19 complications, like older adults living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
2. Who should get the vaccine when it is widely available?
After the high priority groups are vaccinated, the vaccine should be available to other groups of people. Older adults in the community would be advised to receive the vaccine since they are at increased risk of serious complications from COVID-19. As more vaccine becomes available, younger adults and those at lower risk for complications will be able to receive the vaccine.
3. What is an mRNA vaccine and why is there so much attention about the COVID-19 vaccines?
The first two vaccines developed for COVID-19 use a new and innovative approach to developing vaccines. By using a piece of the virus’ genetic transcript (mRNA), these vaccines teach the recipient’s immune system to fight the virus. Traditionally, vaccines use different viral proteins, but not mRNA, to educate your immune system. Both approaches provide immunity, but mRNA vaccines hold great promise for highly effective vaccines, and, like the COVID-19 vaccine, they can be developed much more quickly.<l/li>
4. Are the COVID-19 vaccines safe?
Although the two leading mRNA vaccines were developed quickly, they are both undergoing intense scrutiny to ensure both safety and efficacy. Data from clinical trials of the vaccines are very encouraging and demonstrate both high safety and high efficacy. Since long-term adverse effects of vaccines may not be known until a large number of people are vaccinated, the FDA will review data carefully and continue to monitor these vaccines even after they are approved for use. Although mRNA is a new vaccine technology, there is no reason to believe that mRNA vaccines are riskier than conventional vaccines. Like everything in life, we need to weigh risks and benefits. The risks of COVID-19, especially for older adults and those with chronic medical conditions, need to be weighed with what will often be mild and temporary side effects from the vaccine.
5. Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine?
No. None of the vaccines in development contain the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The vaccines educate your immune system using mRNA or viral proteins. These serve as a viral “preview” and get your immune system ready to fight the infection, but the vaccines themselves cannot give you COVID-19.
6. What are the side effects?
Like most other vaccines, the side effects for the COVID-19 vaccines used in clinical trials are mild and temporary. They include a sore arm at the site of injection, fatigue, and possibly a low-grade fever. It is also notable that those who received the placebo in the clinical trials also developed side effects, so not everything a person experiences after the injection is necessarily related to the vaccine.
7. How many doses (injections) will you need for the COVID-19 vaccine?
The two leading mRNA vaccines were designed to be given in two injections, about one month apart. Other vaccines in development may require only one injection. Since all of these vaccines are new, we do not have enough information about the need for re-vaccination in the future. It is possible that “booster” injections may be indicated.
8. Should I still get the influenza (flu) vaccine?
Yes. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the influenza virus continues to circulate and can cause serious illness and death, especially for older adults. Very serious illness can occur if a person gets both influenza and COVID-19 at the same time. Since influenza vaccines (flu shots) are widely available across the country, getting immunized for flu is something you can do right now to protect your health.
9. Should I continue taking precautions, like wearing a mask and physical distancing, if I get the vaccine?
Absolutely, YES! Vaccines for COVID-19 are only one tool to help protect you and other people from infection. Even with vaccination, COVID-19 will continue to circulate for months and probably even years. There will likely be a time in the future when wearing masks and keeping physical distance from others will no longer be necessary in our daily lives, but for the foreseeable future we will need to continue safe behaviors to limit our risk of infection and spread of COVID-19. It is only with a combined approach of infection control behaviors and vaccination that the pandemic will be controlled.
10. After the vaccine, how quickly will the COVID-19 pandemic end?
We do not know how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic will end. It is possible that cases of COVID-19 will continue to be identified in localized outbreaks for many years. There are still significant hurdles to overcome before we see COVID-19 fade away. Some of the vaccines require specialized handling and refrigeration. Distribution and administration of vaccines on a global scale will be extremely challenging, but necessary in order to end the pandemic. COVID-19 has reminded us that we are interconnected and that what happens in one part of the globe affects all of us. The end of the pandemic takes a global vaccination approach combined with our individual willingness to get vaccinated and continue practicing safe behaviors.
Anthony J. Caprio, MD, is medical director at Sharon Towers at SouthPark and geriatrician at Atrium Health.
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