The first of the COVID-19 vaccines are here, and the largest vaccination initiative in United States history is underway. However, these vaccines come with many common questions that patients are already asking.
Don’t assume that a patient is anti-vaccination if they’re asking questions about the vaccine. The pandemic has been stressful, and the vaccine development and approval processes are complex. It’s part of our job to help our patients understand it and how vaccines can benefit them.
Is the Vaccine Safe?
Yes, every vaccine approved in the United States has undergone all the required clinical trials and tests to determine how effective and safe it is, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh any potential risks.
Before the FDA could even approve the vaccine for emergency use authorization, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) had to review all the data from the clinical trials, and then vote on whether or not the data shows the vaccine is both safe and efficient enough for approval.
However, this is still the fastest that a vaccine has ever been developed and authorized for use, and that speed is understandably a concern for many people. But that speed does not mean that the companies behind the vaccines or the regulatory bodies who approved them cut corners. There are many factors that contributed to this speed.
First, companies made vaccine development a priority, and governments were quick to provide necessary funding.
Second, the companies behind the leading vaccines have been working with the technology used to develop them for many years. That includes the newer type of vaccine that uses mRNA instead of a live or inactivated virus to trigger an immune response.
Additionally, the trials were able to swiftly recruit tens of thousands of volunteer participants, so that the trials could be conducted quickly. Volunteers included a variety of people of different ages, sex, ethnicity, and health history.
Lastly, vaccine manufacturing began early during the mass trials on the gamble that the vaccine would work the way it was supposed to. The companies were willing to take the risk in order to make sure there would be millions of doses available once approved.
Monitoring for potential side effects does not end with approval. Both the vaccine companies and regulatory organizations will continue to monitor the vaccine for many years.
Is it Better to Get Natural Immunity?
No, the health risks that come from getting COVID-19 are far greater, with negative outcomes more likely to occur and to be severe than any risks from getting the vaccine.
Many people who get sick with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms or no noticeable symptoms at all. That makes some people wonder if it’s worth it to just get sick and get immunity that way.
First, we still don’t fully understand the long-term effects of COVID-19. There have been many cases of people with symptoms months after infection in what is becoming known as “long COVID-19.”
We know that the illness can permanently damage the heart, lungs, and brain. This damage can lead to scar tissue, blood clots, blood vessel damage, strokes, seizures, or changes to mood.
Although long COVID-19 and severe illness are more likely to happen to the elderly or those with comorbidities, people who are young and healthy can still become severely ill and die from the virus.
Second, six out of ten adults in the United States have a chronic disease and having comorbidity greatly increases the chance of having a severe illness. These comorbidities can be as severe as heart disease and diabetes to as simple as high blood pressure or asthma.
Third, there’s a chance you can still get sick and test positive for the virus months after you’ve had it. There’s still a lot about the coronavirus that we don’t know yet, and how long you have immunity after getting sick is one of the unanswered questions.
Do I Need the Vaccine if I’ve Already Been Sick?
Yes, even if you have already been sick with COVID-19, you can still benefit from getting the vaccine.
There are documented cases of people becoming infected and testing positive for the coronavirus a second time. We just don’t know yet how long you’ll be immune after getting sick, but early studies show that natural immunity might not last very long.
It’s also unsure if you’ll have the same response to infection each time you get sick from the virus, and severe illness may be possible.
The vaccines have been tested in large trials, and we know that they provide immunity in a less-risky way than getting sick. Although we aren’t sure yet how long that immunity will last, even if it only lasts six months to a year, that gives populations time to build up herd immunity.
Not only will that greatly reduce infection cases and stop the rapid spread of the virus, but it’ll relieve the strains on our health care system.
How Long Will I Be Safe from COVID-19 After I Get the Vaccine?
We still do not know exactly how long immunity will last from the vaccine. You may need to get the COVID-19 vaccine every year, like a flu shot, or it may last for several years.
The vaccine companies and health organizations will continue to closely monitor the tens of thousands of trial participants to find out how long their immunity lasts. Because the volunteers got the vaccine months before the general public, we’ll have a good idea of when people will need to be revaccinated months before the public will need another vaccine.
Could I Get Sick from COVID-19 from the Vaccine?
No, getting the COVID-19 vaccine will not give you COVID-19.
Of the three leading vaccines, none of them use the live coronavirus that causes COVID-19. However, the whole point of a vaccine is to trigger an immune response in your body in order to teach your immune system how to fight off the virus in the future.
What Are the Side Effects?
The point of a vaccine is to trigger an immune response in your body, and an immune response means you may have symptoms, like fever, headache, body pains, or soreness and redness at the injection site.
These symptoms are normal and a good sign that your immune system is responding appropriately. Any symptoms will normally go away within a week.
Multiple government and independent organizations as well as the company that made the vaccine will continue to monitor any side effects from the vaccines for years to come. As with any medical treatment, there will always be very rare cases of severe or long-term side effects, and response to those cases will be immediate and thorough.
However, if you have had a severe allergic reaction to another vaccine or to any of the ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccines, talk with your doctor before getting the COVID-19 vaccine to find a way to get vaccinated safely.
How Long Does It Take to Build Immunity After Vaccination?
The current vaccines require you to get two doses three to four weeks apart. If you get the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, then clinical trial data says you likely won’t have full immunity until about a week after your second dose.
It’s very important to continue wearing a mask, social distancing, washing your hands, and avoiding large gatherings for several weeks after your second dose. You can still get COVID-19 before or shortly after getting vaccinated.
Even after getting vaccinated and giving your body time to build immunity, continue with best practices, such as wearing a mask, until researchers can see the full effect of the vaccine on the general public.
How Many Doses Will I Need?
Currently, the majority of leading vaccines will require you to get two doses three to four weeks apart. You must have the same brand of vaccine for both shots.
The first dose you’ll get will help prime your immune system to recognize the virus. The second dose will strengthen the immune response to provide longer-lasting and more effective immunity.
Will the mRNA Vaccine Change My DNA?
No, the mRNA vaccines will not change your DNA.
Pfizer and Moderna both developed mRNA vaccines for COVID-19. mRNA is simply a template that the cells of your body will use to create a protein, and that protein will teach your immune system to develop antibodies against the COVID-19 virus.
However, mRNA will never enter the nucleus of your cells. Once your cells have made the protein, your body will get rid of the mRNA naturally. Your DNA will remain stored safely in the nucleus and untouched by the mRNA.
When Can I Get the Vaccine?
The federal government is responsible for allocating doses to each state. Then, each state is responsible for determining its own vaccination plan.
Vaccines will be administered in phases with the highest-risk people getting it first, such as health care workers in critical care or emergency care units and people in long-term care facilities.
To know more about when you may be eligible for the vaccine, check your state’s vaccination plan.
Will I Be Required to Get the Vaccine?
Your employer has the right to require you to get the vaccine, just as it does with the annual flu vaccine, but you can seek an exemption based on medical or religious reasons.
If you seek an exemption, you may be required to use another method, like wearing a mask when at work or to work from home.
Who Pays for the Vaccine?
Any vaccine that has been purchased by the federal government using taxpayer money will be given to the public at no cost.
The distributor who gives you the vaccine may still charge an administration fee, but they will then apply for reimbursement either from your insurance or from the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Provider Relief Fund if you don’t have insurance.