These past few weeks, I’ve watched my friends, who are also healthcare workers, post their vaccine selfies to social media. Each photo brings tears of joy to my eyes, because it represents the beginning of the end of this pandemic. It’s time to celebrate that! The year 2020 was a year of change, a year of stress, and a year of mourning for so many, but the end is drawing nearer. This is in large part due to the amazing science that accelerated its vaccine development process without sacrificing quality to deliver multiple COVID-19 vaccines within 12 months. These vaccines provide a glimmer of hope for all of us, so that we can get back to hugging, to gathering, to mask-free living. These are the vaccines of our lifetime, and I encourage all of you to consider COVID vaccination when it is made available to you. In this post, I would like to review some of the common questions that may arise about COVID-19 vaccines, and provide some answers.
1) How were the vaccines created so quickly? Was safety compromised in any way?
The usual process for FDA approval for a vaccine is a long and linear one with specific stages that are completed in a precise order. For the COVID-19 vaccine, none of these stages were skipped. Instead, they were completed in parallel. Also, scientists were fortunately able to use previous research that was conducted on other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, and apply it to SARS-CoV-2, which significantly sped up the development process. Safety was not compromised, but the stages of development were completed more quickly. Finally, Operation Warp Speed provided critical funding from the federal government to sponsor trials of multiple vaccines at the same time. Each vaccine had a clinical trial that included at least 30,000 participants, which evaluated both safety and effectiveness. These trials included much more people than typical vaccine trials, which may contain around 5,000 participants. The trial participants are still being followed over time to learn how long the vaccines’ effectiveness will last. This is not yet certain.
2) What vaccines have been approved by the FDA so far? What kind of vaccines are they?
The two vaccines that have been granted Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) from the FDA include the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. These vaccines are called mRNA vaccines because they use genetic material called messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) to cause an immune response that protects the body’s cells from infection. After vaccination your immune system is primed to fight SARS-CoV-2. Should your body encounter the real virus, it can very quickly make antibodies to neutralize the foreign invader, thus protecting your body from infection. The RNA itself is not infectious, so you cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine. Soon after being injected, the RNA is broken down by your cells and cannot alter your genetics.
3) How well do they work? How often are they given?
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was shown to have an efficacy of 95%, and the Moderna at 94%. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is given as two doses 21 days apart, and the Moderna vaccine is given as two doses 28 days apart. The vaccines are not interchangeable, and you need to finish the series with the same vaccine.
4) What are the side effects of these vaccines?
The side effects of the vaccine can include muscle pain, redness, and swelling at the injection site, body aches, chills, fever, and headaches. Some people may also get some gland swelling on the side of the body where they get the vaccine. These side effects are more common after the second dose, but can occur after the first dose as well. It is important to note that these symptoms seem to be more severe than those with other vaccines, such as the flu shot. The side effects can be treated with both tylenol and ibuprofen if someone has no contraindications to taking these medications.
Another important side effect to note is that some people have had serious allergic reactions, so anyone with a history of severe allergies or allergic reactions should alert their health care provider before obtaining the vaccine. If you have a history of severe allergic reaction to your first mRNA vaccine, or an allergy to polyethylene glycol or polysorbate, then you should not get the vaccine.
5) Can I stop wearing my mask and stop social distancing after I get the vaccine?
No. There are few reasons that you cannot change your behavior at this time. Vaccines are never fully guaranteed to prevent disease, and there will always be a small percentage of the population who may not build an adequate immune response. We also need to wait until a large majority of the population has been vaccinated to reach herd immunity (indirect protection) to those who are not immune.
In my own personal experience, I have received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine. My arm was significantly sore for a few days, but ibuprofen helped immensely. I also experienced some mild body aches, which I took as a good sign that my body was building immunity. I anticipate symptoms to be stronger after the second dose, but these side effects are minimal compared to the symptoms many experience with COVID-19. It is going to save many, many lives, and I am so happy for my friends who are on the front lines to finally have some protection against this unrelenting virus. I can’t wait to see more people get it. I encourage you all to be vaccinated as soon as you can, as this vaccine is the hope for our future. It is safe. It is effective. This is OUR SHOT! Let’s Do This!
Tiffani Lemen, MD
Crossover Health Physician