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  • Brooke Habberstad

Why the COVID-19 vaccine is safe

Christine Guarino, RDH, CMF, CFm, is a business owner of a health facility dedicated to meeting the needs of all women in all phases of breast aftercare such as breast cancer or breast reconstruction.

Like many healthcare workers, Guarino decided to get the COVID-19 vaccine not only to protect herself against the novel coronavirus but mainly to protect the cancer patients she is in contact with on a daily basis.

“I didn't have any concerns about getting the vaccine,” she said. “I do know that there were some risks involved for me because I have compromised lungs and I also treat cancer patients. For me the concerns outweigh the risks.”

But as rate of vaccination begins to slow and federal and state health officials still face opposition to getting vaccinated, the need to prove its safety grows.

COVID-19 vaccination timeline

It’s safe to say 2020 didn’t exactly go as many of us thought it would thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The novel coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019. From that moment on, typical American life drastically changed. In fact, it quickly turned out to be a series of unfortunate events - from overwhelmed hospitals and healthcare systems, to local governments shutting down businesses, schools and restaurants and locking down indoor and outdoor public spaces such as athletic fields, parks and gyms - all in an effort to keep the pandemic from spreading.

But the virus was too quick and too powerful. It managed to spread across the entire globe in a matter of months. It forced every country to rely on their healthcare systems to handle overwhelming sickness at the same time while trying to understand what this new coronavirus was and how it could be limited.

Hospitals and healthcare workers were quickly overwhelmed as space available could not keep up with demands from the sick. To clamp down on the spread, governments tried to balance shutting down a local economy entirely while protecting citizens. In the end, America's patchwork attempt at both led to unmitigated spread.

By March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. Since that moment, the virus has been with us. The main character of 2020, and still into 2021, is COVID-19.

Globally, there have been roughly 154,680,561 COVID-19 cases, including 3,233,845 deaths as of May 6. In the U.S. alone, there have been about 32 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and approaching 600,000 deaths.

But as the pandemic spiraled out of control, and in spite of so much guesswork by frontline healthcare workers on how to treat this insidious virus, scientists were in the background, working around the clock to develop a vaccine within unprecedented deadlines.

And they did it.

Within a year, the COVID-19 vaccine defied all odds and became the fastest vaccine to receive FDA approval. Typically, a vaccine takes anywhere from 5 to 10 years and sometimes longer.

Pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna announced their vaccines reported to be 90-94% effective against COVID-19. So far, there have been 128 million vaccine doses administered. With that said, 2.5 billion people are left to receive a single dose. The only way we can beat this virus is with the help of a vaccine but until a vaccine is widely available across the globe, people will still have to use measures like social distancing, wearing a mask, and washing their hands frequently.

It has been a remarkable feat of science and medicine to have a vaccine for a new virus developed in less than a year and with such high effectiveness.

However, with all the rapid development there are a lot of questions regarding who needs to be vaccinated, when to get it, and if it’s safe for everyone.

Those who are pregnant or have a history of severe allergies are skeptical whether the vaccine is safe for them. Some are wary of the vaccine due to how quickly it was developed and produced. Others question whether it's safe for children to get vaccinated.

Because the novel coronavirus has brought a lot of unknowns that scientists and researchers have had to answer in real time, public knowledge and trust of the vaccines has lagged behind. And while everyone should get vaccinated to help prevent the spread of the virus and end the pandemic, there are understandably questions about whether special conditions make it still safe to get the vaccine.

Because this pandemic confounded scientists and doctors alike as it spread, knowledge about the novel coronavirus and faith in the safety of the vaccines has been highly varied and people have a lot of questions. While the vaccine is something everyone should get to help stop the pandemic, it is important to feel confident in its safety. Here are answers to some of your biggest concerns about the safety of the vaccine.

General concerns about the vaccine

Since the COVID-19 vaccine utilized new technology in its development, it has caused some questions and concerns about the vaccine. While many are excited about the vaccine there is also some hesitancy amongst different age groups and races.

“The majority are hopeful and excited about the prospect of getting the vaccine,” says Dr. Danielle Scheurer. “There is a portion though that is very variable by demographic that have a pretty considerable amount of vaccine hesitancy. We know that it's higher in a younger age bracket. Blacks and Hispanics in particular have a fair amount of vaccine hesitancy that we need to overcome.”

Some people also question the short amount of time that it took to make the vaccine and others question the overall safety and effectiveness.

Dr. Krutika Kuppali, an infectious disease physician at MUSC, acknowledged that the speed with which the vaccine seemed to be developed has made some people more nervous.

“I think understandably people have questions about the vaccine because it is a new type of vaccine in terms of that it has a platform of being used as an mRNA vaccine, which is different from the vaccines we’ve used before so people have questions about that,” Dr. Kuppali said. “Also because the vaccine was developed in about a year people have questions about how the vaccine was developed so quickly.”

Safety and effectiveness of the vaccine

There has been a lot of talk of whether the vaccine is safe and effective. Because the vaccine was created over the past year, it's impossible to know if there will be any long term side effects or even how it will affect different people such as women who are pregnant, people with vaccine related allergies, and young children. First, it is important to talk about the overall safety & effectiveness.

“This is one of the safest and most effective vaccines that has ever been made in the history of vaccine development. Particularly on the vaccine effectiveness side,” says Dr. Scheurer. ” Just for comparison we know that every year two-thirds of Americans are willing and able to get the Flu vaccine, which is only about 60-70% effective and yet it does have widespread acceptance.”

To have a vaccine that is 95% effective at preventing COVID-19 is “really remarkable, ” says Dr. Scheurer.

Although there are a variety of COVID-19 vaccines and each has a different percentage of efficacy, overall it is widely effective compared to other vaccines.

As for safety of the vaccine, it is known to be a safe vaccine with minimal side effects after the first dose and more flu-like symptoms after the second dose.

“On the safety side, there haven’t been any serious safety events outside of rare anaphylaxis,which occurs in about five per million. Again super rare serious side effects,” Dr. Scheuer says. “Most of the side effects as you know are really well tolerated, they typically start within a day or two of the vaccine and they’re fatigue, muscle ache, and headaches. About 16% of patients overall experience a fever. So really very effective and very safe.”

Guarino noted she was one of those patients who felt flu-like symptoms after the second dose.

“After my second vaccination, me and my husband got very sick. We were in bed for about three days and couldn’t move,” says Guarino.

In April the FDA paused the administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to rare blood-clot cases among several women, but the CDC recommended continuing to administer with warnings.

Risks/concerns for pregnant women

Typically, women who are pregnant are much more cautious about what they put into their body’s while pregnant in order to not only protect themselves but their future child. With that said, pregnant women have questioned whether they should get the COVID-19 vaccine or if it is safer to wait till after they give birth. Similarly, pregnant women were not included in the vaccine trials which may lead to some hesitancy.

“The biggest concern with pregnant and lactating women is that they were excluded from all of these studies so it’s really just an area of unknown. There's no biological plausibility that a pregnant woman would have a different reaction with either safety or efficacy and there's also no evidence that any component of the vaccine or the product of the vaccine cross the placenta,” says Dr. Scheurer.

Doctors are still recommending that pregnant women still get the COVID-19 vaccine due to the fact that they are at higher risk.

“Based on what we know to be true today, all of the obstetric and gynecologic professional societies do recommend getting the vaccine. The only thing I would say in response to those choosing to wait until after they give birth is that time isn’t really on our side and pregnant women are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications than non-pregnant women. All that combined is why the recommendation is ``please don’t wait, go ahead and get it,” says Dr. Scheurer.

Vaccine-related allergies

For those that have vaccine-related allergies, questions arise of whether the COVID-19 vaccine is safe for them. The simple answer is that it is important for people who have vaccine related allergies to know what component of vaccines they are allergic to.

According to the CDC you can still get this vaccine unless you’re allergic to a component of the vaccine, says Dr. Kuppali.

“The most likely component people are allergic to is polyethylene glycol, which is found in things like laxatives or what we used to prepare people for colonoscopies,” he says. “If you have other allergies - food, medicines, pollen - it's really likely safe to take this vaccine.”

Vaccines for children

There have been a lot of questions about whether children should get the vaccine and if it is safe for them. The uncertainty of whether or not children should get the vaccine stems from the fact that they were not included in the trials up until recently.

According to Dr. Scheurer, the Pfizer vaccine is approved for 16 and up and the Moderna vaccine is approved for 18 and up.

“Both of those companies as well as Johnson & Johnson and Astrozeneca are all now enrolling children in clinical trials to try to quickly generate safety and efficacy data, but right this minute none of them are approved in children in those age brackets,” she says.

The overall hope is for there to be mass vaccine production by the time the fall semester rolls around.

As of April 5 the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine is said to be extremely effective in young adolescents, and on May 4, the Biden Administration announced the FDA is likely to approve the vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds this month.

Whether or not vaccinations can begin before the next academic year for middle and high school students depends on the regulatory approval but seems very likely.

You've been vaccinated, now what?

So, you got the vaccine and now you wonder when will the antibodies form? According to Dr. Scheurer the vaccine typically starts working 7-14 days after the second dose.

Now, you wonder; can I go out in public without a mask? Will I still need to socially distance? The simple answer is yes, you still have to wear a mask in public and yes, you will still need to practice social distancing.

“Right now we are recommending that since we’ve only vaccinated about 12% of the population we don’t have enough people vaccinated yet to reach herd immunity,” Dr. Kuppali explains. “We are still learning about all these new variants and what that means for vaccines. The caveat to all these things is that the CDC just released guidelines that if you’re with other people who have been vaccinated then it is ok to not wear masks. Otherwise when you’re out in public I would recommend that you still remain wearing the mask.”

It is crucial to stay up-to-date with any vaccine related information as new updates are unfolding with each coming day.

Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla, announced on April 15 that fully-vaccinated people will most likely need a booster vaccine within 12 months.

by Brooke Habberstad

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