Healthcare provider giving COVID Vaccine to patient

COVID-19 Vaccine: Updates, Side Effects & When to Expect It

The end of the COVID-19 pandemic may, finally, be in sight. As coronavirus infections and hospitalizations continue to rise across the United States, the rollout of the first vaccine is a beacon of hope for all of us who have endured months of fear, uncertainty, isolation, and grief.

But with so much vaccine news floating around, people may understandably be confused and even skeptical. Is the news too good to be true? How do we know the vaccines are safe? Who will be vaccinated first? Prospero Health is here to answer some of your most pressing vaccine questions. 

Do the vaccines work?

Based on results from clinical trials, the two COVID-19 vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in December are highly effective at protecting patients from falling ill with the coronavirus. In the trial for the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, half of the more than 40,000 participants received the vaccine and half received a placebo. Only eight people in the vaccinated group showed symptoms of COVID-19, compared to 162 people in the placebo group. This works out to a 95 percent efficacy rate for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. 

The vaccine created by Moderna had a 94 percent efficacy rate in a trial with more than 30,000 participants. To put these numbers in context, the efficacy rate for the flu vaccine ranges between 40 and 60 percent from year to year. 

So far, the vaccines appear to be as effective for older people as they are for younger people. This is important because older people are much more likely to experience severe cases of COVD-19. Further, the vaccines rely on a certain response from the body’s immune system, and this system weakens as people age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will continue monitoring the effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccines among older Americans. 

Are the vaccines safe?

No serious safety concerns were reported among the tens of thousands of people who received the vaccines in clinical trials. About a quarter of patients in the Pfizer-BioNTech trial and about half in the Moderna trial experienced side effects such as muscle pain, headaches, and chills. The side effects were more frequent after the second injection (the vaccines are administered in two doses 21 days apart). While these side effects can certainly be unpleasant, they are a sign the vaccine worked and the immune system is building up a defense against the virus.

Besides these common side effects, at least seven people in the US have had a severe allergic reaction after receiving the vaccine (six from the Pfizer-BioNTech version and one from the Moderna version). For this reason, people with severe allergies should talk to their doctors before getting the vaccine. Further, people who have had anaphylaxis in response to any vaccine or other substance should be monitored by healthcare professionals for at least 30 minutes after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine injection.

If you remain unsure about the potential health risks, ask your primary provider for advice. “For a person with serious illness, the risk of not being vaccinated and contracting the coronavirus is, in my opinion, higher than the risk of being vaccinated,” says Dr. Dave Moen, President of Prospero Health Partners. “That said, our position with all choices patients have to make is to give them the best possible information, let them make an informed decision, and support whatever decision they make.”

Who has received the vaccine so far and when can I get it?

The US government has distributed the vaccines to states and territories more or less according to the size of their population. As of December 28, more than two million Americans had received the first dose. Per the CDC’s recommendation, most of the recipients have been frontline healthcare workers or residents of long-term care facilities. 

For the next phases of the rollout, the CDC advises that state and local governments prioritize other frontline essential workers (e.g., law enforcement, teachers, food workers) and people over the age of 65. Depending on how many doses pharmaceutical companies are able to produce, older people who are not long-term care residents should be able to get the vaccine in the early months of this year. 

Prospero has made the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for its clinicians. “We’re following the CDC’s guidance with regard to the fact that healthcare workers should be vaccinated to prevent spread, both to themselves and to patients,” says Dr. Moen. “When we weighed the evidence and the fact that we serve people who are very vulnerable, we felt it was appropriate to require our employees who don’t have specific medical or religious exclusions to be vaccinated.” 

Once I get vaccinated, do I have to keep social distancing and wearing a mask?

The vaccines are designed to prevent recipients from getting sick from the virus. However, it’s unknown if vaccinated people are also less likely to transmit the virus to others. Until researchers have a better answer to this question, all of us will have to continue taking precautions to keep each other safe. 

Even if the vaccine lowers the chances of transmission, experts believe that around three-quarters of the US population needs to be vaccinated before life can get back to normal. Predicting when that will happen is very difficult, but the early days of the vaccine rollout have offered some signs of optimism. “As more and more people are vaccinated and the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines prove themselves out, people will start to know neighbors and friends who’ve gotten it and consider getting it themselves,” says Dr. Moen. “That’s how change happens.”