Ask an expert: COVID-19 Vaccine

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been an effort to make one or more COVID-19 vaccines available as soon as possible through Operation Warp Speed. As that vaccine rolls out to our healthcare workers and communities, many people have lingering questions about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

Each of us is our own best health advocate and, often, we are tasked with making health decisions for loved ones too. With so many different claims circulating, it’s more important than ever to have reputable sources to turn to so you can make an informed choice when it’s your turn.

What we know

When it comes to a new vaccine, there are a lot of unknowns. But, fortunately, there is a lot we do know:

  • COVID-19 vaccination will help keep you from getting symptomatic infection COVID-19 and also seems to protect from more serious cases of the infection.
  • COVID-19 vaccination for yourself may help protect people around you, especially those who are at an increased risk for developing severe illness from COVID-19.
  • The known and potential benefits of a COVID-19 vaccine outweigh the known and potential risks of the vaccine. COVID-19 can have serious, life-threatening complications and there is no way to predict how severely it will affect you. Plus, if you get sick, you could spread it to friends, family, and others.
  • There is benefit to receiving the vaccine even if you have previously been infected. Reinfection after getting COVID-19 is uncommon in the 90 days after initial infection, but experts don’t know how long this protection lasts. Vaccination will help protect you by creating an antibody response without having to experience sickness.
  • The COVID-19 vaccine is an important tool to help stop the pandemic. Wearing masks and social distancing measures help to reduce your chance of being exposed to the virus – and spreading it to others – but stopping a pandemic requires all the tools we have available. A combination of measures will offer the best protection from COVID-19. Vaccines play their part by working with your immune system so your body is ready to fight the virus if you are exposed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still have questions? Dr. Jay Sizemore, the Medical Director of Infection Prevention at Erlanger, offers answers to some of our patients’ frequently asked questions.

Is the vaccine approved by the FDA?

Yes, both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been given an emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.

How does the vaccine work?

According to the CDC, “COVID-19 vaccines help our bodies develop immunity to the virus that causes COVID-19 without us having to get the illness.”

“Different types of vaccines work in different ways to offer protection, but with all types of vaccines, the body is left with a supply of ‘memory’ T-lymphocytes as well as B-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight that virus in the future.”

In other words, the vaccine helps your body build immunity to the target virus.

I have heard that this vaccine is an mRNA vaccine. What does that mean and will it affect DNA or cause changes in my genes?

mRNA vaccines are the first type of vaccines authorized for use in the United States at this time. Many vaccines put a weakened or inactivated germ into our bodies but mRNA vaccines do not. Instead, they teach our cells how to make one of the viral proteins that triggers an immune response which produces antibodies. Those antibodies protect us from getting infected if the real virus enters the body.

mRNA can’t combine with our DNA to change our genetic code. It is very fragile, has not been observed to interact with the cell nucleus at all, and degrades very quickly after the cell uses it to make the protein.

What are the side effects?

Normal reactions to the vaccine are soreness or swelling at the injection site, fatigue, chills, tiredness, and headache. Some people may experience muscle pain and joint pain as well. These are all signs of immune activation and are signs that your body is building protection. Most of these signs start within 48 hours of getting the vaccine and last less than 48 hours.

Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine?

No. None of the authorized and recommended COVID-19 vaccines or COVID-19 vaccines currently in development in the United States contain the live virus that causes COVID-19.

Should I be worried about anaphylaxis?

Anyone who carries an Epipen should wait 30 minutes after getting the vaccine to monitor for response.

What about people with weakened immune systems?

People with weakened immune system, such as people with HIV or lupus, and people who have autoimmune conditions should contact their physician to discuss whether or not they should receive the vaccine.

If I have had COVID-19, should I still get the vaccine?

Yes. Don’t get it while you’re still sick, but it is advised to get both doses of the vaccine before the 90 day “immunity period” is up.

Can pregnant women get the vaccine?

There were no adverse effects of the vaccine in pregnant women in the trials, so there should be no risk for fetal development. We do know that COVID-19 infection during pregnancy and breastfeeding comes with risks so we advise using this as an opportunity to discuss your concerns with your doctor and make a confident decision regarding your vaccination together.

Does the vaccine impact fertility?

COVID-19 vaccination is not believed to affect future fertility.

Can I go see family right after I get the first dose, or can they now visit me?

After getting the vaccine, mitigation strategies currently recommended will need to be continued for non-household contact including extended family. Those strategies include masking, social distancing, and hand hygiene.

Can I stop wearing a mask?

While the vaccine is more than 90% effective, the trial only measured symptomatic cases. Experts predict that we will continue to use masks as a method of transmission reduction until we reach a level of herd immunity in which COVID-19 is no longer considered a major public health issue.

When I get the vaccine, will I be instantly protected?

Protection from a vaccine doesn’t happen instantly. In general, as long as you receive both doses, you can expect to reach the full level of immunity offered by the vaccine within several weeks after your first shot.

Is transmission still possible even when someone has been vaccinated? For example, can a healthcare worker who has been vaccinated still bring the virus home from a patient to their family?

Data has not yet been released on whether or not the vaccines offer what is known as “sterilizing immunity,” which means that those who are vaccinated can’t contract or pass on the virus at all. So, until we know more, there is a possibility that even people who have been vaccinated can become asymptomatically infected and spread the virus to others who have not received the vaccine.

Can kids get the vaccine?

At this time, the vaccine is not offered to those under the age of 18 (Moderna) and 16 (Pfizer), but it could potentially be available for children in advance of the new school year in the fall.

Do I have to get the same vaccine for the second time?

Yes, stick with the same manufacturer for both doses. For example, if you get Pfizer for your first done, get Pfizer for your second.

How long will the vaccine last?

Exact length of protection is not clear, but studies predict that it could last for years. The need for “booster” or annual vaccines is currently unknown. Stay tuned!

What if I miss my second dose or can’t make it to an appointment on Day 21?

There is no need to start over if you are not able to get the second dose exactly 3 weeks after your first dose.

Do I need to take the day off when I get the vaccine?

Side effects tend to occur the night of the vaccination and the next day and all tend to be mild. Symptoms do tend to be worse after the second dose. If feasible, receiving the vaccine just ahead of a day off is advisable just in case.

Remember, most of these symptoms are indicators that the immune system is working to generate the response it will need if natural infection is encountered.

Does this vaccine protect against new strains of the virus that have been identified in the region?

The currently available vaccines are expected to be active against the recently isolated new strains.

Have other questions? Ask in the comments!

If you want to receive the vaccine, the best first step is to check with your local health department or doctor. Don’t have a doctor? Find one here.