COVID-19 vaccines may be key to returning to a more normal life someday, but should I feel safe getting it?
Imagine a holiday season with family gatherings, warm hugs, shared meals, and football games enjoyed shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of fellow fans. All that may be possible someday in the future, with the promise of COVID-19 vaccines rolling out across the country in the coming weeks and months. The key to defeating this debilitating and deadly disease is ensuring vaccines are safe and effective, and that enough of us get vaccinated once we have access.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is poised to authorize the first of these vaccines, possibly within days or weeks. It may be months before until they’re available for the general public. Now is the time to learn about COVID-19 vaccines, ask questions, and understand whether and when vaccination might be right for you. While we wait for vaccines and learn more about how long they may provide immunity, all of us must continue masking, social distancing, and practicing other prevention behaviors so we can keep ourselves and each other safe and healthy.
Who will get a COVID-19 vaccine first? When can I expect to get it?
Supplies will be limited for a while after the FDA first authorizes vaccines. The Utah Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that healthcare professionals most likely to come in contact with COVID-19 and long-term care facility residents should be vaccinated first; followed by remaining healthcare workers, emergency responders, people at risk of serious illness, and people age 65+; and then the general public. According to departments of health, all people who want to be vaccinated in Utah, Idaho, and Nevada should be able to access vaccines by summer 2021.
Are COVID-19 vaccines safe?
Several vaccines are currently being developed, with the first up for authorization from the FDA within days. The FDA will only approve vaccines if they meet strict safety and effectiveness standards. The FDA, CDC, and Intermountain Healthcare are committed to being fully transparent about any approved vaccine(s), include effectiveness and any risks or side effects. The FDA and CDC have not indicated any potential side effects from vaccines under exploration at this time. Just as with any vaccination, there could be mild side effects like mild pain, swelling, or redness at the site of injection; mild fever; chills; feeling tired; headache; and muscle and joint aches. These are all signs that the immune system has been activated to create immune cells that protect against the virus.
How are COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out so quickly?
The CDC and other national organizations have partnered to form Operation Warp Speed, an initiative to accelerate the COVID-19 vaccine program safely. Usually, it takes years to deliver a new vaccine, but Operation Warp Speed has drastically reduced that time frame to just months. The key has been to work on several things – developing, testing, and manufacturing – all at once, rather than in the traditional way of waiting until one step in the process is complete before starting another one. If testing shows a vaccine is safe and effective and the FDA approves it, doses will be ready to use immediately.
Are COVID-19 vaccines effective?
A vaccine must be at least 50 percent effective (reduces the risk of infection by one half) for it to be granted FDA authorization for emergency use. Another way to say this is: you are half as likely to become infected compared to those who are not vaccinated. Any level of effectiveness can help slow the spread. Early data indicates that some COVID-19 vaccines being developed may be around 95 percent effective.
Because we don’t yet know how effective the vaccines are and for how long, individuals will need to continue all other prevention methods including masking, social distancing, and hand hygiene.
Why do we need vaccines for protection?
The way out of the pandemic is to build herd immunity. Herd immunity happens when a large portion of a community (the “herd”) becomes immune to a disease, making person-to-person spread of illness unlikely. This helps protect the whole community. With COVID-19, we’re seeing that people who are infected lose their immunity three to nine months after having the virus, making herd immunity without a vaccine almost impossible. (Learn more about why non-vaccine herd immunity for COVID-19 is a myth.) If COVID-19 vaccines are found to be safe, effective, and long-lasting, vaccines could be our way to successfully achieve herd immunity.
How do COVID-19 vaccines work?
Vaccines help the body develop immunity by training the immune system to recognize and remember how to respond to the disease-causing part of a virus. Vaccines traditionally contain either weakened or inactivated (killed) viruses or purified, signature proteins of viruses.
In the COVID-19 response, some manufacturers are making vaccines in new ways, using messenger RNA (mRNA). mRNA vaccines “teach our cells to make a protein, or a piece of a protein, that triggers an immune response inside our bodies,” according to the CDC. “That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.” mRNA vaccine does not include live virus and cannot give someone COVID-19. Nor do these vaccines interact with our own DNA in any way. Instead our cells break down and get rid of the mRNA after it receives the “instructions.”
Should people who were COVID-19 positive and recovered, or who are currently COVID-19 positive get a vaccine?
Individuals with any active illness should wait until they are recovered and feeling well before being vaccinated. Because we don’t yet know how long immunity or antibodies to the COVID-19 virus will last, we recommend that individuals vaccinate for COVID-19 even if they were previously positive.
How much will the COVID-19 vaccine cost?
COVID-19 vaccine supplies will be distributed by the federal government at no cost to patients. The CDC will share more information about this as it becomes available.
Kristin K. Dascomb, MD, PhD