Jan 22, 2021 2:00 PM

Author: University of Utah Health Communications


The risk of getting infected with COVID-19 and experiencing severe illness increases with age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), older adults are at the highest risk of getting infected with COVID-19 and suffer the most severe outcomes. The good news is COVID-19 vaccines help prevent against severe illness, hospitalization, and death from the virus.

University of Utah Health care professionals Emily Spivak, MD, associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases, and Mark Supiano, MD, professor and chief of the Division of Geriatrics, answer common questions about the vaccines.

Why should older adults get vaccinated?

Supiano: It’s been known since the beginning of the pandemic that older people are at very high risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes—and even death. In Utah, data from the first year of COVID-19 showed 70 percent of deaths from the virus occurred in people ages 65 and older. Age is also a strong risk factor for bad outcomes in COVID-19. This is why it’s extremely important for older adults to get a COVID-19 vaccination or a booster shot as soon as possible.

How much immunity do COVID-19 vaccines provide?

Supiano: The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were initially shown to be at least 94% effective at preventing serious illness after the second dose. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was initially 66% effective at preventing moderate to serious illness. The vaccines are less effective against the Delta and Omicron variants, and immunity can decrease over time. That’s why booster shots are recommended at least six months after receiving two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and at least two months after the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Will current COVID-19 vaccines work against variants?

Spivak: Studies so far suggest that current vaccines work on COVID-19 variants but are somewhat less effective. Vaccines remain the best way to reduce the risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. Initial studies show that the Omicron variant is more resistant to the vaccine, but this is being monitored.

Can the vaccine make people sick?

Spivak: A person cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccines. It’s more likely for people to experience side effects after getting vaccinated. Side effects are more commonly reported among younger people and typically occur 12-24 hours after vaccine administration. Side effects include fever, fatigue, headache, and muscle aches. This reaction is the body’s immune system mounting against the virus and building immunity. Tylenol or ibuprofen can help alleviate these symptoms. There are no other infections or illness you can get directly from the vaccine itself.

Supiano: Data suggests these mild symptoms are less common in older adults but still more common after the second dose. These side effects are minimal and short-lived. It’s well worth receiving the vaccine instead of getting infected with COVID-19.

Can people experience adverse reactions to COVID-19 vaccines?

Spivak: Severe allergic reactions to the vaccine can occur but are extremely rare. Allergic reactions tend to occur in people who had previous allergic reactions to other medications or vaccines. The likelihood of experiencing an adverse reaction to the vaccine is far less common than the risk of getting COVID-19.

What is known about long-term side effects of COVID-19 vaccines?

Supiano: We’d like to have more long-term data, but the data we do have about COVID-19 is so chilling that the benefit of getting the vaccine outweighs the risk of getting COVID-19. If you are an older adult and are unfortunate enough to get COVID-19, your risk of death is extraordinarily high. What’s even more compelling is that people who have recovered from the virus are experiencing devastating long-term side effects, also known as long COVID.

Why should vaccinated people continue to wear a face mask?

Spivak: While vaccinated people are more protected from getting infected with COVID-19, more transmissible variants of the virus continue to circulate in communities. To better protect yourself and the people around you, vaccinated people should continue to mask in crowded public areas. Masking, physically distancing, frequently washing your hands, and staying home when sick are still important rules to follow.

How can people help family members or friends who post anti-vaccination information online?

Spivak: I encourage people to not be judgmental and provide family and friends with the facts. The CDC’s website on COVID-19 vaccines is the best resource for health care providers and the general public to share with others.

Supiano: The American Geriatrics Society has a tip sheet tailored specifically to older adults. It’s important to provide education. There are a lot of myths about COVID-19 and vaccines, and we need to do our best to share the facts, science, and data that have been published.

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This information was accurate at the time of publication. Due to the changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, some information may have changed since the original publication date. 

covid-19 coronavirus vaccine older adults geriatrics infectious diseases

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