Mar 26, 2021 1:00 PM


All Utahns 16 years and older are now eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Utah. University of Utah Health encourages everyone to get vaccinated to help slow the spread of COVID-19 and bring an end to the pandemic. All COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing serious illness from COVID-19, including hospitalization and death.

Sankar Swaminathan, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Carlos Gomez, MD, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at U of U Health answer questions about COVID-19 vaccines.

Are there any concerns about the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations versus the rate of virus variants spreading in the U.S.?

Swaminathan: The concern is virus strains that change could outstrip the ability to get people immunized. Another concern is if a virus strain causes disease in people who have received the vaccine, you have the problem all over again. That has, luckily, not been a big problem here in the U.S. Many of the strains that have evolved, such as the UK variant, seem to be well-covered by the vaccines. The vaccine may not be as protective against the South African and Brazilian variants, but they still decrease severe cases and death. If we can get everyone vaccinated, we should be in good shape. At the current rate of vaccination, I don’t think we are going to have the variants outstrip our ability to immunize.

When it comes to side effects from COVID-19 vaccines, what percentage of patients experience symptoms?

Swaminathan: Pain at the site of injection is very common. The incidence of serious adverse effects is less than 1%. It’s important to emphasize the overall incidence of serious effects, meaning something that puts you in bed, is very low. Also, almost all side effects from the vaccines are uncomplicated and people recover in a day or two.

Does one vaccine cause more side effects than others?

Swaminathan: I have not heard whether one vaccine causes more side effects, and I would be surprised if that was the case. What we should look at is the data from the vaccine studies. The studies alone include almost 100,000 people. The overall percentage of people who have experienced side effects is similar in both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine studies.

If a person meets current state qualifications to get vaccinated and is in good health, should they wait and let people more in need get the vaccine first?

Gomez: At this point in the pandemic, we want everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible. If you get offered the vaccine, you should take it. The individual protection you get from the vaccine and the community benefit will help society. The way of cutting off variants is to get vaccinated as soon as possible. There is no way for the coronavirus to mutate if there is no replication, and the way to stop replication of the virus is to get vaccinated.

Does the vaccine last for the rest of your life, or do you need to get it every year?

Gomez: We don’t know yet. We are getting close to gathering data from Pfizer and Moderna for the one year of enrollment of people who were vaccinated this time in 2020. At this point, we know if you get infected with the virus, you have some protection from the vaccine. However, after some period of time, those antibodies titers diminish and the patient can become infected again. At this point in the pandemic, the important thing is to get the vaccine as soon as possible.

Can you still transmit the virus after you’ve been vaccinated? Do you still need to be careful around people who aren’t vaccinated?

Swaminathan: The CDC says you can relax some of your restrictions if you have been completely vaccinated. If you want to gather with friends who are fully vaccinated, they share the same level of risk as you and it should be okay to mingle in a small group. If you are going to have contact with people who are not vaccinated or with those who are considered high-risk, there is still a chance that you can transmit the virus even if you aren’t sick. In these situations, you should continue to physical distance and wear a mask.

The likelihood that a person can be infected and be asymptomatic after getting vaccinated is lower, but we don’t know if it’s zero. Just because you are vaccinated doesn’t mean it’s safe to go to a bar or a crowded restaurant while transmission in the community is still high.

Do side effects from the vaccine mean the vaccine is working?

Swaminathan: The vaccine is working whether you experience side effects or not. The fact that you experience side effects means your body’s immune system recognizes something foreign and is saying, “Look, we need to get rid of this or learn how to deal with this.” As the vaccine is exposed to your body, the body learns how to recognize it and mounts defenses to the virus. The cells that do that will release molecules that cause both local effects, like swelling and redness pain, and systemic effects, such as fever, headache, and muscle aches. It’s similar to experiencing fever and headache when you have a bad cold or flu.

When will there be data about people who have been vaccinated?

Gomez: Data is coming in from the clinical trials that led to the approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines about efficacy. Real-life experience with the vaccines has already been published. Data shows that a patient has more protection from the vaccine after the second dose. Countries have also seen a significant decline in the number of infections, asymptomatic infections, and hospitalizations, and deaths related to COVID-19 vaccines after full vaccine rule-out.

Swaminathan: With any vaccines, we only know how long it lasts based on how long the vaccine has been around. So, it takes ten years to find out if something works for ten years and takes 20 years to know if something works for 20 years. The reason we know the polio vaccine has worked for as long as it does and when you need a booster is because it’s been almost 70 years that we’ve had this vaccine. We can only know about a vaccine as we go along.

If you are not yet vaccinated or choose not to get vaccinated, should you attend public gatherings?

Swaminathan: This pandemic is different from past diseases that were primarily spread by children, such as measles. The way we can still achieve functional herd immunity is by immunizing the majority of adults even before the vaccine is approved for children. Small children are not primary contributors of spread in the community and tend not to get very sick or die from the disease. If we can get 70 percent of adults immunized, we’ll see very low spread in the U.S.

Should states lift masking restrictions before the general population is vaccinated?

Swaminathan: Relaxing restrictions should be based on risk level. If we are at a point where there is no spread and the risk of getting COVID-19 from the grocery store is very low, it would be appropriate to relax those restrictions. You don’t decide to stop taking an umbrella with you just because it is April. You would not take an umbrella with you after looking at the forecast and calculating the risk of getting wet. Similarly, relaxing restrictions should be based on the current risk level, not the calendar.

If vaccines are safe, why have they not been approved by the FDA?

Swaminathan: The Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been approved by the FDA for emergency use authorization because this is an emergency. The vaccines will receive formal approval once the FDA has reviewed all the data from the millions of the people who received the vaccines.

How to get a COVID-19 vaccine:

U of U Health patients are encouraged to make a vaccine appointment through MyChart. If appointments are not available, patients should check back often or are highly encouraged to schedule a vaccine appointment with another vaccine provider. To see all COVID-19 vaccine locations and scheduling options in Utah, visit the state’s coronavirus website or vaccinefinder.org.

Anyone who has questions about COVID-19 vaccines or needs scheduling assistance can call the U of U Health Hotline at 801-597-0712 or toll free at 844-745-9325.

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