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Victory Over COVID
Starts with a Vaccine

Posted by Thomas Birch, MD
Medical Director, Clinical Research, Holy Name Medical Center
Board-certified Infectious Diseases Specialist on December 30, 2020

Thomas Birch, MD, Medical Director, Clinical Research, Holy Name Medical Center

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines against the COVID-19 coronavirus are arriving in New Jersey hospitals, long-term care facilities, public health centers, and other places that employ frontline healthcare employees.

Staff working at these facilities are among the first to be offered the vaccines, followed by other essential workers, seniors over age 75, and people over age 65 with underlying medical issues.

I'd like to share with you some of the most common questions I am asked about these vaccines, and give you answers that should help you make the decision as to whether you and your loved ones will get vaccinated. Please note that in the months to follow, we will receive vaccines produced by other companies as they are developed and approved.

How do these vaccines work?

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are a new type of vaccine called a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. They work the same way, and trigger our bodies to develop a protein that stimulates our immune system to produce antibodies against the COVID-19 virus. The immune system’s white blood cells “remember” the virus and help protect us from getting infected if we come in contact with it. Rest assured, these vaccines do not contain live or inactive COVID-19 virus.

You will need two doses of the vaccines, three weeks apart if you receive the Pfizer-BioNTech one, and four weeks apart if you receive the Moderna one. Both doses must be from the same vaccine.

What side effects can I expect?

You may experience soreness at the vaccination site on your arm, a fever, and/or some flu-like symptoms: fatigue, aches, chills, headache. They last about a day and are more common after the second dose and in younger people. These reactions are a sign that your immune system is revving up. If you can, you may want to consider taking a day off from work after the second vaccine in case you experience side effects. Very few individuals have experienced a severe allergic reaction (e.g. anaphylaxis).

Do I have to worry about the vaccines’ safety since they were developed so fast?

Although the vaccine campaign was dubbed “Operation Warp Speed,” this does not mean that science and safety were bypassed. These vaccines underwent rigorous testing in clinical trials. The federal Food and Drug Administration granted Emergency Use Authorization because these vaccines met stringent standards for safety and effectiveness. We can trust that the process was conducted properly.

I have had COVID-19. Should I still get vaccinated?

Yes. New Jersey is following the protocols of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which indicate vaccines should also be offered to people who have had COVID-19 whether they had symptoms or were asymptomatic. People who had COVID-19 usually develop antibodies that neutralize the virus. But we do not know how long this protection from antibodies lasts, and cases of reinfection, although rare, have been reported.

People who are currently infected with COVID-19 should delay taking the vaccine for three months after they recover from acute illness. Research shows that people typically won’t be reinfected for at least three months after they recover.

I have allergies. Should I get the vaccine?

The CDC only advises those with “a history of severe allergic reaction [e.g., anaphylaxis]” to avoid the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine. As a precaution, most people are being asked to remain for observation at the vaccination site for 15 minutes. For all others with allergies – including those to food, pets, insects, oral medications, latex, etc. – the CDC says they may proceed with vaccination.

Should pregnant or breastfeeding women get the vaccine?

Although pregnant and breastfeeding women did not participate in the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine clinical trials, experts say that based on what we know about other vaccines, COVID-19 likely poses a greater risk to pregnant women than the vaccine. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists states, “It is expected that the safety … of the vaccine in pregnant women would be similar to that observed in non-pregnant women.” If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, ask your physician what is best for you.

Once I am vaccinated, must I continue to social distance and wear a mask?

Yes, we must still be vigilant in continuing the CDC's public health guidelines of social distancing by at least 6 feet, mask-wearing, and hand hygiene. Although the vaccine will protect you against the virus, we don’t know yet if those who are vaccinated can still carry the virus and transmit it to others. In order to end this pandemic or at least get a handle on COVID-19, there must be broad distribution of the vaccine.

When can I receive the vaccine?

At Holy Name Medical Center, we will update our public COVID-19 resource website: holyname.org/covid19 with information about vaccines when they are available to people in the community.

New Jersey's website: covid19.nj.gov/pages/vaccine provides information regarding the administration of vaccines within phases. A registration process will be initiated there.

For referral to a Holy Name primary care provider or medical specialist for an in-person or telemedicine appointment, visit HolyNameMedicalPartners.org.