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Everything you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccines

The pandemic continues to disrupt our lives and leave us with unanswered questions. The COVID-19 vaccine has been widely available in the U.S. for over a year, and you might still be wondering if you and your loved ones should get one. To help clear the air and make the choice a little easier, we’ve compiled the most current information about the COVID vaccine.

To help clear the air and make the choice a little easier, we’ve compiled the most current information about the COVID vaccine.

The basics

The COVID-19 vaccine essentially helps you develop immunity to the virus that causes the disease without actually having to get sick.

As of now, all three vaccines being offered in the U.S. have received emergency use authorization (EUA) from the FDA. And this past summer, the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine received full FDA approval for use in people aged 16 and older (while booster doses and vaccines for those ages 5-15 are approved for use under the EUA). 

Two of the vaccine options are mRNA vaccines: one is from ​​​​Pfizer-BioNTech, and the other is from Moderna. While these vaccines aren’t identical, they both require two doses and work in the same way. 

What about booster shots?

Everyone who is age 5and older, including those who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to get pregnant now, or might become pregnant in the future, should get a booster shot.

How it works

The vaccines teach the body to respond to the COVID-19 virus and essentially help you develop immunity to the virus that causes the disease without actually having to get sick. After receiving the mRNA shot (Pfizer or Moderna), your cells will learn to make copies of the spike protein on the surface of the virus. This will then cause production of T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes (T-cells and B-cells for short), which help your immune system create the necessary antibodies that recognize and inactivate the COVID-19 virus, stopping it from being able to enter your cells, reproduce, and cause illness in the future. The process within your body is very similar after getting the viral vector vaccine (J&J). Your body learns from a modified viral cell contained in the vaccine how to make antibodies to a part of the COVID-19 virus. It is important to note that none of the vaccines currently available actually contain the COVID-19 virus.

Since it takes a few weeks for your body to produce the necessary T-cells and B-cells, it’s possible to contract the virus before the vaccine has a chance to make enough antibodies. The process of building immunity can cause some expected symptoms like fatigue and fever.  This is normal and shouldn’t last more than a couple of days. And many people don’t experience any side effects.

It’s unclear how long natural immunity (in those who were actually sick from the disease) and immunity from the vaccine lasts. However, we do know that vaccination decreases your risk of infection with COVID, whether or not you’ve had it in the past. So it’s still important for those who’ve been sick with COVID to get vaccinated once they’ve fully recovered and are cleared by their provider. Studies are underway to learn more about how long the immunity from vaccination lasts. Experts are learning more about COVID every day.

The benefits

The most obvious benefit of getting vaccinated is that it can help you not get COVID. Recent studies report that the vaccine effectiveness of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines two weeks after the second dose is 94% and 66.3% two weeks after the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

The Omicron variant has seemed to cause more breakthrough infections in those who are fully vaccinated, but it has also reinforced something we already knew: all three vaccines reduce your risk for getting seriously sick if you do contract the virus.

Beyond your personal health, getting the vaccine can help protect people around you, including those at higher risk of becoming severely ill and those who cannot be vaccinated, like newborns. And outside your closest circle, it may also curb the overall spread of the virus. More vaccinated people means fewer people who are asymptomatic and spreading the virus.

In the U.S., COVID cases initially peaked in January 2021. However, in some areas of the country, recent rates of infections have now surpassed that peak in January due to low rates of vaccination and the presence of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

The good news is that the vaccines are protecting people from getting sick and those who do get COVID despite being vaccinated, are much less likely to become seriously ill or die from it. Widespread vaccination is the key to decreasing the number and severity of cases. 

Safety

So, how safe is the COVID-19 vaccine? Before any medication, treatment, or vaccine is approved for use in the United States, the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) requires it to go through clinical trials to show that it’s safe and effective. This means the benefits have to outweigh the known or potential risks.

Though the COVID vaccine rolled out relatively quickly due to the urgency of the pandemic, no corners were cut. The data show not only that it’s safe but also that the benefits of getting vaccinated greatly outweigh the potential harm of contracting the virus and spreading it to others.

There are several ongoing safety monitoring systems that look for possible side effects or adverse reactions from the vaccine. In fact, the COVID-19 vaccines are currently the most intensely monitored vaccines in U.S. history.

While there was a pause in the use of the concern about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to a very rare risk of dangerous blood clots in the setting of low platelets, distribution has now resumed. The CDC and FDA have determined the risk of this condition, called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome or TTS, is extremely low while the risk of severe COVID-19 disease remains much higher. Thus, the benefits far outweigh the risk of getting this vaccine  in certain populations. The FDA does recommend that most people choose a MRNA vaccine as a first choice, but if this is not possible due to health or personal reasons, then the one dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is still an alternative. There have been reports of inflammation of the heart muscle or the area surrounding the heart in adolescents and young adults who have received the mRNA COVID vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. The CDC and FDA have acknowledged this increased risk in males younger than 30 and ongoing studies are underway to determine the long-term effects of this adverse event. Thankfully, to date, most cases of this inflammation (myo or pericarditis) have responded well to treatment. 

The CDC continues to recommend that all those 5 year old and up get the vaccine as the risk of developing this adverse reaction is much smaller than the risk of contracting COVID-19. Vaccine side effects for children are mild. The most common one is a sore arm.

What to consider

As with many other decisions during the pandemic, you’ll have to weigh the benefits against any potential risks (as well as the risks of not getting vaccinated) to make the best choice for you and your family.

If you’ve experienced severe allergic reactions to other vaccines in the past or have an underlying health condition, chat with your healthcare provider before getting your COVID shots.

What about kids?

Currently, everyone over the age of 5 is eligible to receive the vaccine. Pfizer’s vaccine is available for those 5 years old and up, and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are available for those 18 and older. All three are free in the US regardless of insurance status. Clinical trials are underway, including for those under age 5. 

There was a recommendation that the COVID-19 vaccine initially not be given within 14 days of other vaccinations. However, that limitation has now been lifted and it is safe for children and adults to get additional vaccines even the same day as their COVID-19 vaccine. 

If you’re breastfeeding

ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), the WHO (World Health Organization) and the CDC recommend the COVID-19 vaccine for those who are breastfeeding. Separately, there’s no need to stop breastfeeding after getting vaccinated.

For you, your family, and your community

As we mentioned, the CDC and ACOG recommend that those who are breastfeeding be given priority (as well as those who are pregnant and trying to conceive). Your local Department of Health’s website should have information about your area’s vaccine availability. 

To get a vaccine as soon as possible, get in touch with your local pharmacy or health department for more information on how to schedule an appointment.

Any recent updates I should know about?

On May 19th 2022, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amended the emergency use authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine in a few ways: 

  • Expanded the use of a single booster dose for those who are over 5 years old.
  • Shortened the time between the primary vaccine and booster dose to at least five months.
  • Allowed for a third primary series dose for certain immunocompromised children 5 through 11 years old. 

Sources

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