The COVID-19 vaccine continues to roll out in Utah and across the United States, and experts say it can’t happen fast enough.
“The faster and more people we get vaccinated, the closer we can get to herd immunity and getting through this,” said Dr. Mark Supiano, chief of the geriatrics division at University of Utah Health, in a Facebook Live Q&A session Tuesday.
This week, Utahns over the age of 70 are scheduled to get their first doses of the vaccine. They join a growing list — health care workers, people in long-term care facilities, first responders and teachers — who have received or are getting the vaccine now. The rollout has had problems, with fewer doses available than expected, and concerns about side effects.
Here are some frequently asked questions about the vaccine, answered by Utah health experts.
Are older people at more risk from the vaccine?
People 70 and older — the Utahns who are now getting the vaccine, under the state’s rollout plan — are less susceptible to the side effects, according to early data.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna versions of the vaccine are “extremely safe and well tolerated, even in the very old individuals who have received the vaccine,” Supiano said Tuesday.
Dr. Emily Spivak, an infectious disease physician and an associate professor at the University of Utah, added during the Facebook Live event that “those who are younger seem to have more side effects after the second dose of the vaccine.”
Spivak said she experienced some joint pain after her second dose — while Supiano, who is older, said the only side effect he felt after two doses was soreness in his arm where he got the injection. A sample size of two isn’t scientific, but that’s an anecdotal example.
What are the side effects?
Fever, fatigue, muscle aches and joint pain are commonly cited, Spivak said. They’re all normal, lasting 12 to 24 hours, and usually treatable with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil).
“Essentially, what this is is your body’s immune system mounting to this virus, and your immunity building,” she said. “And they go away very quickly.”
What about allergies to the vaccine?
Some have been reported, Spivak said, but “it’s 11 in a million, so very, very rare.” The ones that have been reported, she added, have happened with people who had a history of severe allergies.
When people get the vaccine, they are monitored for 15 minutes after the shot to ensure they don’t have a severe reaction, such as anaphylactic shock.
Can I catch COVID-19 between the first and second doses?
Yes. Two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine provide 95% protection against getting a case of COVID-19 with symptoms. But the first dose alone is only 50% to 55% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19.
“The first dose does not produce much at all of neutralizing antibodies,” Spivak said. “The whole point of the second dose is to boost the amount of antibody, and the amount of immunity that you have.”
Spivak has seen people get infected with COVID-19 after the first vaccine dose. “I would really caution people, between the first and second dose, to really presume that you have no protection, probably,” she said.
Are the vaccine’s long-term effects worth the risk?
Compared to getting COVID-19? Definitely, Supiano said.
The odds for older people dying from COVID-19 are higher, Supiano noted. And those who survive may face long-term issues with their lungs, heart and blood vessels, and brain function, he said.
“From a risk-benefit perspective, I would advise that you err on the side of the minimal risks from the COVID vaccine against the known risks, long-term, of even mild cases of COVID,” Supiano said.
After I’m vaccinated, can I still spread COVID-19?
Doctors don’t know yet. The trials for the vaccines showed that people who are vaccinated are 95% likely not to get symptoms, Spivak said, but there’s not enough data, right now, to show whether those people have “sterilizing immunity” — that is, not carrying the virus at all.
Because of that lack of information, Spivak and Supiano say people who are vaccinated should still wear face masks and practice social distancing, just in case they could still spread the virus.
Will the vaccine fight the new COVID-19 variants?
It’s too early to be sure, Spivak said — though there is some early research from Pfizer, not yet peer-reviewed, that says Pfizer’s vaccine does protect against the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant, the so-called “U.K. variant.”
When will we reach “herd immunity”?
“I don’t know,” Spivak said bluntly. The vaccine rollout is “way under-schedule,” she said, thwarting the rosy predictions that the world would be back to normal by summer.
“I unfortunately would anticipate that [for] 2021, I would go ahead and mentally prepare that it’s going to look like 2020,” Spivak said, “unless we can really ramp up vaccine distribution in the coming months.”
What does the empty federal vaccine stockpile mean for Utah?
Several states were alarmed last week, when Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services secretary, acknowledged that the so-called “reserves” of vaccine doses — being held back for peoples’ second doses — were all gone in December. Governors in those states said they were counting on those reserves as part of their vaccine rollout.
Utah was not counting on those reserves, said Tom Hudachko, spokesman for the Utah Department of Health. “Our approach was to wait and see what the actual allocations looked like,” he said. “So when [the federal government’s] story changed and there was no longer a large reserve of doses being released, it did not affect us.”