Knowledge is power in the battle against COVID-19, making the need for accurate information more important than ever.
Many people have questions about how the coronavirus vaccine works, what its possible side effects are and whether or not it is safe. Rumors and misconceptions have spread about the vaccine, leading to an effort by medical professionals to inform their patients about it.
We asked local health experts about how they answer questions and address misinformation surrounding the vaccine.
Can you get COVID-19 from the vaccine?
No. There is no live virus in the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Emilia Arana, director of pediatric services at Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, explained that the Moderna and Pfizer shots use messenger RNA (mRNA) to communicate with the immune system. That mRNA corresponds with gene sequences in the body to make proteins.
The vaccine has a “spike protein” that is meant to alert the immune system on how to respond to the coronavirus. There is no actual virus in the vaccine.
Lydia Biehr, family nurse practitioner at the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center, said one of the biggest fears that people express is that they’re going to end up with COVID because of the vaccine.
She breaks the science down into more understandable terms for patients.
“The vaccine is just giving our cells instructions on how to deal with the virus if we encounter it,” Biehr explained.
Does the vaccine affect genetic material?
No. Dr. Allison Kos, director of medical services at Progressive Community Health Centers, said the mRNA that is used in the vaccine lasts for only about one week in the body. The vaccine does not affect DNA or any other genetic material permanently.
There have also been concerns that the vaccine might affect fertility. Kos said there is no evidence to suggest this is the case.
Kos said that while the mRNA lasts about a week, it is currently unclear how long the protection from the vaccine lasts. She said experts expect to know more as time progresses and more people receive the shot.
What about side effects?
The most common side effects for COVID-19 vaccines are similar to side effects for flu vaccination.
People can get chills, fever and flu-like symptoms from the vaccine. Many report soreness in their arms where the shot was administered.
People may have a more intense reaction in their second dose, as their system is recognizing the spike proteins that the vaccine builds in the body, Arana said.
In very rare cases, people with allergies have had reactions to the shot.
Biehr said it is important to get a thorough patient history on everyone who receives the vaccine to ensure they do not have any preexisting conditions that could create complications. Particularly, she said, it was important to catalog any allergic reactions people have had in the past.
If someone is found to have a history of allergic reactions, the person is asked to stay for a period of time afterward, usually 15 to 30 minutes, to ensure that the vaccine was administered smoothly, Kos said. Health officials also have epinephrine and other tools on standby in case someone does have a reaction.
Other concerns, like the vaccine causing Bell’s palsy, have greatly diminished as the shot has continued rolling out.
Kos said Bell’s palsy is a commonly temporary inflammation of a facial nerve that can be associated with any virus, not just coronavirus. Reports of Bell’s palsy after the vaccine are also extremely rare.
Was the vaccine developed too quickly?
The vaccine was rolled out faster than most other vaccines because of urgent need, but safety was a priority, Arana said.
The three phases of vaccine development were completed for the COVID-19 vaccines, including trials for the vaccine in thousands of people, Arana said.
While the mRNA vaccine is the first of its kind released to the public, the science behind it has been studied for years. Dr. Anthony Komaroff, editor in chief of the Harvard Health Letter, wrote that mRNA vaccines have been in development for 30 years.
“This technology is not new,” Arana said. “This is just the first time there’s been public interest in it.”
Can pregnant women get the vaccine? Children?
Yes, pregnant women can get the vaccine, Arana said.
The CDC recommends that pregnant women consult their clinicians before getting the vaccine.
The Pfizer vaccine so far has only been tested on those 16 and older, so children cannot get the vaccine yet. The Moderna vaccine is not available to those under 18 for the same reason.
Do I still need to take precautions after I get the vaccine?
Yes. If you receive the coronavirus vaccine, it may still be possible to transmit the disease, so it is recommended that you continue to mask, social distance and take other precautions.
Where can I find reliable information on the vaccine?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was the most popular answer among the providers.
Biehr suggested checking the Milwaukee Health Department and the state Department of Health Services website for updates. Arana and Kos also suggested contacting health care providers.
“When in doubt, don’t just rely on what your friends say,” Arana said. “Call your doctor. We welcome your questions.”
Arana said it is important to check the source of any information about the vaccine and make sure it is coming from an accredited office or individual.
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