Welcome to WJCT News’ Coronavirus Texting Service, where we answer your questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, face masks, and anything else you can think of related to the coronavirus pandemic.
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“I already got COVID. Do I still need to get the vaccine?”
To get the best research on this topic, I went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which doctors and researchers turn to for the latest information on public health.
Researchers wanted to know whether you were more likely to get COVID-19 after you had received a coronavirus vaccine (acquired immunity) or after you developed immunity by catching and beating the virus (natural immunity).
In a study of vaccinated and unvaccinated people in Kentucky, researchers found that people with natural immunity were 2.34 times more likely to be reinfected with the virus compared to people who had gotten the vaccine. In other words, people who got vaccinated had a stronger immune response than COVID-19 survivors.
The study’s authors wrote, “These findings suggest that among persons with previous SARS-CoV-2 infection, full vaccination provides additional protection against reinfection. Among previously infected Kentucky residents, those who were not vaccinated were more than twice as likely to be reinfected compared with those with full vaccination. All eligible persons should be offered vaccination, including those with previous SARS-CoV-2 infection, to reduce their risk for future infection.”
Still, this was a small-ish study of 738 people, and the data is mixed on how reliable natural immunity really is. A larger study in Israel found compelling evidence that natural immunity is strong for most people, at least for a while.
Based on his reading of the evidence, Jacksonville’s Dr. Mobeen Rathore, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Wolfson’s Children's Hospital, recommends vaccination for people who have already recovered from COVID-19.
“The vaccine provides longer-lasting immunity,” he said. “We know that people who get natural immunity are more likely to be reinfected after the first 90 days than people who are vaccinated.”
Researchers have called this “variable antibody longevity:" natural immunity can fade over time, and how long it lasts depends on factors like your age and the health of your immune system. The COVID-19 vaccine is safe, and it helps the body fight COVID-19 even if you have some previous immunity.
“How safe is the vaccine for children under 12?”
On September 20, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that after clinical trials of more than 4,000 children, their mRNA vaccine was “safe, well tolerated and showed robust neutralizing antibody responses” in children as young as 5. The companies now need to submit their data to the Food and Drug Administration, as well as regulatory bodies in other countries, in order to get approval.
In their announcement, Pfizer and BioNTech said they found similar risk of mild reactions in children as in adults, who have reported symptoms like injection-site soreness or a few days of flu-like symptoms.
Wolfson Children’s Hospital’s Dr. Mobeen Rathore, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases, said that once scientists knew the vaccine was safe for adults, there was never any doubt about its safety for children. Pediatric clinical trials were more about determining the appropriate dose, he said.
Although children under 18 still account for the fewest new hospitalizations of any age group, those numbers have been rising steeply in recent months, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Here in Northeast Florida, Carithers Pediatric Group said in August that capacity at its two Jacksonville offices had been “overwhelmed” due to the COVID-19 surge, between treating sick kids and fielding a flood of calls from concerned parents right before a new school year. And this month, Wolfson Children's Hospital reported four children had died from the virus in as many months.
“I got the flu vaccine and I still got the flu. Why should I take the COVID vaccine?”
“No one said the vaccine is 100% effective, but it is very effective at preventing hospitalization or even death,” said Baptist Health Jacksonville immunologist Dr. Sunil Joshi.
It’s true: The flu vaccine, the measles vaccine, and the COVID-19 vaccine all carry some risk of a “breakthrough” infection. But out of 164 million people who have gotten COVID-19 vaccinations, more than 99.99% have not had a breakthrough infection, and fewer than 0.005% have been hospitalized with COVID-19.
The result? 98.6% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations between June and August were among unvaccinated people.
“Will the vaccine interfere with other medications I’m taking?”
The best person to ask would be your personal doctor. But we posed this question to Dr. Sunil Joshi, who specializes in the immune system at Baptist Health Jacksonville and is the head of the Duval Medical Society Foundation.
He says, typically speaking, no. The vaccine doesn’t interfere with most medications. In fact, according to AARP, the vaccine won’t interfere with any of the top 10 most commonly prescribed medications, including Lipitor (for high cholesterol) and Metformin (for diabetes treatment).
Now, some medications, like some cancer treatments and drugs that suppress your immune system, might make the vaccine less effective. But some protection is better than no protection, so doctors still recommend the vaccine for people who are taking immunosuppressive drugs.
"Is it safe to get vaccinated if I might want to get pregnant?"
NPR found that fear over infertility might have begun with a kernel of truth: Anecdotally and in a survey of about 120,000, some people who got the vaccine began reporting unusually heavy periods.
That worry grew into an outright misinformation campaign. On April 19, Naomi Wolf, a popular anti-vaccine activist with no medical background, tweeted falsely that unvaccinated women were reporting unusual bleeding when they were around other women who had been vaccinated. “Unconfirmed, needs more investigation, but lots of reports,” she said.
Those are common moves in misinformation campaigns: Pointing to a gap in information and raising doubts without providing any facts.
"At this point there have been many, many millions of women who have gotten the vaccine, and there have been no scientific reports of any infertility," Alice Lu-Culligan, a Yale University MD-Ph.D. candidate who studies the immune system and reproductive health, told NPR.
In fact, according to one study by the CDC, more than 4,800 people became pregnant after receiving one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine; another study showed 1,000 people became pregnant after completing the full dose of any vaccine. A third study found no difference in pregnancy success rates between people who received any vaccine, people who had natural immunity after having COVID-19, and people who did not have any immunity to the virus.
A study of 35,000 pregnancies in the New England Journal of Medicine found comparable rates of live births and preterm births among vaccinated people as among unvaccinated people.
People who were pregnant when they received their COVID-19 vaccine reported about the same frequency and severity of vaccine side-effects as those who were not pregnant, including nausea, fatigue, and muscle aches lasting up to a few days.
Pregnant people are at greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19 than people who aren’t pregnant, so doctors say the best thing to do if you’re pregnant or may become pregnant is to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
"How were the vaccines developed so fast?"
The virus that causes COVID-19, which scientists named SARS-CoV-2, is part of the family of coronaviruses, some of which cause common colds. Others are more deadly, like the one that caused the outbreak of SARS-CoV in 2003, which led to 774 deaths, or MERS in 2012, which killed 886, according to the National Institutes for Health.
Since decades before those earlier outbreaks of similar viruses, scientists have been working to perfect the mRNA technology that’s used in the vaccines we know today. mRNA vaccines teach our cells how to make a protein — or even a piece of a protein — that triggers an immune response, producing the antibodies that protest us if we’re exposed to SARS-CoV-2.
As soon as the genetic code for this new coronavirus was known, scientists had a leg up crafting a vaccine.
Another big help was Operation Warp Speed, former President Trump’s multi-billion-dollar plan to ramp up vaccine production. Basically, Trump gave pharmaceutical companies money to begin producing millions of doses of the vaccine before we knew if they worked.
Government agencies and pharmaceutical companies were working to beat the clock, but that doesn’t mean they cut corners.
First, the vaccines were tested on animals in laboratory settings. Once there’s enough research to show that the vaccines are safe and effective, scientists can move on to trials in humans.
In Phase 1 clinical trials, the vaccine is administered to fewer than 100 people to see if there are any serious side effects, and what the best dosage might be. In Phase 2 trials of several hundred people, scientists look for how effective the vaccine is at preventing serious illness. In Phase 3 trials, scientists give the vaccine to thousands of people and compare the rates of illness among those volunteers with a “control group,” another randomly selected group of people who did not receive the vaccine.
Typically, there are three phases of clinical trials that happen one after another, but because of the emergency of the COVID-19 pandemic, all three phases took place simultaneously but involved the same number of test subjects as normal trials
Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines received Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration in December 2020, and Johnson & Johnson followed three months later. Because of Operation Warp Speed, it was only a matter of hours after FDA approval before the first doses of the life-saving vaccine were shipped to hospitals in all 50 states. Pfizer’s vaccine has since received full authorization by the FDA, and Moderna’s and Johnson & Johnson’s are expected to be fully approved soon.