Dr. Catherine Bernard is an Emergency Physician and Chief of Staff at Aspen Valley Hospital. She took some time to answer commonly asked questions as COVID-19 inoculations begin across the country and around the world. More than four million Americans have so far received their first of two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
1. What are the pros and cons of getting the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, or any other vaccines that are rolling out?
The benefit is greater than 90% protection against symptomatic infection with COVID-19 viral illness. If there is a con, it is with side effects. However, the risk of life threatening events in both the vaccine and placebo groups in clinical trials were very low (0.1%). The most common adverse effects of vaccination were minor, including headache, pain at the injection site, fatigue or fever, which occurred in about 1 in 6 of those vaccinated.
2. Will the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines be available for our community this spring/summer?
If timelines continue as planned, yes. The community members who will be vaccinated first will be those with risk factors for severe infection — over age 70, and/or those with obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease, significant heart or kidney disease, cancer, or are immunocompromised, and of course essential workers. Vaccinations for the general public are planned for the summer at this point.
3. Can you still transmit the virus after you have been vaccinated?
The answer on transmission is, unfortunately, we just don’t know. What we do know is that asymptomatic positives were 50% less in the vaccine group than in the placebo group in the Moderna trial when tested just prior to their second dose of vaccine. That means people given the vaccine can still be carrying the virus without symptoms, but after just one dose of vaccine they are half as likely to be doing so as those people given placebo. After two doses of vaccine, fewer than 10% of people given the vaccine developed symptomatic illness. What we still don’t know is if asymptomatic positives among those who have been vaccinated are transmitting the virus, but at this point we have to assume they might and continue all other viral mitigation measures (masks, distancing, hand washing, etc.).
Just a reminder: vaccine recipients need 1-2 weeks after each injection of the vaccine to develop their immune response.
4. How much protection does the vaccine provide if people end up at a superspreader event where significant exposure is going on?
That would depend on how many other people at that large event had also been vaccinated. However, since we are just starting to roll out these vaccines, the best answer is that no one should be at any superspreader events right now.
5. How long are people protected by vaccination?
We also don’t yet know the answer to this question, but hopefully a year, perhaps longer. Natural immunity to the common cold coronaviruses generally lasts 6-9 months, immunity to MERS and SARS-CoV (the original) lasted up to 2-3 years in some. Influenza vaccinations are repeated yearly due to viral mutation necessitating that change. These newer mRNA vaccines may prove to affect longer immunity and be simpler to booster or modify, rather than needing replacement in the future. Stay tuned!
6. Is there a better choice among the vaccines for people traveling to areas that will be vaccinated later than the United States, or do they all provide the same level of protection in spaces where the virus is prevalent?
The answer to these questions is unknown at this time, but the two mRNA vaccines available now seem to be equally efficacious.
7. Does it make sense to eventually get more than one type of COVID vaccination?
One type of vaccination should be all that you need.
8. Are there common allergies that generate a negative response to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines? Food borne allergies such as peanuts or shellfish? Hay fever? Allergies to medications?
The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology released guidance on December 14, 2020, which states: “Individuals with common allergies to medications, food, insects, and latex are no more likely than the general public to have a reaction to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine should not be given to individuals with a history of severe allergic reaction to polyethylene glycol (PEG), as it is a component of the vaccine that is known to cause anaphylaxis.”
If you have a history of severe allergic reaction to previous vaccinations, I recommend you talk to your allergist.
9. Is there a better COVID-19 vaccine choice for people who generally feel terrible after getting vaccinated for anything (flu, etc.)?
At this time, no. However, there is no data to suggest that an adverse reaction to the flu vaccine predicts a similar reaction to the available COVID-19 vaccines.
10. Is there a vaccine that will protect people more effectively from mutations of the novel coronavirus, as recently detected in southern England?
The hope with these new mRNA vaccines is that they will be quicker to modify and produce again, as needed. That said, regarding the new viral mutation from the UK, it is too soon to know if the current vaccines will still be effective or not. My guess (and hope) is that they will be.
11. How do we know when it’s our turn to get vaccinated?
The public health department in your county will be notifying all vaccine recipients, in each tier, when vaccinations are available. Aspen Valley Hospital is working with public health officials and healthcare providers in Pitkin County to get the vaccines to people as efficiently and effectively as possible.
As of this posting, Pitkin County is moving to Phase 1B of COVID-19 vaccine administration. More information about this phase of vaccinations is forthcoming.
Aspen Valley Hospital and Pitkin County Public Health are working together to administer doses of the vaccine according to the state’s vaccination plan. Phase 1B includes moderate-risk healthcare workers and individuals, including individuals age 70 and older and other essential frontline workers. As additional doses are received from the state, vaccine registration will be expanded to include these priority groups through Pitkin County Public Health.
Residents of Pitkin County can pre-register for your vaccination and be notified when a vaccine may be available for you. Please fill out Pitkin County’s Vaccine Pre-Registration form (button below) or leave a message at 970-429-3363 to be added to the list.
Pitkin County Public Health will contact pre-registered individuals based on current Phase 1B eligibility to arrange vaccination appointments as vaccines are received from CDPHE.
Residents of other counties should look to their respective public health agencies for information on how they may receive the vaccine.
If you have more questions about the vaccines, please visit the Pitkin County COVID Response & Recovery website at https://covid19.pitkincounty.com/vaccine or the state of Colorado’s website at https://covid19.colorado.gov/vaccine.