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3 Medical Experts Answer Your COVID-19 Vaccine Questions

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Vaccines are one of the most powerful tools we have to end the COVID-19 pandemic. The two approved vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna, both use technology developed over the last 10 years. Both have been shown to be safe and effective against COVID-19. Yet because the process moved so fast and there is so much fear and uncertainty around the pandemic in general, many people have questions about these vaccines.

We asked The Mighty community what questions they most wanted answered about the vaccine, from what we know about its use for people with chronic illnesses and fertility concerns to putting your mind at ease about its fast development. It’s helpful to get the facts directly from medical experts on the frontlines of tracking the COVID-19 pandemic.

What questions do you have about the COVID-19 vaccines?

To answer some of your questions about the COVID-19 vaccines, we asked three medical experts to weigh in, including:

  • David Hirschwerk, M.D., Infectious Disease specialist at Northwell Health, New Hyde Park, New York
  • Shamsul Islam, PharmD, MBA, director of pharmacy, Long Island Jewish Valley Stream, Valley Stream, New York
  • Brittany Busse, M.D., associate medical director, WorkCare

Here’s what they shared with us:

What are the potential side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines for those who have a pre-existing health condition? 

Dr. Islam: In general, the most commonly reported adverse effects associated with the COVID-19 vaccines appear to be mild-to-moderate injection site pain, fatigue, and headache. Other commonly reported adverse effects include fever and chills. The clinical trials have not stratified adverse effects specific to those with various pre-existing conditions. However, adverse effects were more common among younger participants (18 to 65 years of age) compared to adverse effects experienced by older patients (> 65 years of age).

Dr. Busse: Most common side effects are muscle pain, chills, fever, and joint pain. This is similar to the flu vaccine and is short lived. People with pre-existing health conditions of all kinds should be encouraged to get the vaccine as it has been shown to prevent severe COVID-19 syndrome after exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. People with chronic health conditions of all kinds experience the kind of baseline inflammation that stress places on the body that leads to impairment in the innate and adaptive immune system. It is a hyperactive immune response that has been linked to severe cases of COVID-19 requiring hospitalization and potential incubation. People with a history of adverse events after a vaccine or with any health concerns should consult with their doctor before receiving any vaccine.

What do we know about the vaccines’ immune response for those who have a compromised immune system?

Dr. Hirschwerk: A wide array of volunteers were included in the vaccine clinical trials but none with advanced immunosuppression. However, for those with compromised immune systems it is even more important to get vaccinated.  Those individuals have a greater risk of complications from COVID-19 infection. Even if the COVID vaccine is not fully protective in those people, even partial protection provided by the vaccine could mean the difference between a good recovery and a tragic outcome.

Busse: Vaccine immune response comes from the adaptive immune system. The body must be able to produce antibodies in response to the viral genetic material introduced by the vaccine. Some people with chronic disease or who take immune modulating drugs may produce fewer antibodies and may require an additional dose to achieve the same immune response as someone without those conditions. It is always best to consult with one’s own doctor before taking any vaccine.

What impact will the vaccine (and side effects like arm soreness) have on people who already have chronic pain conditions?

Hirschwerk: We don’t anticipate a negative impact.  However, it is fairly common (especially after the second dose) for vaccine recipients to experience arm soreness, fatigue, chills and body aches. In the vast majority of people that experience this, it resolves in about a day and a half.

Busse: COVID-19 can exacerbate chronic pain even in people who have otherwise been stable and pain free. I have seen this happen numerous times even with mild cases. This is due to the widespread inflammatory response caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. The impact from the vaccine will be negligible compared to the potential of complications from contracting the actual virus. 

What effect do the COVID-19 vaccines have on fertility?

Hirschwerk: We are unaware of any untoward effects at this time.

Busse: The vaccine has absolutely no known effect on fertility. 

Is it safe to be vaccinated if you are in a clinical trial for another treatment? 

Islam: In general, it should be safe to receive this vaccine even if you are receiving any other medications. However, if you are in a clinical trial, you won’t know for sure if the investigational medication that you are receiving will interact with the vaccine or your immune response. In addition, if you experience any adverse effects, it will be difficult for you to determine if that adverse effect is from that vaccine or from that investigational medication.

Busse: You should consult the person in charge of the clinical trial for their recommendations on whether or not you should receive the vaccine.

How are researchers working to understand the long-term effect of the COVID-19 vaccine?

Islam: Clinical trials with COVID-19 vaccines are still ongoing. Participants are still being monitored even beyond the duration of the trial. In addition, patients and health care workers who receive and or participate in the vaccination process are recommended to report any adverse effects through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reports System (VAERS). People can also report adverse effects through V-Safe using their smartphone. Alternatively, these adverse effects can also be directly reported to the manufacturer. Researchers will be compiling and analyzing this data.

Busse: Data collection is ongoing from all initial trial participants and the FDA continues to collect data from everyone who receives the vaccine on potential side effects.

How long will the vaccines protect against COVID-19? Will we need new vaccines every year like the flu vaccine?

Islam: It is still under review and currently being assessed. As per the clinical trials, we know that the vaccines have safely demonstrated protection against COVID-19 for a median of two months after the two-dose vaccine series. Unfortunately, since we have fewer than one year’s worth of data, it is too soon for us to determine whether annual vaccinations will be required. We hope to learn more in the future.

Busse: So far we know the vaccine is protective for up to 6 months. It is very likely we will need repeat doses of the vaccine to maintain adequate immunity.

Learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines and when you might be eligible to get one:

Header image via Halfpoint/Getty Images

Originally published: January 28, 2021
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