Questions about the COVID-19 vaccine were aired during a virtual panel Thursday, Feb. 11, held by the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce.
Participants had the chance to ask questions to specialists on the call, including Dr. Zachary Taylor, District 2 director of the Georgia Department of Public Health; Dr. Doug Olson, medical director of Northside Hospital Forsyth’s emergency department; Dr. Daniel Callahan, respiratory therapy director at Northside Hospital Forsyth. Lynn Jackson, chief operating officer of Northside Hospital Forsyth moderated the panel.
Here are some of those questions discussed during the panel:
Is one vaccine better than the other to get, Pfizer or Moderna?
“I would say that the Moderna and the Pfizer are equivalent to each other at least as far as the effectiveness that they provide, which is over 90% for both vaccines,” Taylor said.
Taylor said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine appears to have less on an effect in preventing COVID-19, but is still effective in preventing severe disease “and probably equally as effective” at preventing hospitalization and death as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is reported to have a 72% effectiveness rate and will be reviewed by the FDA later this month.
Regarding which vaccine people should choose to take, Taylor recommended that people weigh all the factors when making a decision, such as effectiveness, the current supply, what is available to a person at a specific time and what is most convenient for people.
Is it possible that our DNA will be affected by the mRNA vaccine?
Taylor said that a person’s DNA will not be affected by the mRNA vaccines available by Pfizer and Moderna.
“The mRNA vaccine acts by inducing the cell process to produce the protein that causes the immune response,” Taylor said. “It does not enter the nucleus of the cell itself where our DNA is stored or kept, and once it’s done its job, once it’s produced this protein, it’s eliminated from the cell itself. So it in no way can affect our own DNA.”
Is it true that the vaccine forces the body to create antibodies to resist COVID-19? If recovering from the virus also creates antibodies, how can people who have had the virus benefit from the vaccine?
“What the current vaccine’s doing – what they all do – is conduce through different mechanisms an immune response by the body,” Taylor said. “What they also do in addition to that is sort of a complete immune response, so it involves both what we call B cells, and the T memory cells. So, it’s a fairly comprehensive immune response.”
Taylor explained that natural infection goes through a similar process, but it is believed that the vaccine will cause the body to have a more “robust response” to the virus.
“We do recommend that those persons who have been infected, that they do receive the vaccine,” he said.
How long should someone wait after having COVID-19 to get the vaccine?
“We’re recommending that it would be a period of 90 days afterwards,” Callahan said. “There is some immunity that would obviously develop. As a matter of fact, some of our patients who have had COVID-19 are now, through Northside Hospital, being plasma donors.”
“There is a period of immunity, but we’re estimating that to be about 90 days,” Callahan said. “So sometime at 90 days or beyond, we’re recommending to go forward with the vaccine.”
How long does the vaccine protect a person and do they protect against the variant strains being seen in South Africa and the UK?
“That’s a difficult question to answer, because we don’t really know how long for sure, but what we do know is it’s at least a year,” Olson said. “We just haven’t been in this long enough to really get a good idea of how long the antibodies will be present, but from Moderna specifically, they’ve said at least a year and probably more.”
“From the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, yes, there is protection [from the variants in South Africa and the UK],” Olson said. “But from Johnson & Johnson, and specifically the AstraZeneca, there is concern that the level of protection is lower than they were suspicious of.
“In fact, there have been reports that they’ve decided not to continue with AstraZeneca in South Africa for now until they get more data, but what they do think is that there’s some level of protection, maybe against severe illness. But Pfizer and Moderna do provide a level of protection to the South African variants. The one we’re more concerned about right now is the UK mutation, and we do know that protection [with Pfizer and Moderna] is there.”
Olson said medical professionals are expecting mutations to happen in the future, but the best defense against the virus is getting the vaccine.
If vaccinated, should a person still be using protective measures such as masks and social distancing?
“The answer is yes, we still need to be careful,” Olson said. “So, even though you’re vaccinated you have immunity, or at least, depending on which vaccine you get a level of immunity and protection, you still can be ‘infected’ by the virus. That virus can actually enter your body.”
Olson said since those who have been vaccinated have built up an immune system to fight against the virus, they might not even notice that they have the virus or have been exposed.
“Imagine a bank is being robbed, somebody is about to rob a bank. There’s no advance notice, there’s no level of protection there beyond what’s normally there,” Olson said. “So that person may have only one person to fight against as opposed to an advance notice, and you’ve already got the SWAT team there, ready for this person to come and try to rob the bank. Well, just imagine that your immune system already has that level of defense already and is prepared.”
According to Olson, once vaccinated, the body can react quickly and efficiently to neutralize the virus to get minimal to no symptoms of the disease, but it might still be infectious to those who have not received the vaccine.
“It is important to maintain a level of protection for those around you,” Olson said.
How soon after the second dose can people start to ‘open up’ more and see others?
“I think on the Pfizer vaccine, I believe it’s a period of seven to 10 days,” Callahan said. “For the Moderna, it might be just a little bit longer, something like two weeks. So that time frame is a very short period of time to be back out and to have more comfort about it. But again, as [Dr. Olson] already emphasized, we’re still recommending that people wear a mask, wash their hands, and practice safe distancing.”
Callahan said that as far as the Johnson & Johnson vaccine goes, the time frame is likely around four weeks after the one dose before full immunity.
Is it safe to visit elderly parents if you have been fully vaccinated?
“That’s a tricky question,” Callahan said. “Elderly parents are certainly the highest risk of the patients that we’ve seen at Northside Hospital who present the risk for death, it’s certainly within our elderly population. I think that’s a personal choice that families would need to think about... Certainly, with the protection, you feel safer, but as [Dr. Olson] said, there’s that potential possibility that you could be a carrier and no one would know… .”
Taylor said there are three scenarios in this situation; you are vaccinated but your elderly parents are not, your elderly parents are vaccinated but you are not, both of your parties are vaccinated. He said the third scenario is the most ideal and he would “feel much more comfortable with that situation.”
He said that he would also feel comfortable with the second scenario “as long as people socially distanced and worse masks if possible.”
Taylor said visiting an unvaccinated older relative “presents a distinct risk to [the parents], and I would be very careful.”
What are some of the risks that come with taking the vaccine?
“All medications, all vaccines come with some risks,” Taylor said. “The risk here is small. I will differentiate two things; one is a reaction to the vaccine, and one is the adverse effects. We expect people to have reactions to both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Typically, those reactions are … a mild fever … some arm soreness, and they may have what feels like the flu. This is more likely after the second dose … but it could happen with both doses. It’s just the body developing its immune response to the virus.”
He said other reactions can happen, like an anaphylactic reaction that can cause trouble breathing or a rash. This is more likely to happen in people who have had reactions to previous vaccines or medications.
Olson said he had only seen mild reactions to the vaccine in his experience.
“The whole issue about eggs [in the vaccine], it doesn’t have any relevance in this situation, so we are recommending that people move forward,” Callahan said. “And if they have had severe allergies in their past, they should consult with their doctors. I think the priority is to get the vaccine. And I think it’s safe, and we’ve found that it’s effective … so, that’s what we’re recommending.”