In December, the first COVID-19 vaccines were distributed to hospitals across the country. To aid in the distribution of the vaccine to our employees, vaccination clinics were established at each of our Acute Care hospitals, per CDC guidelines, and many employees, medical staff and contracted personnel have already received their doses.
As the greatly anticipated COVID-19 vaccines are distributed across the country, Chief Medical Officers Dr. Paul Stefanacci and Dr. Mark Friedlander provide medical perspective via a Q&A with UHS enews.
Q. Dr. Stefanacci, when did UHS hospitals start receiving the vaccine?
A. All UHS Acute Care hospitals enrolled as a provider in the U.S. Federal Vaccination Program, which designated them as a distribution point for the new COVID-19 vaccine. UHS Acute Care hospitals began administering the vaccine first to frontline healthcare workers and physicians per CDC recommendations in December, shortly after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine.
Q. Dr. Friedlander, is the vaccine safe? Will you get vaccinated?
A. I have heard concerns that because the new vaccines were developed so quickly, the drug companies cut corners on safety. This is not true. The virus that causes COVID-19 was identified in China in 2019, but scientists had already conducted years of research on very similar coronaviruses such as those that caused other diseases including SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and were developing candidate vaccines to fight these related viruses. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed from that research. There have been large scale trials of tens of thousands of volunteers throughout 2020 that have evaluated the safety and the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, and that research, surveillance and monitoring will continue. More than 25 million Americans have already been fully vaccinated. The typical side effect from the vaccine is mild pain at the injection site. There have been a very few anecdotal reports of severe allergic reactions, which make headlines, but these have been exceedingly rare. Although the new vaccines were developed using genetic technology, they do not affect a person’s DNA in any way. The vaccine teaches the person’s immune system to attack a protein on the surface of the virus. The vaccine does not enter the nucleus of the person’s cells and does not affect or interact with a person’s DNA. The vaccines do not contain any live virus and do not carry a risk of infecting the person or causing disease in the vaccinated person. There is no virus in the vaccine. The vaccines do not increase your risk for developing autism or the risk in your children, nor do they cause cancer. They do not cause infertility.
Q. Dr. Stefanacci, will our hospitals be administering the vaccine to the community?
A. Several UHS Acute Care hospitals, in conjunction with their state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan, will support community vaccination efforts. Rigorous and increased compliance with public health mitigation strategies, such as physical distancing, use of face coverings, hand hygiene, and post-exposure quarantine, is essential to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 while community vaccination efforts are ongoing.
Q. Dr. Stefanacci, there are reports about the variant of COVID. How different is it and will the vaccine fight this in the way it is combatting the original strain?
A. The CDC, in collaboration with other public health scientists, is working to learn more about the clinical characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 variants to better understand how easily they might be transmitted, as well as the effectiveness of currently authorized vaccines used against them. Some variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than others, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. So far, studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with currently authorized vaccines recognize these variants and are effective against them. This situation is being closely investigated and more studies are underway to determine to what extent vaccine effectiveness might be reduced in the future by certain variants.
Q. Dr. Friedlander, if someone already had COVID-19, should they still plan to be vaccinated?
A. Yes. Even after people get both shots of the vaccine, they will need to wash hands frequently, socially distance, wear a mask and avoid close contact with others. It is not clear yet whether a person who has had COVID-19 can still carry the virus without knowing and transmit it to others. The virus may still be alive in the vaccinated person or the person recovering from COVID-19. They just may not be symptomatic or the virus is just not infecting that individual. Now if we reach the point of herd immunity, the point where spread of COVID-19 from person to person becomes highly unlikely because sufficient numbers of people have immunity, or there is complete extinction of the virus (highly unlikely), safety guidelines may be revised. The vaccine is only 95 percent effective, which means transmission from a vaccinated person is still possible. Based on our experience with the flu vaccine, if a vaccinated person becomes infected, they are far less likely to develop severe illness.
Q. Dr. Stefanacci, how long will immunity last?
A. Coronavirus vaccines are still so new that more time is needed to study how long immunity lasts. While it is uncertain how long immunity from the COVID-19 vaccine will last, studies show that people who were vaccinated had a very strong immune response and that there is durable immunity against COVID-19 disease. Researchers need to follow antibody levels to determine if immunity from the COVID-19 vaccine wanes over time and if a booster will be necessary.
Q. Dr. Friedlander, where can I learn more about the vaccines?
A. Each individual is different. There may be unique reasons applicable to an individual that his/her physician can factor into providing the right response to that individual’s vaccine questions. Best resources include organizations such as: