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Information about the novel coronavirus (the virus that causes COVID-19) is constantly evolving. We will refresh our novel coronavirus content periodically based on newly published peer-reviewed findings to which we have access. For the most reliable and up-to-date information, please visit the CDC website or the WHO’s advice for the public.
With all of the information out there about the COVID vaccines, it can be tough to figure out what’s fact and what’s fiction.
Everyone has an opinion about the vaccine—friends, family members, healthcare providers, acquaintances on social media, and the list goes on. You’ve also probably heard that even if you get the vaccine, you still need to wear a face make and practice social distancing.
So why bother? Why should you get the COVID vaccine?
The short answer is that the COVID vaccine can protect you from getting sick with COVID—and will help stop the spread of this pandemic. Vaccines are a useful tool to help us all get back to normal. Let’s dive a little deeper into the benefits of the COVID vaccine.
How do vaccines keep you safe from COVID?
In late 2020, the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech clinical trials showed that their vaccines were 94-95% effective at preventing people from getting COVID. Since then, millions of people have received these vaccines with very few serious side effects (FDA, 2020a; FDA, 2020b).
So, how exactly does the COVID vaccine work?
It works by introducing your immune system to a tiny component of the virus, allowing your system to be armed and ready to defend you if you’re exposed to coronavirus. Vaccines teach your immune system to create antibodies, which are proteins that recognize invaders, like viruses. In the case of the COVID vaccine, these antibodies recognize the characteristic crown of spike proteins found on the surface of the coronavirus (corona means crown in Latin).
Once made, the antibodies are stored for future use in case of a viral infection. Your body is now able to effectively and efficiently fight off COVID without you getting sick.
Vaccines offer greater community protection
Giving a vaccine to someone protects more than just that person. Vaccinating entire communities protects those who received vaccines, as well as people who did not (or could not). This concept is called herd immunity.
With herd immunity, a significant portion of the population is vaccinated, and therefore, immune to the virus. With so many immunized people, the virus has fewer people in that community to infect, so while it would normally hop easily from person to person, in a community with herd immunity, it has nowhere to hop to, so it dies. While this is definitely a good thing, the benefits go even further. Since the virus doesn’t spread as freely, people who can’t get the vaccine—like newborns, for example—are also covered. Essentially, the “herd” of immunized people protects everyone else.
But it takes a large percentage of a population to pitch in and get vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity. Experts don’t know the exact number, but estimates are that around 70-90% of us need to get vaccinated for herd immunity to be reached, according to a New York Times interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). That’s why experts like Fauci are reinforcing why it’s so important for those who are able to get the vaccine not to sit this one out (McNeil, 2021).
Is the COVID vaccine safe? Are there any side effects?
Millions of people worldwide have received the COVID vaccine, which has given scientists a lot of safety data to work with. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) extensively reviewed the clinical trial data and deemed the vaccines safe and effective.
Most side effects of the vaccine are mild and usually resolve after a few days. Some common side effects include pain at the injection site, fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, and chills. Rarely, some people have a severe allergic reaction. To monitor any side effects from the vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses a tracker called v-safe (CDC, 2021a).
Although allergic reactions are rare, you will be asked to wait at the vaccination site for 15 minutes after getting your shot to ensure you don’t have a reaction.
There is a lot of misinformation floating around about the COVID vaccine and its potential effects. Here are some popular misconceptions to watch out for:
- The COVID vaccine cannot change your DNA. They contain viral genetic material that does not mix with or even enter the same part of the cell as your DNA.
- You cannot get COVID from the vaccine. The genetic material only codes for a harmless protein on the virus’s outer surface and nothing else. The vaccine teaches your cells how to make this protein but is missing all of the other components of the virus needed to make it infectious.
- The vaccine does not cause infertility. There is no evidence to support claims that the vaccines can cause infertility or prevent women from having children (Pfizer, 2021).
- There are no microchips in the COVID vaccine. A conspiracy theory has been floating around that the COVID vaccine contains a microchip used for tracking you. The vaccine does not contain any type of microchip or tracers.
What about the new virus variants?
You may be wondering if it is worthwhile to get the vaccine with the appearance of new coronavirus strains. The answer is: absolutely.
Viruses, in general, are notorious for mutating and changing, and data gathered so far shows the COVID vaccine also works against new variants of the coronavirus. We know that getting the COVID vaccine offers you more protection from COVID as you’re much more vulnerable to infection if you’re unvaccinated (CDC, 2021b).
COVID-19 vs. SARS vs. MERS: how do they differ?
For most people, the benefits of getting the vaccine far outweigh the risks. If you are vaccinated, it’s still important to adhere to local guidelines regarding masking and public gatherings. Masks help prevent the virus from spreading by physically stopping particles from entering your body. The vaccine works against the virus from within the body. With the combination of vaccines and face masks, we can work together to end this pandemic faster and move towards life getting back to normal.
Why do some people who are vaccinated still get COVID?
Unfortunately, we have yet to develop a vaccine that’s 100% effective at preventing any disease. That said, vaccines offer protection against infection in two main ways:
- First, they protect the individual by teaching your immune system what the virus looks like so it can be ready if the virus arrives.
- Second, they work by reducing the number of people in a population who can become infected, making it less likely that the virus will continue to circulate. That’s called herd immunity.
Due to a combination of vaccine hesitancy among many people in the United States, and the fact that the vaccine cannot be administered to some people, we have yet to reach herd immunity in the U.S.
When it comes to vaccine effectiveness for individual people, the vaccines remain very effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death over time. The science has shown, however, that the effectiveness of the vaccine when it comes to preventing infection does wane over time (IVAC, n.d.). For that reason, booster doses are recommended for some people and as we learn more, annual COVID vaccination may become the standard recommendation.
Where we stand with COVID today
Millions of people in the United States have been affected by COVID. It has surpassed cancer and heart disease as the leading cause of death among Americans over 35 (Woolf, 2021). People with diabetes, obesity, heart disease, lung problems, and those who are age 65 and older are more likely to suffer severe illness and even death from COVID.
Until recently, the only option for fighting this disease was prevention—wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, and social distancing. Now we have another tool in our arsenal: vaccines.
- Byambasuren, O., Cardona, M., Bell, K., Clark, J., McLaws, M., & Glasziou, P. (2020). Estimating the extent of asymptomatic COVID-19 and its potential for community transmission: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Official Journal Of The Association Of Medical Microbiology And Infectious Disease Canada, 5(4), 223-234. doi: 10.3138/jammi-2020-0030. Retrieved from https://jammi.utpjournals.press/doi/10.3138/jammi-2020-0030
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021a, February). V-safe After Vaccination Health Tracker. Retrieved on Feb. 12, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/safety/vsafe.html.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021b, February). New Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19. Retrieved on Feb. 12, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/transmission/variant.html
- FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). (2020a, December). Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee Meeting – Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine. Retrieved on Nov. 10, 2021, from https://www.fda.gov/media/144434/download
- FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration). (2020b, December). Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee Meeting – Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine. Retrieved on Nov. 10, 2021, from https://www.fda.gov/media/144245/download
- IVAC. (n.d.). COVID19 VE Studies_Forest Plots_0.pdf. VIEW Hub by IVAC. Retrieved November 17, 2021, from https://view-hub.org/covid-19/effectiveness-studies
- Mcneil, D. G. (2021, Sept 21). How much herd immunity is enough? The New York Times. Retrieved on Nov. 10, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/24/health/herd-immunity-covid-coronavirus.html
- Pfizer. (2021, January). The Facts About Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 Vaccine. Retrieved on Feb. 12, 2021 from https://www.pfizer.com/news/hot-topics/the_facts_about_pfizer_and_biontech_s_covid_19_vaccine
- Pfizer and BioNTech. (2020). Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine. Retrieved on Feb. 10, 2021 from https://www.fda.gov/media/144245/download
- Woolf, S.H., Chapman, D.A., Lee, J.H. (2021). COVID-19 as the Leading Cause of Death in the United States. JAMA, 325(2):123–124. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.24865. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2774465
Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.