This One’s For the Skeptics

For many of us, the COVID-19 vaccine was a vial of hope—a promise of getting back to normalcy and brighter days ahead. But for others, the FDA’s emergency use authorization of the vaccine was met with skepticism, doubt and even downright animosity. If you fall into the latter category, perhaps identifying as someone who is “still on the fence”—you aren’t alone.

You are, however, still at risk of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus—and possibly becoming extremely ill, debilitated, or dying as a result.

Because Memorial Hermann strongly believes in the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines, we sat down with Dr. Annamaria Macaluso Davidson, Vice President of Employee Health Medical Operations at Memorial Hermann, to address some of the biggest concerns among vaccine skeptics and holdouts now that millions of Americans have safely been vaccinated against COVID-19. Our goal is to share accurate information, to cut through the noise, and to help you make the best decision for you and your family. 

Q: Why should I get the COVID-19 vaccine now? Up to this point, I have been fine, so what is the urgency?

A: That is wonderful that you have not contracted the virus and have stayed healthy.  That really is a blessing.  We know that some people will have mild symptoms when they get sick with COVID-19, but we have also learned that other people will have a very severe illness and have lingering symptoms. Depending on your clinical history, you may be at high risk for severe complications. We are also still learning about the long-term impact of a COVID-19 infection, and ongoing research will continue to help us fully understand these long-term impacts. Getting the COVID-19 vaccine is a matter of prevention—preventing illness and severe complications, preventing the spread of the virus among your family and your community, and preventing additional variants that are more contagious or aggressive from forming. 

Q: I already had COVID-19, so I do not need the vaccine, right?

A: Although those of us who contracted COVID-19 do have natural antibodies that will help our immune systems fight off infection in the future, early studies suggest that the COVID-19 vaccines are providing a more robust protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. According to a recent preprint study, mRNA vaccines after two doses contained up to 10 times higher antibody titers than convalescent plasma from people who were naturally infected. Even more, the vaccines are far more protective against the new variants, which again, are more dangerous and more transmissible.

Q: How can the vaccine be safe if it was developed in under a year?

A: This is a great question.  First, while these specific COVID-19 vaccines were developed relatively quickly through Operation Warp Speed, the technology behind the vaccines has been studied for decades and is well understood. Because the knowledge and methodology was already developed, it could be quickly applied to this current situation. Second, part of the reason these vaccines were created as fast as they were is because researchers and scientists across the world put their other projects on hold to focus on the global pandemic. There was great collaboration and support to get the work done.

The three vaccines currently granted emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) underwent a stringent review process, which included thorough research into the safety, efficacy and quality of each vaccine.  While logistics and operational aspects had enhanced support, no safety measures or standards were compromised.  In addition to the initial clinical trials, we have also administered more than 320 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and have observed minimal safety concerns.

A recent article published by Slate quantified the risks like this: the worst known side effect, observed after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, was a blood-clotting syndrome in 28 of the 8.7 million individuals who received that brand of vaccine. Since COVID-19 vaccinations began in the U.S., only three deaths are seriously under investigation as being linked to the COVID-19 vaccine—meanwhile, COVID-19 has caused 600,000 deaths in the U.S. alone.

Q: What about the risk of myocarditis in teens?

A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is closely monitoring clinical observations that some young adults are developing myocarditis—inflammation in the heart muscle—after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Still, these reports are rare and currently estimated at about 12.6 cases per 1 million people vaccinated in the 12 to 39 age group. Most of these patients have been male adolescents and young adults, and the symptoms appeared within several days of receiving the second dose of one of the mRNA vaccines. Those who received care responded well after treatment, and the CDC and other public health experts released a joint statement regarding the benefits of the vaccine and the rare cases of myocarditis and pericarditis. In short, the COVID-19 vaccine is still highly recommended, as the protection if offers far outweighs this rare and treatable risk. Myocarditis and pericarditis are much more common if you get COVID-19, and the risk to the heart can be more severe.  In line with the CDC, the Texas Department of State Health Services continues to recommend the COVID-19 vaccine for everyone 12 years and older, given the risk of COVID-19 infection.

Q: I’m worried about side effects from the vaccine, don’t some people feel like they have the flu for days after their second dose?

A: Thank you for sharing that concern. As your body develops an immune response, it is common to have some side effects. Some people have reported side effects, while others don’t feel anything. The most common reported side effect is pain, swelling and soreness at the injection site and throughout the arm.  We see more systemic side effects after the second dose, as your body continues to develop an immune response; these include minor flu-like side effects such as headaches, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, chills, swollen lymph nodes, nausea and fever. These symptoms may be uncomfortable, but they are nothing to worry about.  They will respond well to over-the-counter medications, like Tylenol or Excedrin, and tend to subside after 12 to 48 hours. These side effects are completely normal and are simply a signal that your body is building up immunity against the virus.

Q: Am I 100 percent protected from COVID-19 after I’m considered fully vaccinated?

A: While the COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at protecting against severe illness, hospitalization and death from the virus, there have been some “breakthrough” cases where a fully vaccinated individual does contract COVID-19.  We expect to see this, and it is a small percentage of the population. These people tend to have minor symptoms and, importantly, are 100 percent protected against death from the disease.

It is important to remember that you are not considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19 until two weeks after you have received your second dose of the Pfizer BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. In addition, it is critical not to skip your second dose so that you are better protected from getting sick and don’t spread the virus to others. Plus, the sooner you are fully vaccinated, the sooner you can return to pre-pandemic normalcy.

All three COVID-19 vaccines currently available are safe and have been thoroughly researched, tested and reviewed by the U.S. government, and clinical research continues by independent scientist and physicians across the world. They also are the most effective way to protect yourself from getting sick. To schedule your vaccination appointment today, or to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines, visit Memorial Hermann’s COVID-19 vaccine page.

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Ali Vise