With the coronavirus vaccine making daily headlines, it’s hard to weed out false claims and separate fact from fiction, so today, I’m focused on three critical questions about the vaccines from a geriatrician’s point of view. So many have been struggling this year with dementia, isolation, and Covid-19; my hope is that these first few answers will help you make informed decisions, understand what to expect in the near future, and identify misinformation you may hear or read. [For my brief VIDEO on this topic, click here.]
- What is in the coronavirus vaccine?
Many people believe the vaccine contains a small amount – or a tiny dose – of the entire virus and that a mild Covid-19 infection is how you build immunity, just like the 16 million people who have already had their case of Covid-19. This is not true. The coronavirus itself is not being injected, and this is not how these vaccines create coronavirus immunity. Instead, a single harmless piece of genetic material or a protein from the coronavirus is injected, and our body learns to recognize just that piece. When you encounter the coronavirus later on (the virus itself will continue to circulate among the population for a long time to come, unfortunately), your body will recognize that piece, react to it, and eliminate it in a day or two, along with the coronavirus. Because coronavirus won’t be entirely new to your immune system, you’ll have something that more closely resembles a common cold.
To be clear, you will not be dosed with a live or entire coronavirus when you receive the vaccine, and you will not come down with Covid-19 after the injections. Just a fragment that trains your immune system.
One claim making its viral rounds on social media is the Covid-19 vaccine will somehow modify our genes in the future, causing all kinds of diseases and abnormalities. This is false. We have absolutely no evidence that any small pieces of genetic material or protein from the vaccine will be taken up and cause any harm in the future.
- How did the vaccine get developed and approved so quickly?
The coronavirus vaccine’s rapid development and approval are causing great concern for many of you. After all, just a year ago, none of us had even heard of coronavirus, and we had no inkling of what was in store for us in 2020. How could this work be done so quickly? Were shortcuts taken, and what would that mean for safety and peace of mind? Many older adults recall how long it took to eradicate polio, and for decades we’ve toiled to develop vaccines for HIV without success, so those examples linger in mind. But succeed, we did, and there are several reasons why.
First of all, we had infinite resources compared with earlier vaccines. Operation Warp Speed flooded the industry with funding, and thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of scientists turned their skills, brains, and talents to this one singular problem all at once.
Then we were a bit lucky: the coronavirus itself resembles the influenza virus, something we are very familiar with. We know a lot about which proteins our bodies are likely to recognize. The industry knows how to manufacture millions of doses. After all, we do it every year for the seasonal flu vaccine.
Finally, we had a willing pool of volunteers to speed up the clinical trials themselves. Ordinary citizens were eager to help, even using social media for participant recruitment. These factors, combined with a high sense of urgency, improved data recording, speedy regulatory approvals, and multiple pharmaceutical manufacturers working simultaneously, all contributed to the speedy development and approval process for the coronavirus vaccines that are now becoming available.
In my mind, the most important thing for you to know is that all this was accomplished without undue influence by the government, politicians, regulators, the media, or corporate interests. In other words, the scientific process maintained its high level of standards, rigor, and safety. There were no shortcuts in the science or the approval process, and that’s important for physicians like me who have to decide whether to recommend the vaccine or not, for my patients, my teammates, my friends, my family, and myself.
- How safe is the coronavirus vaccine compared with Covid-19 itself?
As a physician, when I think about what’s best for my patients, I’m always asking myself, what’s the relative risk and benefit of one thing versus another. In this case, I’m comparing the vaccine and any potential side effects with catching coronavirus and having full-blown Covid-19 disease. On one side of the scale, there are a few shots in the arm with the vaccine we’ve been talking about. There might be a little swelling or irritation on your arm, and you may feel a bit run-down for a day or two as your body’s immune system learns to recognize that piece of DNA or protein from coronavirus. If you’ve ever had a shingles vaccine, for example, it might feel like that. The benefit is you have immunity to coronavirus after that. On the other side of the scale, there is the possibility of catching coronavirus – the same risk you have today – which has been causing people to either die, or go on hospice, or move into a nursing home, or just become unable to do what they used to do or function the way they used to function. In my mind, relatively speaking, one side of the scale versus the other…it’s a no-brainer. The relative risk of anything bad happening from the vaccine is tiny compared to the risk that we’ve already seen a lot of people getting full-blown Covid-19 and passing away.
Having said all that, let’s talk about the known side effects of the vaccine, so you know what to expect.
After you’ve received the vaccination, health care staff will monitor you for 30 minutes. Severe allergic reactions will be rare, just like with other vaccines, so if you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to other vaccines, talk with your physician first. You can expect mild to moderate symptoms of fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, and possibly fever for a day or two, so you may need a day off to rest.
I know we’re all suffering from Covid fatigue. The next few weeks and months are still going to be very, very difficult. With all the holiday traveling and cold weather keeping folks together indoors, many more will catch coronavirus, and many more will die before the vaccine reaches us all. But there is light at the end of this tunnel, and the vaccines are a fresh breath of hope for us, for our healthcare community on the front lines who are being pummeled every day, and for our nation.
Hopefully, these first few questions and answers will help you make an informed decision about getting vaccinated. We’ll learn more in the coming weeks, but if you have additional questions, please send them to us at www.DementiaSpring.org.
In the meantime, stay safe, shrink your bubble, Happy Holidays, and see you in 2021!
The contents and information on DementiaSpring.Org are for educational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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