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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

What To Know About The COVID-19 Vaccines

Moderna COVID-10 Vaccine
Elise Amendola/AP
/
AP
The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is seen, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Half of American adults have now gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. Whether or not you have received a shot, you may have questions about vaccine safety and effectiveness.

WVPB spoke with two infectious disease experts in West Virginia on what West Virginians need to know about the life-saving vaccines.

Dr. Meera Mehta is an infectious diseases pharmacist with WVU Medicine.

Dr. Kara Willenburg is chief of infectious diseases at Marshall University and Marshall Health.

What if I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine? Should I be worried?

Federal health agencies paused the administration of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine after reports of extremely rare, but dangerous blood clotting events.

It's literally a one in a million chance that someone who got that vaccine would develop these sorts of blood clots.

But if you’re one of the 54,000 West Virginians that got the J&J, Mehta has what you should know.

“If it has been about a month since someone has received the vaccine, they're less likely to develop this type of blood clots,” she said.

The reported cases of blood clots (which are rare and alarming because they formed in combination with low levels of blood platelets) occurred exclusively in women under 50. These women experienced symptoms leading to the blood clots less than two weeks after getting the J&J vaccine.

If you got the shot less than two weeks ago, you should still monitor yourself for “symptoms of severe headache, severe abdominal pain, severe leg pain and shortness of breath,” Mehta said.

Two other vaccines have received emergency use authorization from the federal government -- Moderna and Pfizer. These have not been linked to similar blood clots, and West Virginia is still doling them out.

Willenburg says the J&J pause should actually give Americans some confidence. All three vaccine brands undergo the same monitoring. Health providers are required to report adverse reactions directly to the CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Reaction Reporting System.

“People should be reassured that our vaccine monitoring systems that were put into place and increased for this vaccine rollout are working,” she said.

How effective are the vaccines? Is J&J less effective?

These vaccines are highly effective on all levels. In clinical trials, Moderna and Pfizer were both proven to be 95 percent effective at preventing symptomatic infections.

Johnson and Johnson clinical trials show it is 66 percent percent effective. But it is 85 percent effective at preventing severe illness and 100 percent effective against hospitalizations.

Willenburg says it’s unfair to compare J&J to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which were developed and tested at different phases of the pandemic.

“The Johnson and Johnson vaccine was tested at a different time. So it's tested on a different population with different variants circulating. So you can't directly compare the numbers,” she said.

Will the vaccines protect against variant viruses?

New strains come as the virus mutates and spreads throughout the globe.

The UK variant is now the most common strain in the U.S. Ones from Brazil and South Africa are present in the states, too. All are either more contagious, more deadly, or more resistant to antibody treatments than the virus originating in Wuhan, China.

An Israeli study found Pfizer and Moderna are not as effective against variants. That’s to be expected, Mehta said. But the vaccines we have now are still going to help.

“So we may see a little bit reduced efficacy, but likely, it'll still be enough to protect people from severe disease,” Mehta said.

Can I still get COVID-19 if I’m fully vaccinated?

Yes. These vaccines aren't 100 percent effective. It’s rare, but vaccinated folks can still catch COVID-19. These are called “breakthrough” cases, and we’re learning more about them.

NPR reported earlier this month that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documented nearly 6,000 such cases. Less than 10 percent were hospitalized, and 74 people died.

How long am I protected? Will I need booster shots?

These vaccines protect us for six months, but maybe longer.

“That's what we know for now. Because that's how long we've been using the vaccines for,” Willenburg said. “So as we continue to use the vaccines and have them in people's arms, we will gain more knowledge.”

Both Pzifer and Moderna are creating booster shots, aimed at targeting variants. The details are still being worked out, but these manufacturers anticipate a necessary booster sometime between six to 12 months after the second dose.

Moderna says its booster could be ready by the fall.

Federal health officials haven’t said whether boosters will be necessary, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said they’ll make that call sometime this year.


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