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Answering your questions about the COVID-19 vaccines

Originally published in The Tennessean, April 2021

As a nation and state, we’ve made substantial progress in the fight against COVID-19. More than 165 million Americans have been vaccinated. In Tennessee, COVID-19 cases have dropped 90% in nursing homes. More than 46% of vaccinated Tennesseans fall in the 61+ age range.

But we still have a long way to go, and I know many people have questions about the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines.

As chief medical officer at BlueCross, I help our members understand the latest medical developments and make informed choices about their personal health.

What to remember

The currently available COVID-19 vaccines have gone through the normal vaccine testing and approval process with the Food and Drug Administration. They received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), which is granted in circumstances like a pandemic when it can offer a substantial public health benefit.

The clinical trials included tens of thousands of participants — which is substantially higher than many trials. The level of immune system response they generate is much greater than the flu vaccine in recent years.

I’m often asked about new COVID-19 variants. Variants are different types of the same virus. Over time, the protein coat around a virus can change and alter its characteristics. These changes include its likelihood of causing active infection, its visible symptoms and even its deadliness.

The more a virus circulates, the greater its chances of mutating. This is another reason it’s so important to get vaccinated now.

Taking daily prescription medication doesn’t preclude you from getting a vaccine.  I’ve seen no evidence that the vaccines interfere with medications or vice versa. If anything, it’s even more important you get a vaccine since your medication may be for a condition that puts you at a high risk for severe complications from COVID-19.

Health experts are optimistic because findings show that the antibody response remains very strong 6 months after full vaccination with the two-dose vaccines. The FDA has cleared a process to approve booster shots at a faster pace if needed. That’s good news as we seek to stay ahead of emerging COVID-19 variants.

As a trained pediatrician, I’m regularly asked about vaccine availability for children younger than 16. (The Pfizer vaccine can be given down to the age of 16.) At least one vaccine has applied for EUA for 12- to 15-year-olds. Trials are ongoing for children under 12, and they’ll likely continue down to children age 6 months. I’m hopeful for vaccinations to begin in 12- to 15-year-olds by this fall. 

What about side effects?

I’ve also been asked about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, as U.S. health officials recently called for a pause in its distribution due to extremely rare cases of blood clots. At press time, these clots occurred in six reported cases out of nearly 7 million Americans who received this vaccine. The cautious response illustrates how closely medical experts are following adverse reactions to all of the COVID-19 vaccines.

This side effect is sometimes seen with other medications, as well. We’ll continue to monitor these developments and share information with our members.

The vaccines have been shown to be effective in preventing serious infection, hospitalization and death.  The data so far looks promising, but we’re still learning if you can experience an asymptomatic infection you can spread to others after getting the vaccine. That’s why experts recommend still wearing your mask, washing your hands and social distancing until more people are vaccinated.

Remember, the best vaccine is the currently available one that you can get as soon as possible. Any vaccine you choose is going to give you protection you don’t have today.

About Dr. Andrea Willis, SVP, Chief Medical Officer

A photo of the authorDr. Willis ensures that all clinical initiatives and quality endeavors support the needs of our members, and contribute to the overall health and well-being of our communities.

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