COVID vaccines: Myths, safety, supply and variants

Laurie Allen
For Columbus CEO
Creola Johnson receives her second COVID-19 vaccine clinic from George Tazi at Columbus Public Health.

What seemed like too much to hope for six months ago—joyous celebrations, in-person learning and a return to things once considered “normal”—is becoming closer to reality as more Ohioans become fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Yet, like everything about COVID, vaccination programs require deft handling to address continuous and rapid change, including a drop in those rolling up their sleeves for the shot.

Since last December, Ohioans and the nation experienced an urgent, unmet demand for vaccine, a rapid if uneven rollout and an ongoing influx of data to digest. Today, health leaders’ primary focus is on those not fully vaccinated due to barriers such as access to transportation, technology and time, or because they lack credible information.

“We aren’t going to return to normal with 40 percent,” says Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts, speaking of vaccination rates in Ohio this spring. The gold standard for achieving herd immunity—when enough people are immune that the virus cannot easily spread—is roughly 75-80 percent.

Roberts, along with Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, system medical director of infectious diseases at OhioHealth, and Dr. Susan Koletar, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Ohio State University Medical Center, spoke with Columbus CEO to address common questions and misconceptions about the vaccine.

What do you know about long-term safety of vaccines in children and adolescents?

“There has never been a vaccine produced that causes long-term effects down the road,” Gastaldo says. When delayed effects have occurred, they’ve tended to happen within two months of vaccination. The Moderna and Pfizer messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines do not alter any cellular DNA or contain live virus; the vaccine ingredients and the spike proteins they produce are broken down within hours. The same is true of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which uses a version of the common cold virus (adenovirus) to trigger an immune response.

It’s hard to keep up with all the changes. Did the vaccine rollout happen too quickly?

Both the mRNA and adenovirus vectors have been used for years and are known quantities. “It’s not like we have a bunch of mad scientists out there,” Koletar says. When the Food and Drug Administration paused the J&J vaccine after a rare but serious complication occurred, “it was a testament to the safeguards in place.”

Roberts says “no shortcuts whatsoever” were taken in vaccine development and rollout. “The J&J pause should have confirmed to the nation that safety is more important than just vaccinating.”

The second shot seems to cause the most side effects, and it’s difficult for some people to get one vaccine, let alone two. Is it really necessary?

The short answer is yes, Gastaldo says. While one dose offers some protection, “it’s a risker proposition.” Being fully vaccinated also gets the population closer to reaching herd immunity and being protected against virus variants.

The most common side effects, such as chills, fever and muscle ache, are short-lived and in the greater scheme of things, are a small price to pay for stopping a previously unchecked pandemic, experts say. Roberts says the city health department’s no-show rate for a second vaccination is less than 1 percent, due to rigorous follow-up, but that’s not the case across the board. In the U.S., more than five million people, or nearly 8 percent of those who got a first shot, have failed to receive a second.

The business community can encourage vaccination by giving employees paid time off after a second vaccine, Gastaldo says. People also need vaccination programs that operate on weekends and off-work hours.

A COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Columbus Public Health photographed on Friday, March 19, 2021.

First, there wasn’t enough vaccine to go around, now there is too much. What is going on?

Generally speaking, people most at risk and those with the most resources received the vaccines first. As those people have become fully vaccinated, gaps have appeared among people who find it harder to access healthcare. “We’ve reached an inflection point. It’s a time when people need to get creative” to make sure everyone eligible receives a vaccine, Gastaldo says. “We have to take vaccines to where people work and live, and to underserved areas and rural counties.”

Roberts says her department has made it a point to reach out to the Somali, Latino and Bhutanese communities, and has taken its message to grocery stores, people’s doorsteps and the business community. With fewer people knocking on the doors to receive a vaccine, health leaders are pivoting resources away from mass vaccination sites to same-day and walk-in programs, looking especially toward retail stores and pharmacies.

There is so much “out there” about the vaccine causing infertility and other problems. What’s the truth?

“There is no truth to that whatsoever. It has no validity,” Roberts says. “Quite the contrary – not only is it safe in pregnant women, they pass antibodies on to their unborn child.”

Gastaldo calls it “science fiction” and says it should remind people not to trust everything they read online or hear from friends and family. “My job is to separate fiction from reality, with the understanding that people work 9-to 5 and don’t have the bandwidth” to evaluate all the reports they hear each day. “We need to connect them with a reliable source of truth, which is science. The most powerful advocate is when you when hear it from someone you trust,” Roberts says. “It’s much more effective than any ad.”

What about new variants that continue to emerge? Will the current vaccines be effective?

Public health leaders say viruses always mutate, and the next variant won’t come as a complete surprise. Manufacturers already have tweaked their vaccines in response to variants, and new vaccines against emerging ones are in development, Gastaldo says. For now, “the United States is covered very, very well with existing vaccines.”

The likelihood of additional variants underscores the need for as many people as possible to get vaccinated now rather than later. The longer the virus circulates among unvaccinated people, the more opportunities it has to mutate into variants that might escape vaccine protection.

Laurie Allen is a freelance writer.

Additional facts about the vaccine:

You do not have to pay for a COVID vaccine. If you receive a bill, contact the Ohio Attorney General’s office and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Gastaldo says. The vaccine itself is free, but some providers may charge a fee to administer to it, which they bill to third parties. Members are not required to pay that fee.

More than 30 forms of identification are acceptable for the COVID vaccine in Ohio. See them here at https://coronavirus.ohio.gov/static/vaccine/covid-19-fact-sheet-forms-of-id.pdf