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COVID-19 Vaccine Myths and Facts

As you consider getting vaccinated for COVID-19, you may have questions. You might even feel nervous. That’s OK.

Learning the facts about COVID-19 vaccines can help you make a good choice for you, your family and your community. After all, getting the vaccine is our SHOT at getting back to NORMAL!

Here’s a look at some common COVID-19 vaccine myths and facts.

MYTH: Getting a COVID-19 vaccine can make me sick with COVID-19.

FACT: None of the current U.S. vaccines contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. Instead, the vaccines teach your immune system how to recognize and fight the virus. This keeps you from getting sick with COVID-19.

MYTH: The vaccines are not very effective at stopping COVID-19.

FACT: Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been shown to be about 95% effective in preventing COVID-19. Each of these vaccines requires two doses to deliver that level of protection. The vaccine from Janssen Biotech, Inc. (a Johnson & Johnson company) is given in a single dose and was about 72% effective overall in its U.S. trial and 85% effective against severe disease.

MYTH: I've had COVID-19, so I don't need a vaccination.

FACT: Having COVID-19 gives you natural immunity from the disease, but it’s only temporary. Health experts don’t know how long natural immunity lasts. There is evidence it may not last very long. So even if you’ve had COVID-19, you should still get vaccinated.

MYTH: The COVID-19 vaccines will alter my DNA.

FACT: The vaccines will not have any effect on your DNA at all. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines contain messenger RNA (mRNA). The mRNA teaches your cells how to make a protein that fights the virus that causes COVID-19. But the mRNA never enters the nucleus of your cells, which is where DNA is found. It never interacts with your DNA in any way. Janssen's is a viral vector vaccine and can't affect or interact with your DNA.

MYTH: The vaccines affect a woman's ability to have a baby.

FACT: There is currently no evidence that the antibodies formed after COVID-19 vaccination cause any problems with pregnancy. In fact, there is no evidence that fertility problems are a side effect of any vaccine.

MYTH: I have to pay to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

FACT: The U.S. government has paid for vaccine doses with taxpayer money, so vaccines are being given to Americans at no cost. It’s possible that vaccine providers may charge an administration fee for giving the vaccines, but this will be covered by insurance or by a special government fund if the patient is uninsured. No one will be denied a vaccine because of an inability to pay the administration fee.

MYTH: The vaccines were developed too fast to know if they're really safe or not.

FACT: The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use mRNA technology to produce antibodies to the COVID-19 virus. This technology had been in development for years before COVID-19 came into existence, so the researchers weren’t working from scratch. The Janssen vaccine is a viral vector vaccine. Viral vectors have been studied since the 1970s.

In addition:

  • China shared genetic information about the virus early on.
  • Researchers conducted all the usual testing steps. They just conducted them on an overlapping schedule to gather data faster.
  • Social media was used to find volunteers for vaccine tests.
  • Companies began making vaccines early on, so supplies were ready by the time vaccines were approved.
  • The vaccines have gone through rigorous studies to be sure they are as safe as possible.

MYTH: I will have major side effects after having the vaccine.

FACT: Some, but not all, people have minor, temporary side effects after being vaccinated. Side effects people have reported include:

  • Pain at the injection site.
  • Body aches.
  • Headaches.
  • Fever.

These side effects only last for a day or two. They are signs that your body is building immunity against the virus. You should call your doctor if symptoms last more than two days.

MYTH: I can stop wearing a mask after I get the vaccine.

FACT: It takes a few weeks for the body to develop immunity after a vaccine. In addition, we don’t know yet if vaccines stop people from transmitting the virus. But we know that masks can. We may not be able to stop wearing masks or social distancing until most people have had the vaccine.

MYTH: I’ve heard O negative blood is protective, so I don’t need a vaccine, right?

FACT: (From Dr. Eric Kuhns (CGH Family Medicine, CGH Department of Internal Medicine Chairman, and leader of our COVID Clinical Task Force/Guidance Team)

No “free pass” from vaccination here...I’ve had patients coming in wanting to know their blood type for this reason. Besides my own case anecdotally giving lie to this supposition (I have O negative blood, and still came down with Covid), the statistics of this make O negative blood far from a “Covid force field”. While it does appear that there are some differences in susceptibility in blood type, and some plausible mechanisms behind them, the effect is small - around a 10% difference in outcomes. Other risk factors - being overweight, older, or even male - account for an equal or greater effect. The effect from blood type is just not enough to change any decisions on risk taking. Basing a decision not to get a vaccine that can be 95% effective in preventing symptomatic disease (and nearly 100% in preventing hospitalization and death), because you have a blood type that reduces your risk by 10%, is not rational!

MYTH: I will “shed” COVID after taking the vaccine.

FACT: (From Dr. Eric Kuhns (CGH Family Medicine, CGH Department of Internal Medicine Chairman, and leader of our COVID Clinical Task Force/Guidance Team)

None of the vaccines contain COVID, and none of them can reproduce in the body, so no you will not “shed” COVID after vaccination.

MYTH: I shouldn't take the vaccine because I can still infect others, have to wear a mask and nothing changes.

FACT: (From Dr. Eric Kuhns (CGH Family Medicine, CGH Department of Internal Medicine Chairman, and leader of our COVID Clinical Task Force/Guidance Team)

The first phase III trials mostly focused on symptomatic disease, as it is clear and easy to measure. So we didn’t have “proof” that it reduced asymptomatic disease, and some caution was advised. It was always *likely* that it would, as most other vaccines do and the Moderna trial did test people for asymptomatic disease right before the second shot (but not after the full series). So all we had was Moderna’s 60% reduction after one shot. What was meant to be a message of “be careful until we know for sure” came to be heard as “it only limits symptoms, not infection.”

We now know from following more than a million vaccinated people in Israel, matched to similar not-yet vaccinated controls, that transmission is reduced 89%, and that viral load in the few who break through, is only ¼ of those who test positive without the vaccine on board.

As far as masking, that is coming progressively with time and amount of vaccinations. For now, among those who are vaccinated, recently had COVID, or a small group of low risk people, masks are no longer needed - the risk decreases to be a similar risk to things we do every day, like driving, etc.

MYTH: I shouldn't take a vaccine that is 95% effective for a disease that has a 1% death rate...Won't I be worse off!?

FACT: (From Dr. Eric Kuhns (CGH Family Medicine, CGH Department of Internal Medicine Chairman, and leader of our COVID Clinical Task Force/Guidance Team)

Yes, you should still take the vaccine. I’ll answer this in car terms. Over a lifetime, a person has about a 1% risk of dying in a car accident. Seatbelts decrease this risk about 50%, airbags, stability control, and crumple zones each a bit more. Some people will avoid a major accident, but for those who do go on to have one, safety belts and the other systems come into play, and markedly decrease the risk of death. You never know when this is going to be, so you put your seatbelt on before you drive.

Also, accidents (and COVID) not only cause death, but injuries. COVID is pretty uniquely bad this way. With influenza, over 90% feel back to normal within two weeks. With COVID, that number is around 50%, and many have long term lingering effects, some of them debilitating - lung scarring, strokes, blood clots, and myocarditis (seen even on college-age athletes). Brain fog, loss of smell, and persistent severe fatigue are pretty common. So there is more at risk here than a 1% chance of death.

MYTH: I shouldn't bother with the vaccine. My friend got a vaccine, and still got COVID.

FACT: (From Dr. Eric Kuhns (CGH Family Medicine, CGH Department of Internal Medicine Chairman, and leader of our COVID Clinical Task Force/Guidance Team)

As more people are vaccinated, we will see a few of them still test positive. A 95% reduction is not 100% but remember the other tidbit from above - those who broke through had, on average, ¼ the viral load, and disease is typically much more mild. If I had to risk a car crash, I’d rather 15MPH, vs. 60MPH (¼ the “speed” in the vaccinated, so to speak). People with large exposures, and high risk are a bit more likely to break through, but with much less virus to break though and clear. With most people not vaccinated, there are still some people shedding very high viral loads, and make for more risk. Once most everyone is vaccinated, this will cease to be much of an issue - as few if any will develop high enough viral loads to be contagious enough to break through another’s vaccine. This is why, right now, masking is still advised if you're in a group of non-vaccinated people (with exceptions for a small group of low risk contacts such as grandkids). The more vaccination proceeds, the less risk gets for everyone.

MYTH: My risk is “low”, and the long term risks of the vaccine aren’t known, so I should just wait.

FACT: (From Dr. Eric Kuhns (CGH Family Medicine, CGH Department of Internal Medicine Chairman, and leader of our COVID Clinical Task Force/Guidance Team)

Please do not wait. Risk is relative and those who are young have much less risk of death, for sure. However, as I have seen in the hospital, some of that comes from the ability of younger people to suffer more, and not die. I’ve seen 30 year olds spend weeks on a ventilator, and quite a few with more mild disease have longer symptoms. If you are a “good driver”, in a safe car, our risk is certainly less, but wear your seatbelt anyway! As far as the “newness” of the vaccine, concern there is certainly understandable - most vaccines take a while to get large numbers in, and the diseases are rare enough that it takes a long time to see results. For HPV, it’s an average of a little over 20 years between infection, and the cancer it can cause, so it took many years to really see the reduction in cancer (though we could see the HPV rates drop).

The risk with vaccines is very front - loaded - almost always *starting* within 6 weeks of vaccination. Some of the COVID vaccines didn’t make it - Australia’s, Merk’s, etc. With how much COVID is out there, we were able to gather data quickly, and we now have many millions of “1st 6 weeks” in to look at, and the results are very good! Most medications, and other vaccines, take years to get this much information in. What’s left unknown are the 1 in a million type effects, which is much less than the risk of “doing nothing”, even for those at relatively “low risk.” For those who have had COVID in the last few months, the urgency is certainly less in the near future.

MYTH: The vaccine is dangerous. I have heard that many have died after the vaccine.

FACT: (From Dr. Eric Kuhns (CGH Family Medicine, CGH Department of Internal Medicine Chairman, and leader of our COVID Clinical Task Force/Guidance Team)

The vaccine can’t prevent all the other causes of death, and sometimes they overlap. The CDC says 867 people die in the US, per 100,000 people, per year. We have about 43 million people fully vaccinated now, over the last 3 months or so, and over 100 million doses in so far. Taking the lower number - 43 million, we’d expect 93,000 of those people to die over the course of 3 months. (This is probably an underestimate, because we are vaccinating the elderly first, but let's use it for illustration). Some of those 93,000 deaths are going to happen around the two weeks of one of the vaccines they received. It’s inevitable. Deaths that happen shortly after the vaccine are reported to VAERS, and are investigated by the CDC, as they should be, and assessed for causation, and trends such as "are we seeing deaths of a particular type? More deaths than expected?" VAERS is public data, and the CDC has released their review on this - nothing is hidden here, and there is now a lot of data that looks very reassuring.

MYTH: This is all “gene therapy” and not a vaccine.

FACT: (From Dr. Eric Kuhns (CGH Family Medicine, CGH Department of Internal Medicine Chairman, and leader of our COVID Clinical Task Force/Guidance Team)

No. While genetic material is involved, changing your genes is not. The mRNA vaccines don't even get into the nucleus of the cell, where your genetic material is. It’s an important point to remember, that it’s not the vaccine that is blocking/fighting off COVID - it’s long gone after a couple of days - it’s your own immune system that does it, just armed with good information about what this sucker looks like. It’s much safer, and closer to “natural” than any of the drugs we use to treat COVID. Antibiotics have a much higher allergy/anaphylaxis rate than the vaccines, for example.

MYTH: I’ve heard the new variants are up to 6x less susceptible to the antibodies from vaccines. Doesn’t this make the vaccines ineffective?

FACT: (From Dr. Eric Kuhns (CGH Family Medicine, CGH Department of Internal Medicine Chairman, and leader of our COVID Clinical Task Force/Guidance Team)

Yes to the first part (for the South African variant) and no to the second part, to all variants so far, for the vaccines we have here. There are multiple reasons for this. First, let's look at what they are testing with the “6x” less susceptible. The are looking at how far one can dilute out plasma with the antibodies in it, *and still neutralize the virus*. Before, it took many dilutions of plasma, before the effectiveness went down. Now it takes less, but the virus is still inactivated. The analogy here is you can drown in 60 feet of water, or 10 feet of water, but you are still dead. The same goes for "drowning" the virus with antibodies. The mRNA vaccines in particular, make a very large antibody response, but even the Johnson & Johnson vaccine remained 82% effective against severe and critical COVID in South Africa. For the British variant, which caused the last big surge in Israel, the Pfizer vaccine remained well over 90% effective - the same as in the trials with the original SARS-CoV2 virus.

MYTH: I’ve heard vaccinating during a pandemic will backfire and cause a global catastrophe by driving vaccine escape variants.

FACT: (From Dr. Eric Kuhns (CGH Family Medicine, CGH Department of Internal Medicine Chairman, and leader of our COVID Clinical Task Force/Guidance Team)

In brief, variants happen more when there is more viral replication, which vaccines markedly reduce. With a 95% effective vaccine, and one we *now* know clearly, markedly reduces even asymptomatic cases (i.e. it is not brewing/replicating without us knowing it), the current vaccines are effective enough to stop most replications, and the variants that arise from it. It’s also important to know that the vaccines produce antibodies to many parts of the spike protein, and it would take a lot of mutations to inactivate them all. Then there are the other facets of cellular immunity that are well stimulated by the current vaccines that would still help to a degree. SARS-CoV2 is not inherently very good at mutating (like influenza), it’s just that we are giving it millions of swings at the bat.