‘TRUST IN THE DATA’: Four area doctors respond to common vaccine questions

Local doctors say they are hearing more excitement than hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine but have fielded many questions from patients.

Most of the questions have centered around the safety of the vaccine and potential side effects, both long- and short-term.

Dr. Robert Kavelman, a family medicine specialist with Johnson Memorial Health, says patients typically fall into three different opinion categories, roughly based on age and risk level.

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Most older patients, especially those with other risk factors, can’t wait to be vaccinated. For those under 40, there starts to be more hesitancy, because some patients feel they will be OK without the vaccine, Kavelman said.

Perhaps the largest group, though, is composed of people of all ages, those who aren’t particularly at-risk, and are on the fence and need more information, he said.

All four area doctors the Daily Journal spoke to said they can understand why patients have concerns about the vaccine, considering the speed at which it was approved.

Initially, a couple of those doctors shared those same concerns, but the studies were so overwhelmingly positive that they now enthusiastically support the vaccines.

“I myself was concerned in the early phases because they were being rushed along, but I have reviewed it and I trust in the data they have found,” said Dr. Brendan Sweeny, a doctor at Franciscan Health Indianapolis.

Like Sweeny, Dr. Itoro Okpokho, of Community Hospital South, found the data trustworthy, but was also convinced by the effectiveness and history of the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

For patients, Kavelman counters that common argument with the fact that lack of red tape, not lack of research, is the reason it was approved so quickly.

Each vaccine followed routine trial procedures but was given an emergency-use authorization rather than taking the much-longer route to federal approval that is used to certify vaccines under normal circumstances.

Could the vaccine give me COVID-19?

It is one of the most common questions Dr. Jaymin Patel’s patients ask.

Since the vaccine does not contain a live virus, there is no chance of being infected. The vaccine is created with the mRNA protein, a component of DNA.

The mRNA protein sends a message to the body’s cells instructing them how to fight the virus, in the event that the virus someday attacks the body, Okpokho explained.

The mRNA technology has been around for 10 years, but hasn’t been used in a vaccine until now. However, the technology has been studied heavily and there’s no reason to believe it is unsafe for use in a vaccine, especially given the positive results of the studies, Patel said.

The technology was used to create both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are more than 90% effective against the virus.

However, mRNA was not used to create other vaccine candidates such the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has shown to be 72% effective in its American study, and 66% effective in its global study.

Should I be concerned about side effects?

Most side effects are mild, if they occur at all. In the studies, patients reported fever, headache, body aches, arm pain and other mild ailments as the most common.

It is unpredictable whether a patient will have no symptoms or flu-like symptoms, doctors said.

“I tell my patients that I actually want them to go in and assume they might experience symptoms,” Patel said. “I recommend they get it on a Friday so they have the weekend to deal with any symptoms.”

Only one of the doctors developed side effects after getting the vaccine, and those only lasted about 24 hours. The side effects included low-grade fever, headache and body aches.

However, since side effects may not happen, Okpokho encourages patients to not be worried either way if they do or don’t develop flu-like symptoms. There is no scientific conclusion why some have side effects and some do not, but patients are protected regardless, she said.

“It just shows your immune system has a different reaction than others,” Okpokho said.

How about severe or long-term side effects?

All four doctors agree patients shouldn’t be concerned about potential side effects.

Severe side effects are extremely rare, though they have been somewhat widely covered by the media, Sweeny said. This is because rare symptoms are more newsworthy than mild symptoms, but mild symptoms are more common.

Both Sweeny and Kavelman have had patients who were concerned about reports that some people have died after getting the vaccine.

Death following a vaccine is a rare occurrence among very old patients. Furthermore, the deaths haven’t been conclusively connected to the vaccine and are more likely a coincidence, Sweeny said.

If death due to the vaccine was a concern, governments would have taken action by now, Kavelman said.

“We have already given millions of vaccines in the U.S. If people were dropping dead, we would hear about it,” he said.

Concerns about long-term side effects are common among all vaccines, Kavelman said. It is impossible to know for sure if there will be any long-term side effects, but given how Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are made, there are unlikely to be any, he said.

Pharmaceutical companies as well as the Food and Drug Administration wouldn’t distribute an unsafe vaccine, both for the sake of their reputation and public health, Kavelman said.

I’m young and healthy, so why should I get a vaccine?

COVID-19 is unpredictable, even for young and healthy people, doctors say. Getting the vaccine gives an individual control over their own health, whereas no vaccine leaves it up to chance.

Kavelman has seen COVID-19 patients in their 70s with mild symptoms, and patients under 50 end up in the hospital, he said. The point is the virus touches everyone differently, and people of every age can benefit from the vaccine, he said.

No matter the age of the patient, there are more benefits than risks to getting the vaccine, Sweeny said.

“For my older patients, I recommend they get the vaccines for their own health. Younger patients should get it for themselves and for others who are more at-risk,” he said.

Younger people should step up to get a vaccine when their turn comes, Kavelman said.

“If you are willing to social distance, wear a mask and wash your hands to help your neighbor, you should help by getting the vaccine when you are eligible,” he said.

Is there anyone who should not get a vaccine?

For most, the benefits of getting the vaccine far outweigh the risks, doctors said.

Some patients are concerned about the vaccine based on their health conditions, such as those who have had an allergic reaction to medication or vaccines before, Patel said. Those patients should have detailed conversations about the pros and cons of being vaccinated, he said.

The vaccines were not studied among pregnant or breastfeeding women, though some have gotten the vaccine since it was rolled out to the general public with good results. Still, that group is another that should consult their doctor if they have concerns, Patel said.