While the coronavirus vaccines have been widely distributed, there are still more than 90 million Americans who remain unvaccinated. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misinformation about COVID vaccines. 

It is important that people know the truth about the vaccines so they can make an educated decision on being vaccinated. Here are some facts and updated information about the coronavirus vaccines and answers to some commonly asked questions.

Who should get a COVID booster vaccine and when?

The CDC recently shared their recommendations on booster shots for certain individuals who have already received the Pfizer vaccine. The updated guidance allows those who are most at risk for coronavirus to get  a booster shot to help increase their protection.

1 – individuals who received either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine and are undergoing chemotherapy or have serious immunosuppression should get a third dose 28 days after their second.

2 - individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago and are:

  • age 65 and older
  • residents of long-term care facilities
  • ages 50 to 64 with underlying medical conditions

Also, those who may consider and are eligible to receive a booster include individuals who are:

  • ages 18 to 49 with underlying medical conditions 
  • ages 18 to 64 with increased risk of exposure due to occupation, such as health care workers  

Additional information on booster shots for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines has not yet been determined. We will update this as necessary.

I’ve already had COVID. Why should I be vaccinated?

We have information from studies showing that people who have had COVID may not have strong enough immunity (as measured in the blood) from the infection that is needed to prevent another infection. It is therefore recommended to get vaccinated even after having had COVID.

If the vaccines are not effective and there are breakthrough infections, why should I bother getting vaccinated?

The vaccines are highly effective at preventing any COVID illness, and especially good at preventing serious illness and death. A small percentage of the people getting COVID now have been vaccinated, the vast majority of COVID cases are occurring in people who have not been vaccinated. 

What’s the most current data on safety of the different COVID vaccines?

The three coronavirus vaccines available in the United States, Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are all extremely safe.  One safety concern related to serious allergic reactions has emerged (anaphylaxis). For this reason, vaccinations should be given in a monitored setting. Serious allergic reactions occur at a low rate, a few cases per million doses given. 

Do mRNA vaccines stay in the body? Do mRNA vaccines alter your DNA?

The mRNA vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer) don’t last more than a few days in the body. The material itself degrades quickly, and our body’s natural functions break down and eliminate all remnants. There is no alteration of our own DNA.

Are there side effects from the coronavirus vaccines, and what about long-term effects since these vaccines are new?

Common side effects of COVID vaccine

Side effects may be expected in the immediate time period after the injection. Common side effects reported in the studies included arm pain, fatigue, headache, muscle aches or joint aches, chills, and even a fever. Most were considered mild to moderate in severity and resolved in a day or two. You may want to consider this when you schedule your injections. You will be given specific information when you get a vaccine.

Serious side effects of COVID vaccine

Serious side effects have been extremely rare. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been associated with a potentially life-threatening blood clot, mainly in women less than 50 years of age. Inflammation of the heart muscle in men under 30 can occur with the mRNA vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer. The COVID vaccines are widely available now, and people can decide which one they prefer. You can get more information on the vaccines and their side effects on the CDC website.

Long-term side effects of COVID vaccine

Many years of evaluating other widely used vaccines have shown that long-term side effects are extremely unlikely and that from a practical perspective, we only need to focus on the first few months after the vaccination. Nevertheless, people who volunteered for the COVID-19 vaccine trials are being followed for new medical problems for one to two years. 

People have raised a concern that these vaccines could interfere with their ability to have a child. Luckily, there is no evidence that this is true. 

Vaccines can help us stop the pandemic.  The extremely low risk of a serious side effect to a vaccine is outweighed by the risk of serious illness or death, especially in those individuals who are at high risk due to a predisposing condition or age. In addition, anyone with SARS Co-V-2 will spread the infection to many others. Vaccination is something we need to do to protect many other people from getting infected.  

What is the current recommendation for pregnant/breastfeeding women?

The current recommendation is that all pregnant and breastfeeding women receive the COVID vaccination. Pregnant women are at higher risk of severe illness if they contract COVID and the vaccine will help prevent illness and death of both the pregnant mother and unborn child. The vaccines have been determined to be safe for all pregnant or breastfeeding women.

When can we expect a vaccine for children under 12?    

We are waiting for the clinical trials with Moderna and Pfizer to be completed and carefully analyzed, and then for this information to be made available to the public and to healthcare workers. I look forward to hearing this data in the coming months, and we will share information with you when it becomes available. In the meantime, you can learn more about vaccines for children 12 and older here

What is a vaccine and how does it work?

There are several different types of vaccines. No matter the type, all vaccines teach your immune system how to fight off certain kinds of germs — and prevent the serious diseases they cause.

Vaccines are very effective and are the best protection against many dangerous diseases, such as polio, mumps, pneumonia, and measles. Each vaccine must go through extensive testing to show that it works and that it’s safe.

Some vaccines use the genetic building blocks (either RNA or DNA) for the spike protein and some use a modified version of the spike protein itself. Either way, your immune system ‘sees’ the spike protein and mounts an effective response to it. With the second or booster shot, your immune system will remember to make the necessary cells and antibodies to fight the SARS CoV2 infection before it can make you sick.

While hand washing or wearing a mask can slow the spread of germs, they will not fully protect you from getting COVID. A great source of information on vaccines is the United States Department of Health and Human Services website.

Can you get coronavirus from the vaccine?

Definitely not. The vaccines present only a portion of the virus, the coronavirus spike protein, to our immune system -- not the whole virus. This allows our immune system to develop immunity to the spike protein, and then we can fight off a coronavirus infection right away if we are exposed to it.

How were the vaccines developed so quickly?

Researchers worked directly with what is known as the genetic sequence -- the very basic building blocks of the virus. This information was made available early in the pandemic and multiple vaccine companies were ready to use their technology to make this newer type of vaccine, known as an “mRNA vaccine.” With this type of vaccine, only the genetic sequence of the virus is needed to be able to be produced quickly.

The different phases of the study (phase 1 and 2) progressed quickly because people were working overtime to create the studies and analyze the data. No steps were skipped; vaccine developers worked harder and faster to bring us a vaccine against the COVID virus.

Should you get a COVID vaccine?

Absolutely yes. There are many reasons to get a COVID vaccine, but most importantly, it will protect you from serious illness, potential death, or long-term effects of COVID illness. We get a vaccine to protect not only ourselves but anyone we come in contact with, so we do this for all of us.  

Why are there different vaccines for coronavirus?

Different vaccine developers started to work on creating a vaccine as quickly and safely as possible. The different vaccines are also stored at different temperatures and the distribution processes for the vaccines have to be considered to be able to distribute the vaccines globally. We would be putting a lot of pressure on one company to make a vaccine for the whole world.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are RNA vaccines and are made easily in modern laboratories. Janssen and AstraZeneca vaccines are DNA vaccines, with the spike protein DNA inserted into a non-infectious cold virus. These vaccines can also be changed quickly to adjust for the new SARS CoV2 variants that have emerged. We can anticipate getting booster vaccines that will take into account the new viral variants.

Where can I get a vaccine?

You can find vaccines in numerous sites throughout the state of Rhode Island, including Lifespan, CVS and Walgreens, and other locations. You can find a complete list here on the Rhode Island Department of Health website.

Karen Tashima, MD

Karen Tashima, MD, is the director of clinical trials at the Immunology Center, and is the clinical research site leader for The Miriam Hospital, a research site of the Harvard/Boston/Providence AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) Unit. She also oversees the Lifespan Clinical Research Center collaboration with the specimen processing laboratory at The Miriam Hospital.