With SMH Infectious Disease Specialist Manuel Gordillo, MD, & Chief Medical Officer James Fiorica, MD
Note: Click here for a newer COVID-19 vaccine Q&A with SMH experts.
With COVID-19 vaccine distribution beginning across the U.S. hospitals, we know you have questions about the vaccines, their availability and their safety. Below, SMH medical experts address some of our community’s most commonly asked questions about the vaccines, and we take a look at what the vaccine rollout means in the global fight against novel coronavirus.
(Please note that information and guidance regarding COVID-19 vaccines is rapidly changing. This content was originally posted Dec. 15, 2020 and was last updated Jan. 11, 2021; the video Q&A below was recorded Dec. 18, 2020.)
COVID-19 Vaccine Fast Facts
Stopping the COVID-19 pandemic requires putting all available tools to use:
COVID-19 vaccines, mask-wearing, social distancing, handwashing and avoiding crowded areas.
COVID-19 vaccines DO NOT use live virus
and cannot give someone COVID-19.
COVID-19 vaccines require 2 shots, given 3 to 4 weeks apart;
to get maximum protection for the vaccine, both doses are required.
Vaccine supply is limited, so certain groups (healthcare workers, longterm-care facility residents
and other high-risk populations) will be prioritized as distribution begins.
Getting vaccinated helps protect you and those around you from getting or spreading COVID-19.
Frequently Asked Questions
Have a vaccine question that you’d like to “Ask an SMH Expert”? Email it to AskAnExpert@smh.com.
Is there a COVID-19 vaccine that has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?
The FDA has not yet approved any vaccine to prevent COVID-19, but it recently issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s use in individuals age 16 and older and for the Moderna vaccine's use in those age 18 and older.
Who is currently eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination?
The vaccine distribution rollout is based on guidelines from the state and federal governments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends that Phase 1 vaccinations be first allocated to healthcare personnel and long-term care residents; then offered to other frontline essentials workers and people age 65+; and finally, those age 16 to 64 years with underlying medical conditions that increase their risk of severe COVID-19.
On Dec. 23, 2020 — with COVID-19 vaccine supplies still limited across the U.S. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order allowing Florida providers to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to the following groups during this first round of vaccine administration: healthcare personnel, long-term care residents and staff, seniors age 65 and older, and those people that hospital providers deem "extremely vulnerable to COVID-19."
Is Sarasota Memorial administering the COVID-19 vaccine?
Since receiving its first allocation of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 22, 2020, Sarasota Memorial has vaccinated about 15,000 people, including our healthcare staff and active volunteers; local, non SMH-employed healthcare providers; and community members age 65 and older.
Due to our limited vaccine supply, SMH does not currently have any community vaccination events planned. While our vaccine inventory is not sufficient to schedule further first-round doses at this time, SMH leadership will continue to explore ways that we can help our federal, state and community partners' public vaccination efforts.
Click here for updates on our vaccination efforts.
For updates on the Department of Health's future community vaccination events: monitor local news media; regularly check sarasotahealth.org; and text SRQCOVID19 to 888777 for state updates via text messaging.
Is SMH maintaining a waiting list of community members wishing to be vaccinated?
SMH is not maintining a waiting list for future community vaccine distribution. If this changes, we will alert the public through news media and on our COVID-19 webpage, smh.com/covid-19.
For information on community vaccine distribution in Sarasota, visit sarasotahealth.org.
When will vaccines be widely available for everyone?
Bottom line? No one knows for sure. It all depends on the availability of vaccine supplies.
In addition to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that recently received FDA emergency use authorization, other COVID-19 vaccines are in the FDA pipeline. As more vaccines become available, supplies should increase and more people will be able to get vaccinated.
According to the CDC, the goal is for everyone to be able to easily get vaccinated as soon as large enough vaccine quantities are available. Once supply is stable and vaccination is offered to the general public, the CDC said, community-vaccination providers will include doctors’ offices, retail pharmacies, some hospitals and federally qualified health centers.
“It could be summer before the whole population in the United States can be vaccinated,” said Sarasota Memorial Chief Medical Officer James Fiorica, MD. “I hope it's sooner, but in the meantime, we need to protect ourselves, and we need to protect our neighbors. We need to use the masks, do the handwashing, do the social distancing and not let down our guard. This isn't over yet, and it won't be until we can get the whole population vaccinated.”
I’m worried that the vaccine isn’t safe because its development and clinical trials were “fast-tracked.” Did they cut corners to get it produced so fast?
The science, technology and research behind the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines are solid, having followed all the strict guidelines and proper protocols. The vaccines have proven to be safe and effective in clinical trials, which have involved tens of thousands of people.
“During a pandemic, to have a vaccine this safe and effective is a dream come true,” said SMH Infectious Disease specialist Manuel Gordillo, MD.
The expedited development was not due to “cutting corners,” but instead the result of ample resources — on a global scale — and other supporting factors:
- The global push to find a solution to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many scientists were working to the same end.
- Funding was plentiful, as were willing clinical trial participants.
“When these kinds of projects aren’t well funded or there aren’t enough cases, it can take years to develop — 7, 8, 10 years,” explained Dr. Gordillo. “But during this pandemic, the projects have been well funded, and there have been plenty of patients all over the world willing to participate in the trials, so they have been able to condense the process to 1 year.
“They’ve done an impeccable job every step of the way, and no steps were skipped. They just had proper resources to achieve the vaccines quickly.”
- The foundation for these vaccines has been in the works for a decade.
“We've been talking about this for at least 10 years,” said Dr. Gordillo. “We knew that in the U.S., the vaccine development process is way too slow, and if a pandemic would come, there would be no time to react.”
Thanks to this foresight, scientists have been working on these types of vaccines (mRNA) for a variety of illnesses — SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola, newer influenza vaccines and even some seasonal coronaviruses — which gave them a huge head start when it was time to work on COVID-19 vaccines.
“When COVID-19 came along in January, the scientists were not starting from scratch,” Dr. Gordillo said. “Once they knew the sequence of the virus, they were able to develop a seed vaccine within about 3 weeks.”
Will the Moderna and/or Pfizer vaccines protect us against the new, mutated coronavirus strain that surfaced in Europe and is now in the U.S.?
It is normal and expected for novel viruses to change and evolve as they spread, and scientists have been tracking variant strains throughout the pandemic. Just as with influenza vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccines have been tested for their ability to neutralize multiple mutant strains, and to date, scientists have found consistent coverage of all the strains tested. Although there is no reason to believe the antibody response achieved from the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines will be compromised by the new strain, both companies are collecting data from people who have received the shot and running tests on the new strain during the next few weeks to prove the vaccines’ effectiveness.
“The new strain has been circulating for several months, and appears to be more contagious,” explained Dr. Gordillo. “If the virus spreads faster, it will be harder to control, which is why it is even more important for people to continue following the public health recommendations and precautions — mask wearing, physical distancing and practicing hand hygiene — AND to get vaccinated as soon as possible to help stop further mutation.
“We know that the spike protein of this virus can change in a very short time, so the faster we vaccinate, the less chance we give this virus to undermine our vaccination efforts.”
Why should I be vaccinated?
Vaccines protect you and those around you from getting or spreading the disease.
“The goal is to get everybody vaccinated, so we can safely achieve herd immunity, which will allow us to go back to our normal activities and the normalcy that we have all been looking forward for so long,” Dr. Gordillo said.
Herd immunity is basically a protective bubble around ourselves and our community. We can only achieve it once enough people have gotten vaccinated or actually gotten the disease, and widespread vaccination is the safest way to do this.
People who get COVID-19 can have serious illnesses, and some have debilitating symptoms that persist for months. While you may have some short-term antibody protection after recovering from COVID-19, we don’t know how long this protection lasts. Vaccination offers the best protection.
At this time, the Pfizer vaccine is not recommended for children younger than 16 years of age and the Moderna is not recommended for those younger than 18, because researchers do not know enough about how the vaccine can affect children. The vaccines also may not be recommended to those with certain health conditions. Immunocompromised individuals (and those whose medications affect their immune system), women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and anyone with questions or concerns about receiving the vaccine should talk to their healthcare provider(s) before getting one.
Should people with auto-immune disorders, or those who take medications that weaken the immune system, get vaccinated against COVID-19?
Adults of any age with certain underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from the virus that causes COVID-19. The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines may be administered to people with underlying medical conditions provided they have not had a severe allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in the vaccine.
Anyone concerned about existing medical conditions should ask their doctor whether the vaccine is right for them, but we generally advocate vaccination because the protection against COVID-19 that it affords typically outweighs the risks.
Why do I need two doses? What if I don’t get the second dose?
Both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines require getting the full dose in 2 shots. The first shot helps the immune system recognize the virus; the second shot strengthens the immune response. Skipping the second shot means you would not have the full protection of the vaccine, so you would be at a higher risk for COVID-19 infection than those who followed through with getting both shots.
The 2 shots will need to be administered within 3 to 4 weeks of each other, depending on the type of vaccine you receive. COVID-19 vaccines are not interchangeable, so it's very important that both doses are of the same vaccine.
Is it OK to get vaccinated if I am pregnant, plan to get pregnant or am breastfeeding?
Because the COVID-19 vaccines currently available under emergency use authorization have not been tested in pregnant women, there’s no safety data specific to use in pregnancy. But based on what we know about COVID-19, pregnant women face increased risk of severe illness from the virus, compared to those who are not pregnant.
The mRNA vaccines are not live-virus vaccines, so they cannot give someone COVID-19; nor are they thought to be a risk to a breastfeeding infant. These vaccines do not enter the nucleus and do not alter human DNA in vaccine recipients. As a result, mRNA vaccines cannot cause any genetic changes.
In general, we advocate vaccination among pregnant women and those planning to get pregnant, but it is a personal decision and we encourage women to discuss their concerns with their OB-GYN or a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine.
What are potential vaccine side effects? Could it cause me to get a mild case of COVID-19?
The COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any of the actual virus. Because they do not use live virus, there is no chance that getting the shots can infect you or those around you (via vaccine “shedding”).
With any vaccinations, mild side effects are normal signs that your body is building protection. Those getting the COVID-19 vaccine will be monitored for side effects.
Side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine reported in clinical trials mirrored those typical of other vaccines and included fever, chills, headache, fatigue, joint pain and soreness/pain at the injection site. The symptoms may feel like a mild case of flu, but they should go away in a few days. Tylenol or Ibuprofen can be taken to manage side effects, if not contra-indicated by your doctor.
What side effects have staff experienced since SMH rolled out the Moderna vaccine for staff?
“We are seeing the normal symptoms you would expect when your body is working to build immunity, fatigue, body and muscle aches, raised temperature, temporary lymph node swelling,” Dr. Gordillo said. “This is not disease itself, but the body's response to the vaccine.”
Of more than 3,600 staff members and volunteers who were among the first wave to be vaccinated at SMH (Dec. 22-30), the vast majority said the side effects were minimal, mostly just soreness at the injection site. Some employees who required extra monitoring and/or treatment for symptoms such as rash, hives and dizziness, but none have had severe or anaphylactic reactions.
Is it OK to donate blood or convalescent plasma after taking the vaccine?
People who get the COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Moderna or Pfizer can continue to give blood without a wait period; however, vaccinated blood donors who do not know the type of COVID-19 vaccine they received must wait 4 weeks before giving blood. People who receive a COVID-19 vaccine are not eligible to donate convalescent plasma. Individual donation centers may have additional criteria, so check with your local center for guidance.
Your best protection from COVID-19 is a combination of getting a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to you, wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from others, avoiding crowds, and washing your hands often. No one tool alone is going to stop the pandemic.
Stay healthy: Be sure you and your family are up to date on your other vaccinations and preventative health to-dos, including flu shots, and regular checkups and screenings.
Stay tuned to smh.com/COVID-19 for updates on vaccines and SMH’s response to the continued pandemic.
** The above content was published Dec. 15, 2020 and was last updated Jan. 15, 2021; the video recorded Dec. 18, 2020. For the most up to date information on COVID-19, please also visit smh.com/COVID19 as well as the CDC’s website.