Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

August 3, 2021
Epidemiologist answers frequent questions about COVID-19 vaccines

Data from the Utah Department of Health indicates that COVID-19 vaccines have been successful at protecting individuals from infection with the novel coronavirus.

The DOH reported 4,507 confirmed breakthrough cases — positive COVID-19 tests in fully vaccinated people — which is 0.31% of the state’s 1.45 million residents that are fully vaccinated, as of Aug. 1.

The percent of vaccinated people that end up in the hospital or die as a result of their breakthrough COVID-19 illness is even smaller. 

The state reported 298 breakthrough cases in the state that were hospitalized, which is 0.02% of the fully vaccinated population. 

There were 10 deaths among the state’s fully vaccinated population, or 0.0009%, according to the DOH.

But when it comes to getting vaccinated, Tooele County ranks lower than the state average.

Also as of Aug.1, 2021, 46.3% of all Utahns were fully vaccinated for COVID-19, while 39.4% of all Tooele County residents were vaccinated, according to the DOH.

The state vaccination rate is a few points lower than the national average.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 Data Tracker, 49.7% of the U.S. population was fully vaccinated as of Aug. 2, 2021.

The Tooele Transcript Bulletin asked John Contreras, Ph.D, MSPH, an epidemiologist who serves as the deputy director of the Tooele County Health Department, some questions about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. His answers can be found below.

Q: Is the vaccine safe? After all, it’s still experimental. Its development was rushed to get only an emergency authorization from the FDA.

The vaccines have been thoroughly tested with intense monitoring and have been found safe and effective in preventing a COVID-19 infection in millions of people who have received the vaccine or preventing severe outcomes if a person is symptomatic. There are very few breakthrough cases that have experienced severe outcomes. Although, given the millions of doses that have been administered severe outcomes are rare. 

Q. This new mRNA stuff, isn’t that some kind of genetic alteration that will change my DNA?

It is important for people to know that mRNA vaccines are a new technology, but they are not unknown, they have been studied for decades going back to 1990 in animal studies. This new technology allows for a standardized and scaled-up process, which makes the development of a vaccine much faster than the previous traditional methods of making vaccines. This technology has been used in cancer research to trigger the immune system to target specific cancer cells. The mRNA from the vaccine does not alter the recipient’s DNA, is broken down shortly after vaccination, and does not stay in the body. mRNA provides instructions to produce the spike protein. The person’s immune system will then recognize this protein as foreign and produce antibodies to attack it. It does not do anything to a person’s DNA.

Q: Didn’t I read something about blood clots killing young healthy people that got the vaccine? I’ve heard they’re covering up over 6,000 deaths from the vaccine that have been reported to the FDA on their own website. 

An article stated that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mentioned that 4,178 Americans died after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine between Dec. 14, 2020, and May 3, 2021.  However, it was missing key context relative to a causal relationship between receiving the vaccine and death. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System — VAERS — accepts any report of an adverse event regardless without any proof that it was caused by the vaccine. After CDC reviewed the available clinical information that includes medical records, death certificates, etc., no causal link was found to the link to COVID-19 vaccines.

There were close to seven million Johnson & Johnson vaccines administered prior to the April 2021 vaccine pause. Six cases,all women, experienced a blood clot in the brain, known as cerebral venous sinus thrombosis  — CVST — which is a rare condition and a similar condition that has been seen in some patients after treatment with heparin. 

In addition, people are more likely to develop a serious blood clot if they are infected with COVID-19 than they are from a vaccine to prevent the disease. The FDA concluded that the risk of receiving the vaccine significantly outweighs the risk of developing CVST. It is these rare side effects that have given some people pause about whether to receive the vaccine or vaccinate their children 12+.

 Q. But is it really effective and worth the risk? I’ve heard of people that got the vaccine and then got COVID anyway. Why risk it, the side effects of the vaccine are worse than getting COVID.

While some people that receive the vaccine may develop symptoms as their immune system responds, remember that this is common when receiving any vaccine and not considered serious or life-threatening. COVID-19 can be serious and life-threatening. You cannot get COVID-19 infection from the COVID-19 vaccines; they are inactivated vaccines and not live viruses. Again, the vaccine outweighs the temporary side effects, if you have them. 

Q. How about the new Delta variant, is the vaccine effective against that? If it is, why is the CDC now recommending that fully vaccinated people should wear masks in public places?

The Delta variant is incredibly contagious. The vaccines thus far have shown that they are effective in protecting against the Delta variant; although it is still possible to get infected, the vaccine significantly reduces the risk for a serious outcome that may require hospitalization or lead to death. Let’s simplify this, if you live in an area where COVID-19 is surging, which would most likely be the Delta variant, you need to wear a mask indoors if you are in a public place and do not know the vaccination status of the surrounding people. Remember, the Delta variant is extremely contagious. If you are indoors in a public place your risk of exposure to COVID-19 greatly increases. If you have been vaccinated and become infected with COVID-19 you may also transmit it to someone else who may be a high-risk individual. You should be fine outdoors but maintain some social distancing. Now is the time to help reverse the course of this disease.

Q. What about herd immunity? Why don’t we just let people get COVID, the survival rate is like 99.9%, and get to herd immunity naturally, isn’t that better than a vaccine?

Herd immunity can be complicated and for it to be effective we need to vaccinate the majority of the people, and we need to assume lasting immunity is possible.  If we do not take measures to protect high-risk individuals from COVID-19 then we will overwhelm (even more) our hospitals and medical system; our mortality will significantly increase and developing natural immunity to COVID-19 may not protect you from other COVID-19 variants.  For example, every year we have different strains of influenza that are not covered by the annual flu vaccine. 

Q. I’m in the low-risk younger age group without underlying conditions. Why should I get the vaccine? My risk of dying from COVID is almost zero or at least certainly far less than dying from any other disease I could get?

If you are a healthy low-risk young individual, your risks are even lower to experience a serious outcome from COVID-19; although there are no guarantees that you will not have a severe outcome.  In addition, you should consider receiving the vaccine to protect those who are high-risk and help reverse the incidence of this disease. 

Q. How can we protect children under 12 and others that may not be able to get a vaccine for medical reasons?

Also, practice safe guidelines with children — refer to CDC guidelines.  Although, the first line of protection is to get vaccinated if you are frequently around children under 12, or children in general. In school the CDC guidelines are clear. CDC recommends schools maintain at least 3 feet of physical distance between students within classrooms, combined with indoor mask-wearing by people who are not fully vaccinated, to reduce transmission risk. When it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least 3 feet, such as when schools cannot fully reopen while maintaining these distances, it is especially important to layer multiple other prevention strategies, such as indoor masking.

 Screening testing, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with quarantine and isolation, and cleaning and disinfection are also important layers of prevention to keep schools safe.

Tim Gillie

Editor at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Tim has been writing for the Transcript Bulletin since October 2017. In February 2019 he was named as editor. In addition to being editor, Tim continues to write about Tooele County government, education, business, real estate, housing, politics and the state Legislature.A native of Washington state and a graduate of Central Washington University, Tim became a journalist after a 20 year career with the Boy Scouts of America.

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