A prominent question among many of us these days is whether we should get the COVID-19 vaccine or not. As a cardiologist, my patients know they are at high risk from COVID because of their age and health problems, but they are also unsure if the vaccine’s benefits outweigh the risks. The question I get over and over is, “Should I get the COVID vaccine?”
I understand the uncertainty because we don’t have years of information to help with our decision. COVID has been around for less than a year, and the vaccines have only become available in the last several weeks. Because of this, there are many unanswered questions about both COVID and the vaccines, which means any decision is based on incomplete information and comes with some uncertainties.
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The five most important things I tell my patients about the vaccine
Here are the five most important things I tell my patients about what we know and don’t know about the vaccines and COVID. This information is primarily from the published research for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations.
1. The vaccines are effective in preventing COVID infection.
Taken together, the two largest published trials of the COVID vaccines published show approximately 95% less COVID infection in over 73,000 people who received both doses of the vaccine compared to those who received placebo.
- In the Pfizer study, eight infections in 21,720 who received the vaccination and 162 in 21,728 who received the placebo seven days after the 2nd dose.
- In the Moderna study, 11 infections in 15,210 who received the vaccination and 185 in 15,210 who received the placebo 14 days after the 2nd dose.
2. The vaccines are effective in preventing severe illness from COVID.
- In the Pfizer study, of the ten people who developed severe COVID illness after the first dose, nine were in the placebo group.
- In the Moderna study, 30 people developed severe COVID illness. All occurred in the group that received the placebo.
3. The near-term side effects are minor.
Both vaccines showed an increase in minor temporary side effects in the vaccine group compared to the placebo, such as pain at the injection site, headache, fever, and fatigue. The Moderna vaccine had slightly higher rates of minor side effects (40-60% of people) than the Pfizer vaccine (20-50%). Severe side effects were low and similar between the placebo and vaccine groups.
4. The life-threatening danger of getting COVID infection is many times worse than the vaccine.
There were no deaths in either study blamed on the vaccine. In comparison, the death rate for COVID-19 has been most recently estimated to be 1.7%. In the over 73,000 people included in these two studies, a similar death rate would be over 1,200 deaths.
5. We don’t know the long-term side effects of the vaccine. But we don’t know the long-term side effects from COVID either.
Both studies have only followed people for two months. Therefore, we don’t know if any long-term side effects may occur in those vaccinated. However, we do have incomplete but concerning information about the long-term side effects from COVID infection (so called “long haulers’.) An estimated 10 to 30% of people who have otherwise recovered from COVID infection report ongoing issues such as brain fog, fatigue, and shortness of breath, among many others.
I understand the decision to get the COVID vaccine or not is complex.
My experience with many of my physician colleagues was a transition from being skeptical several months ago about getting the vaccination to recommending it after analyzing the remarkably positive results of the early vaccine trials and seeing the devastating consequences of COVID infection first-hand.
Each person’s decision is a personal one, and if you remain undecided, I recommend talking to your doctor to understand your risks and benefits best.
For me, I will be vaccinated. And I’m recommending the same for my family, loved ones, and patients.
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Originally from New Mexico, he completed his training at the Mayo Clinic Arizona where he spent 12 years as an associate professor of medicine in the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine, founding director of the Heart Health and Performance Program, and the Carla J. and Russell P.