There are two things Sanford chief physician Jeremy Cauwels, M.D. is certain of: the novel coronavirus is not safe but getting the vaccine is safe.
In the first Facebook Live Q&A of 2021, Dr. Cauwels addressed the biggest topics and top questions regarding the virus, vaccines and flu season.
Sanford Health is now beginning to administer the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine for health care workers in Sioux Falls, 21 days after the first doses were given. This is part of the Phase 1a priority group including front line health care workers and long-term care residents. Moderna vaccine recipients wait 28 days between both doses.
“We need to get our people vaccinated and protecting themselves so they can protect and care for others,” Dr. Cauwels said.
Who’s next in the vaccine rollout?
The next phase, 1b, includes first responders and employees who work within Sanford Health and other health care settings who weren’t included in the first group of patient care employees.
Phase 1c includes the first group of patients.
“Phase 1c are folks over age 75, who have risk factors and have a higher risk for getting COVID-19 than others,” Dr. Cauwels said. “We’re very much looking forward to the possibility of getting to them in the very near future so we can start vaccinating our patients.”
It’s still unknown when the vaccine will be available to the general public. For example, it will take time to reach the 300,000 South Dakotans over age 65, in addition to the high-risk group.
“Some won’t be ready to get this vaccine when it’s their turn,” Dr. Cauwels explained. “But for those who are ready, we believe we will be able to do that in the near future and we will start with those folks first.”
For people who are generally healthy, Dr. Cauwels predicts vaccinations will expand to the general population between March and May.
“It’s a combination between how quickly can we get the vaccine to how quickly can we get it into people’s arms,” he said.
Once it gets closer to your turn to receive the vaccine, your primary care or provider’s office will distribute that information. Sanford Health patients will be able to use their My Sanford Chart account for step-by-step information about the vaccines and get set-up for vaccinations.
Sanford Health News will continue similar conversations with leaders to provide you updated, step-by-step information as soon as it becomes available.
What should I do while I wait for mine?
The rules don’t change, Dr. Cauwels said.
“We’re early in a pandemic vaccinate phase. Until we can get to that population portion where 70% of people have been protected from the virus, we can’t change our behavior that much.”
The most basic safety measures are still critical like washing our hands, maintaining physical distancing, staying home when we’re sick and wearing a mask. This includes everyone whether we’ve had the virus and now have the antibodies or we already received the vaccine. Those measures will likely continue to be important into the spring and summer months.
Are you wondering if you’ll need the vaccine with the antibodies? Current recommendations from the CDC indicate anyone who has tested positive for the coronavirus or antibodies, in the past, is still advised to get the vaccine.
Should children and pregnant women get vaccinated?
The vaccine is safe for most individuals over age 16.
There is separate testing underway for the vaccine in children. As Dr. Cauwels explains, the FDA and pharmaceutical companies did not undergo studying the vaccine in children right away and thus, held off recommending the vaccine at first.
“Most children are not the ones at highest risk for the disease. It’s important to balance who will get the sickest from COVID-19 with who we give the vaccine to. For us, that’s the older population.”
The vaccine is safe for pregnant women, women looking to become pregnant or expand their family in the future.
“Universally, our obstetricians have decided they would encourage this vaccine in pregnancy and would be willing to have a conversation with any woman who is pregnant, hoping to become pregnant or is making plans for baby in the future, to talk through why this vaccine is a wise idea.”
Contrary to circulating misinformation, this vaccine will not impact fertility, Dr. Cauwels explained. The spread of that information started after an internet discussion between a British physician and German businessman.
“How it got to the point it is now on the internet somewhat baffles me,” he said. “The concern was that the spike protein on a coronavirus was similar enough to a protein found in a placenta that the two would cross-react and somehow affect fertility. If that were true, then everyone who has had COVID-19 so far would see effects on their fertility. What we can say fairly certainly at this point, one year into the illness, we are not seeing infertile women because of a previous infection. The logic they used to say ‘this might happen’ has been disproven by society itself.”
Side effects, virus vs. the vaccine
The long-term effects from the novel coronavirus are serious.
“We are already seeing people who have lung problems and chronic fatigue nearly eight to 10 months after they were infected,” Dr. Cauwels said. “I think any one of those people would tell you, in a heartbeat, would gladly have taken a vaccination to avoid many months of difficulty breathing.”
Fibrosis in the lungs after a severe case could become a permanent or long-lived breathing problem, among other issues.
“That’s one of the things people forget about if they’ve only seen healthier individuals do generally well with their recovery,” he said.
Regarding the vaccine, people experienced effectively no long-term complications 60 days after getting vaccinated.
“We dosed 15,000 people and had less than 15 adverse reactions. In other words, 1 in 1,000 people had a reaction that would require medical attention and all of those patients were treated and released within 24 hours.”
Adverse reactions to the vaccines are uncommon, he adds, but they can occur. If you have questions about what to expect after the first or second dose, consult your primary care provider.
How long are we protected, immune post-vaccination?
People will become immune to the virus about a week after their second dose of the vaccination. How long that lasts is one of the things science will tell us, Dr. Cauwels said.
“Right now, from the studies, we know you’re immune for some period around six months. Every month we go past six months, studies will continue to update and look at whether or not people are immune or if they’re getting COVID-19 after their vaccination.”
Slow start to flu season
Influenza cases start to hit this time of year with the worst cases usually between January and February. Until this point, Dr. Cauwels said dramatically fewer cases of the flu have been reported here at home.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t have any but at this point, we will either have a much later flu outbreak or a minimal flu outbreak.”
The flu and COVID-19 are both passed from person-to-person in a similar way but the flu is not as infectious, especially while many of us are wearing masks and staying home when we’re sick.
More good news: People are getting their flu shots. Leaders are very happy to report the initial numbers in the fall were “fantastic.”
There are subtle differences between COVID-19 and influenza. The coronavirus comes on slowly — or not at all — which is why asymptomatic spread is a concern. The flu typically hits a patient hard and fast. Because of that, it doesn’t spread like COVID-19 because patients know they’re sick and stay home.
If you need one, flu shots are still available at any Sanford Health location.
“What we’ve proven is that someone could get influenza and COVID-19 at the same or similar time. I don’t think anyone wants to consider getting through COVID just in time to get the flu. Protecting yourself as well as you can from both illnesses is absolutely key in taking care of your health.”
What we’ve learned in 2020, according to Dr. Cauwels
- When science is allowed to move forward at the top speed it’s capable, you can do amazing things in a year.
- When you put people behind a common cause, they can do amazing things in a year.
“If you would have told me I’d have freezers that are 80 degrees below zero in seven locations, and distribute vaccines from all of them, I would have told you we have never done that before and now it’s something we do everyday.”
Form vaccines to infusions, health care workers have proven their ability to respond in this pandemic.
“It has been a challenging year; I don’t think you can find an ICU nurse or doctor who would tell you differently,” Dr. Cauwels said. “It is those health care workers that have carried us through this and provided us with the ability to care for a lot of people in a very short time period and do so with amazing grace.”
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