COVID-19 FAQs: Variants, vaccines and long-term effects

Sanford Health doctors answer your questions about the ongoing pandemic

COVID-19 FAQs: Variants, vaccines and long-term effects

As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, so does health care’s effort to provide the best answers. It’s a process that continues to evolve as providers take on the obstacles that come with keeping people healthy and safe.

The following is a sampling of the medical issues involving the virus that come across Sanford Health social media platforms. In some cases the answers change over time as science responds to COVID-19’s twists and turns within our communities.

Importantly, the science has not changed on this key point:

“This continues to be a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said Jeremy Cauwels, M.D., Sanford Health’s chief physician. “Unfortunately those folks that haven’t gotten the vaccine continue to be the highest risk of people that we see coming into the hospital right now.”

What vaccine is the best?

Health officials do not pick favorites on which COVID-19 vaccine to take. All currently authorized and recommended COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and CDC does not recommend one vaccine over another. The most important decision is to get a COVID-19 vaccination. Widespread vaccination is a critical tool to help stop the pandemic.

The vaccines are not exactly the same but they accomplish the same things, health officials say. The main difference is the number of recommended doses.

Patients 18 and older who received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines should get a booster, if it’s been at least six months since their second dose.

Patients 18 and older who received the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine should get a booster, if it’s been at least two months after their first dose.

Will vaccines end the pandemic?

The short answer to that is yes — if enough people get vaccinated. Getting the vaccine helps protect you from getting sick or severely ill with COVID-19, but no vaccine is 100%.

For the best protection, get all of the recommended doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. There have been breakthrough cases of fully vaccinated people contracting COVID-19, but these cases are a small percentage of the overall vaccinated population.

The CDC is still learning how many people have to be vaccinated against COVID-19 for the population to be considered protected. The necessary percentage needed to establish herd immunity varies among experts.

Is the delta variant more deadly?

For sure, the variant is more contagious. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the delta variant is more than twice as contagious as previous variants. It is also more contagious to children than previous variants.

It is now responsible for over 99% of all cases tracked in the United States, according to the latest data from the CDC.

Fortunately, the vaccines are effective against the delta variant.

“The vaccine does a very good job against the delta variant,” Dr. Cauwels said. “It’s not quite as effective in preventing an infection — like you’re getting the virus in your nose — but it’s still very effective in preventing you from being hospitalized or ending up on a ventilator or dying. Those are really the steps we wanted to make sure it took.”

What are the long-term effects of COVID?

Most people with COVID-19 get better within weeks of illness, the CDC states, though some people experience post-COVID conditions.

Post-COVID conditions are a wide range of new, returning, or ongoing health problems people can experience four or more weeks after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Even people who did not have COVID-19 symptoms in the days or weeks after they were infected can have post-COVID conditions. These conditions can present as different types and combinations of health problems for different lengths of time.

These post-COVID conditions may also be known as long COVID, long-haul COVID, post-acute COVID-19, long-term effects of COVID, or chronic COVID. CDC and experts around the world are working to learn more about short- and long-term health effects associated with COVID-19, who gets them, and why.

Related: Nationwide ‘long COVID’ study opens at Sanford

“The long haulers syndrome appears to affect children, teenagers and adolescents at about the same rate it does adults,” said Dr. Cauwels. “They are seeing kids who had very mild cases of COVID who now have troubles with exercise tolerance and heart palpitations.”

Are vaccines effective against the delta variant?

“The delta variant is easily transmissible, which is why we’re seeing an uptick in cases particularly in those who are not vaccinated,” said Sanford Health Clinic vice president Joshua Crabtree, M.D. “We are seeing more protection from these vaccines relative to the variant and we can still feel safe the vaccine works.”

The CDC states: COVID-19 vaccines approved or authorized in the United States are highly effective at preventing severe disease and death, including against the delta variant. But they are not 100% effective, and some fully vaccinated people will become infected (called a breakthrough infection) and experience illness. For all people, the vaccine provides the best protection against serious illness and death.

The CDC reports low vaccination coverage in many communities is driving the current rapid surge in cases involving the delta variant, which also increases the chances that even more concerning variants could emerge.

Does natural immunity offer better protection than the vaccine?

“What we can say right now is that natural immunity is definitely a thing — it’s how our body has always worked,” Dr. Cauwels said. “What we can also say as we’re looking into the population as a whole is that natural immunity does not do the job better than a vaccine.”

Dr. Cauwels acknowledged debate remains in scientific literature regarding vaccine vs. natural immunity.

“What we can safely say is that the best immunity that we can probably get is a combination of natural immunity, plus a dose of the vaccine,” Dr. Cauwels said. “It seems to be the most robust version of immunity we can find.”

How long do my antibodies last from when I contract COVID?

The CDC reports it is evaluating antibody protection and how long protection from antibodies might last.

Cases of reinfection and infection remain rare. Getting vaccinated, even if you have already had COVID-19, can help your body make more of these antibodies.

How is the delta variant different in terms of symptoms, spread and average age?

CDC data suggest the delta variant might cause more severe illness than previous variants in unvaccinated people. In recent studies the CDC reports infected patients were more likely to be hospitalized than those infected with the original virus that causes COVID-19. A majority of hospitalizations and death remain are in unvaccinated people, however.

In terms of the spread of the virus, the delta variant is more than twice as contagious according to the CDC and is much more likely to infect children.

Delta isn’t more harmful to one individual child than the variants before, but it’s much better at infecting than other variants.

“Even though the odds of going to the hospital are still very low, if you infect many more children, the total number in the hospital increases,” Dr. Cauwels said. “I think that’s the biggest risk point we talk about now.”

It seems like there are side effects to the vaccines that are not being talked about. What can we expect after getting vaccinated?

For some, the COVID-19 vaccine may cause mild side effects. This isn’t a bad thing. Side effects show the vaccine is working and your body is building an immune response. The most common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are injection site pain, soreness and swelling. These side effects will typically resolve after one or two days.

“The most common side effects are fatigue, headache and lymphadenopathy, or swelling in and around the armpit or the shoulder that you got the injection in,” Dr. Cauwels said. “And I will tell you that the headache and fatigue can be very real. It can knock people down and make people miserable for a day or two.”

Dr. Cauwels stressed that people should be cautious in regard to reports of vaccine side effects on the internet.

“People will try to attribute lots and lots of things to the vaccine,” he said. “They will say it causes strokes. They’ll say it causes heart attacks. They’ll say it causes miscarriages. As we look at the data what we can say is that those things aren’t happening more often in vaccinated patients.”

Information in this article was accurate when it was posted. As the COVID-19 pandemic changes, scientific understanding and guidelines may have changed since the original publication date.

Learn more

Posted In COVID-19, Frequently Asked Questions, Immunizations