Are you sure you don’t want to get a COVID-19 vaccine?

By Freda Miklin Staff Writer

Think about it. Now that masks are increasingly not required to be worn, the most likely community spread of the COVID-19 virus will occur when one unvaccinated, unmasked person encounters others who are also unmasked and unvaccinated.

Statewide, 2,321,855 people have been fully vaccinated in Colorado as of May 16, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In Arapahoe County, 54 percent of all eligible people have gotten at least one dose. In Douglas County, that number is 60 percent. Those percentages went down in the past few days, because 12 to 15-year-olds just became eligible to be vaccinated on May 12, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to get vaccines. Mathematically speaking, the denominator increased before the numerator could catch up, so the value of the fraction went down.

While everyone was focused on the topic of achieving herd immunity that would lead to the removal of COVID-19 restrictions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surprised many by announcing on May 13 that people who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks or socially distance in most settings (except several categories of highly trafficked public areas, such as transportation centers including airports and airplanes, and medical facilities like hospitals). The next day, Colorado Governor Jared Polis followed suit and announced that Coloradans will no longer be required to wear masks in most public places. Even students and teachers in K-12, at the option of their school district, are no longer required to wear masks if they are vaccinated. All remaining state rules designed to stop the spread of COVID-19 will expire on June 1. 

It was made clear that privately owned businesses had the right to still require masks if they chose to do so. In short order, many retailers, including Costco, Walmart, Trader Joe’s, Target, CVS, Starbucks, Chipotle’s, and some personal service businesses began to announce that masks would no longer be required. Although it is intended that the no-mask requirement be applicable to those who are vaccinated, no one is going to check to see who is and who isn’t. The plan is based on the honor system. 

Doctors who participated in a town hall about the COVID-19 vaccines were (clockwise, from the top left) Emily Bates, Kweku Hazel, Ross Kedl, and Lisa Miller.

These changes made the panel discussion held on May 12 about vaccine safety, featuring University of Colorado Anschutz School of Medicine (Anschutz) Doctors Emily Bates, Kweku Hazel, and Ross Kedl, and Dr. Lisa Miller of the Colorado School of Public Health, more important than ever. The panel was sponsored by the Colorado Springs-based Denver Gazette online newspaper and moderated by Channel 9’s director of reporting, Chris Vanderveen.

Dr. Bates, a professor of pediatrics at Anschutz, began the conversation by explaining that a vaccine is a tool that causes one’s immune system to build a defense against a virus before it encounters the virus.

Dr. Kedl, professor of immunology and microbiology at Anschutz, shared that he was a participant in an early vaccine trial. “With my medical knowledge, I could tell I got the actual vaccine and was able to detect that my body was creating antibodies in a very impressive way and at an impressive rate,” he said, adding, “So far, all the data is really good for all the vaccines.”

In response to the question, “Where do we go now?” Dr. Miller, professor of epidemiology and director of the preventive medicine residency program, as well as associate deal for public health practice at the Colorado School of Public Health, said, “We have really great vaccines, even better ones than any of us expected. Getting vaccinated is our way out of this. We still have an access problem for some people. Some couldn’t get there, some had questions. We are now making it more available in doctors’ offices and in pharmacies. People need to hear from their own physicians that the vaccine is safe. It’s a slower and more individualistic process.”

To the question, “What do you tell people who don’t trust the system and don’t want to get vaccinated yet?  Dr. Hazel, surgical fellow at Anschutz said, “When I hear hesitancy or apathy or they just don’t trust the system, the first thing I think about is 1) Can I listen to them and hear what their exact concerns are? 2) Can I provide them with accurate information so they can make an informed decision for themselves and their family? I tell them about the safety and the effectiveness of the vaccine. I tell them they are doing this not just for themselves but for the community.”

Vanderveen posited, “There is lots of skepticism out there about everything. People think about how quickly this vaccine was developed. How do you get over that fear that some people have?”

Dr. Bates answered, “It is difficult for people to know who to trust. I share my own knowledge and my own experience in the lab. I tell them these vaccine methods were developed long before this virus hit. There were clinical trials going on. We know these are safe. We know how long MRNA (the methodology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) stays in our bodies and that it’s not going to hurt us.”

Dr. Kedl’s response was, “The question of how fast the vaccine was developed comes up a lot. (This was the fastest vaccine ever developed). The second fastest was the mumps, which took 4 years, but that was in the 1960’s. We do lots of things faster than we did 60 years ago.” He also pointed out that there was a lot of data available before this vaccine was created and that it uses a slightly novel method to trick the immune system into creating antibodies. Additionally, “These vaccines hit the market so much faster because Operation Warpspeed allowed that to happen, including manufacturing the vaccine ahead of when it was approved, which is extremely unusual. They did not take any safety shortcuts whatsoever.” 

Dr. Bates was asked if the vaccine presents a risk to pregnant women or children. She said, “The clinical trial data was just released but it looks just beautiful.” The Villager found that a press release from Pfizer-Biontech explained that there were 2,260 12 to 15-year-olds in their Phase 3 trial; 1,131 subjects got the vaccine and 1,129 received the placebo. None of the 1,131 adolescents who got the real vaccine developed COVID-19, while 18 of the 1,129 adolescents who got the placebo contracted the virus. Adverse effects such as arm pain and temporary aches and fever were found at the same rate as exists in adults. The doctors on this panel noted that there are presently vaccine trials in process for children aged 5 to 11.

Importantly, Dr. Bates explained, “Pregnant women are more vulnerable to COVID. Those who gets it are more likely to need to be hospitalized and require a ventilator than others who are not pregnant. Over 35,000 women have gotten the vaccine while pregnant. Miscarriages and other complications did not occur at a higher rate than in the general population.”

When a caller asked if the program was all pro-vaccine, Vanderveen said, “Yes. All these are doctors who have worked with the vaccine and believe in it.”

On the question of herd immunity, Dr. Miller said, “As scientists, that isn’t something we talk about. Herd immunity is great, but we are focused on getting every single person vaccinated that we can get vaccinated. We will have to have it approved for children to get to 70% or 80%.”

Vanderveen asked the panel if “we know if the vaccine has led to any deaths.” Dr. Kedl replied, “For the MNRA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna), death is not an endpoint that has been identified, though some people who got it died. There is no causality and no correlation. There is a reporting system for any adverse effects that anyone gets. Those are analyzed. There have been no deaths caused by MNRA vaccines. There are rare blood clotting disorders that were erroneously treated with Heparin (a drug used to prevent blood clots) with the Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines. Now they are being treated with the correct medicine.”

On the question of whether vaccinated people can still transmit the virus, Dr. Kedl responded, “The reason everyone should get the vaccine is that it makes you safe to be around other people. Being vaccinated keeps you from spreading the virus. The New England Journal of Medicine has now published two different studies…that show that vaccinated people do not transmit the virus.”

Dr. Bates summed up her views by stating that of all the scientists and doctors with whom she works, “I don’t know anyone I work with, including medical students, who is hesitant to get these vaccines. Everyone I work with wanted it. We all looked at the data.” Dr Kedl agreed, adding, “The people who are the most highly trained all want to get the vaccine. Scientists who evaluate the data critically see that the preponderance of data favors the vaccine. To begin with, anyone who is fully vaccinated doesn’t need to wear a mask or socially distance, so that is a way of encouraging people to get vaccinated.”

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