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Experts answer your questions on vaccine side effects, omicron and more COVID-19 hot topics

This electron microscope image made available and color-enhanced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Md., shows Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 virus particles.  (HOGP)
This electron microscope image made available and color-enhanced by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Md., shows Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 virus particles. (HOGP)

Nearly two years into the pandemic, the end is still not in sight.

As the holidays approach and a new variant gains a foothold in Washington, health officials, physicians and modelers are encouraging all of the same things we’ve been doing all pandemic long to fend off the virus. But with each new variant, the mix of masking, distancing, testing and vaccines become increasingly important.

Omicron, which appears at this point to be even more transmissible than the delta variant, is no exception.

Coming up, experts answer some common questions about the virus, the new variant and the vaccines to fight off both.

Why is it still important for someone to get vaccinated at this point in the pandemic?

With omicron on the way, health officials are encouraging everyone who has not started the vaccination process to do so. This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel recommended the two mRNA vaccines, from Pfizer and Moderna, over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The two-dose vaccines are recommended above the Johnson & Johnson vaccine due to new data evaluated by the panel that found serious blood clotting in 54 patients with low platelet counts following vaccination, leading to nine deaths. This is a very small proportion of the 14 million doses of the vaccine given overall, however.

Fully vaccinated people who contract COVID-19 are far less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus than unvaccinated peers in all age groups in Washington, according to state health data.

Even if a person doesn’t need to be hospitalized, the risk of long COVID, or symptoms that linger after infection, is still there for healthy people who contract the virus.

Dr. Geoff Jones, family physician at Newport Health and Hospital, pointed out that even if getting the virus results in a mild illness for a person, the hassle of having to isolate and be out of work for up to two weeks is something he couldn’t afford as a doctor.

Additionally, getting vaccinated also protects the most vulnerable around us, from immunocompromised people to babies and young toddlers who cannot yet be immunized.

“We have to protect those that aren’t going to mount an immune response,” Jones said.

How do we develop immunity to a disease?

Community or herd immunity is something built not just with COVID-19, but other infectious diseases and viruses.

Jones works with his pregnant patients to get vaccinated against pertussis, or whooping cough, which can be deadly to newborns.

Jones said protecting the baby means that everyone who will be around them needs to form a protective cocoon. Jones recalled not only parents but aunts, uncles and grandparents coming to get vaccinated against pertussis in anticipation of the new baby.

The COVID vaccine is similar, in that the more people who get vaccinated, the more protective an environment is created around those who can’t get vaccinated.

“You have to protect those who are vulnerable,” Jones said.

Why do we get side effects from vaccines?

Following vaccinations for flu or COVID-19, it’s not uncommon to feel under the weather. From a muscle ache at the injection site to fevers, chills or other feelings of sickness, it’s normal to feel unwell for a day or two following a vaccine.

“The side effects you feel are your immune system working,” Jones explained.

Arms get sore as our immune system recognizes the new proteins from the vaccine and attack it. With the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines, our cells are reading the blueprints for COVID-19 and then our immune system reacts.

Some people naturally react stronger to vaccines than others. So vaccines for some people mean no side effects, while others get knocked off their feet for a few days.

“Those side effects you feel is proof your immune system is working, and it can still work with you not feeling it acutely, which is nice and lucky,” Jones said.

Is immunity from having COVID going to protect me from new variants?

Each variant of COVID-19 is essentially a different virus, which means that while getting the virus might offer some protection in the immediate months following a person’s recovery, the long-term immunity is questionable.

Scientists have studied people who got COVID-19 and then got vaccinated, and this group of people appear to have some of the most robust immune responses.

Additionally, a Kentucky-based study from the CDC found that people who had the virus but did not get vaccinated were more than two times as likely to get the virus again than those who got vaccinated after they recovered.

Vaccination is also a more reliable way to guarantee an immune response than getting the virus. With omicron on the way, it’s possible for those who have already had COVID-19 to get it again.

“I fully expect that’s what we’re going to see: folks who were infected in early 2020 will start getting reinfected,” Jones said. “Hopefully it’s mild for them.”

Why do we need booster shots?

The COVID vaccines, while incredibly effective against the virus, wane in effectiveness over time. For people who received the mRNA vaccines, boosters are recommended six months after your last dose. If you received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a booster is recommended two months after your shot.

“There’s a significant increase in protective antibodies with the administration of booster shots,” Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez told reporters last week.

Preliminary studies from England, South Africa and most recently from MIT show that boosters can increase protection against the omicron variant, Velázquez said.

Experts don’t yet know how often we will need COVID vaccines, but it is possible that it becomes a series of shots, King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin told reporters.

“I would not be surprised if in the future, it’s thought of as a three-dose series,” he said.

How will omicron impact me if I am vaccinated? Boosted?

There is no data yet on omicron and its impact on Washington residents. However, other countries and preliminary reports from the United States show that fully vaccinated and boosted people can still contract the variant.

Vaccines are expected to continue to protect people from severe illness, hospitalization and death, however.

In its initial study of people with omicron, the CDC found in a group of 43 people who tested positive with the variant, only one person was hospitalized and most experienced mild symptoms.

“We can expect to see reinfections and breakthroughs,” Duchin said. “For the majority of us who are vaccinated, our vaccines should work against severe infection.”

How contagious is omicron?

Omicron is very contagious. More is being learned each day about exactly how much more contagious it is than delta, but early reports show that it’s very efficient at spreading, particularly indoors.

A series of wrestling tournaments in Washington earlier this month turned into superspreader events, with an estimated 200 cases confirmed, and some of those cases have been confirmed to be omicron.

King County public health officials are projecting the highest daily case counts the county has seen the entire pandemic through the end of December and into January.

“We expect the number of cases to double every two to three days and see more outbreaks,” Duchin told reporters last week.

It’s unclear how much the new variant will impact already full hospitals statewide. And even if many people don’t require hospitalization, the sheer number of cases projected means that some will likely need to be hospitalized.

“It’s this large number of people who will be infected at one time that’s the concern, which is why we’re asking people to consider multiple risk-reduction measures to decrease the spread,” Duchin said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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