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Dr. Zorba Paster: COVID-19 vaccines are safe, misinformation is not

UPDATED: Wed., March 31, 2021

A member of the Philadelphia Fire Department prepares a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site setup in Philadelphia on March 26, 2021.  (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)
A member of the Philadelphia Fire Department prepares a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site setup in Philadelphia on March 26, 2021. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)
By Dr. Zorba Paster For The Spokesman-Review

Dear Dr. Paster: I’m worried about COVID-19 vaccine side effects. I’m allergic to eggs. For years, I didn’t get the flu vaccine until my doctor assured me it was safe. My hand swelled up last summer when I was stung by a bee. Do you think getting vaccinated is safe for me? – E.L., from Green Bay

Dear E.L.: You’re asking the right questions. Asking questions and getting reliable answers can be challenging. There’s so much misinformation on the web – the bad players put out nice-looking but fake statistics trying to bring down the curtain on COVID-19 vaccines.

Why they are doing it is a mystery to me. My goal is to shine a light on the right information using good science as my talisman. So on to your questions.

Yes, the COVID-19 vaccine is safe. We now know – based on millions of Pfizer and Moderna immunizations that have already taken place – what the risk is of a serious allergic reaction. Are you ready for my answer?

You are 10 times more likely to get struck by lightning than you are to have anaphylaxis, the most serious allergic reaction there is, from these vaccines. Wow! Not only that, but 70% of those reactions occurred within 15 minutes of getting the shot.

So the short answer is: Get your shot. Stick around for 15 minutes to watch for any adverse reaction. If you want to be super safe, you could stay for 30 minutes. But when you have the opportunity, get vaccinated to protect yourself and others from the COVID-19 scourge.

Dear Doc: I’ve been immunized with both doses of the Moderna vaccine. When can I safely go out to eat and, more importantly, when can we have people over to our house for dinner? We’ve been really good at quarantining and so have our friends. When do we let our guard down? – C.O., from Madison

Dear C.O.: You are not the only person to ask this question. It’s something I’ve thought about long and hard. The answer is: Once you’re fully immunized, with both doses of the vaccine, you are about as safe as you’ll ever be from death by COVID-19.

The data is quite clear. You are 92% to 95% fully immunized 12 to 14 days after your first dose. That’s right, the first dose. If you want to be super safe, then wait until you get your second dose. That booster is just intended to keep your immunity up. Bottom line here is you can have folks over to eat, or you can meet them at your favorite restaurant.

But when you go out, you should still take the important standard precautions – mask up, wash your hands, etc. It’s the right thing to do.

And I’d pick the right restaurant or bar to visit. Make sure it’s following good social distancing and cleaning practices. It’s still important to do that for yourself and, frankly, for others, too.

More on misinformation: While we’re on the topic of vaccines, there was a recent article in the British Medical Journal on whether to criminalize those who spread misinformation about vaccines. This is something being considered in the U.K.

There are two schools of thought here. Ethically, deliberately spreading malicious vaccine misinformation and false rumors leads to death. I’m not just talking about COVID-19 vaccines here, but misleading information concerning measles, pertussis and other childhood vaccines. Misinformation about autism and vaccines has now been proven false by large and well-done scientific studies.

A recent U.K. study found that users who relied on social media for their information, particularly YouTube, were significantly less willing to be vaccinated. That’s a big reason why misinformation can be so dangerous.

There are now laws on the books in France, Germany, Malaysia, Russia and Singapore regarding the spreading of misinformation on vaccines. But social media companies have argued they are not publishers and have minimal responsibility to vet posts.

Cracking down on this will never really fly in the U.S. Our First Amendment rights give us permission to say just about anything. That’s why focusing on reliable sources, keeping yourself informed and becoming health literate are your best means to find the truth and decide what path you’ll take to good health.

Science is messy, and recommendations change all the time. Stay current with good information from good sources.

This always brings me back to the University of Wisconsin idea. Whatever may be the limitations, which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician and host of the public radio program “Zorba Paster on Your Health.” He can be reached at askzorba@doctorzorba.com.

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