Conflicting information about the COVID-19 vaccines is rampant — even in Blount County — but most local health officials echo the message of others around the world: the vaccines are safe and necessary.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I feel confident in the safety of these vaccines,” Blount Memorial Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Harold Naramore said. “They’ve been made fast, but they’ve used the same process that all vaccines must go through before being introduced in the marketplace.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that Pfizer-BioTech and Moderna, the two vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, are respectively 95% and 94.1% effective against preventing COVID-19 in people who received two doses.
The CDC has reported that the vaccines’ efficacy in preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths is unmatched.
Results showed that people who received a vaccine rather than a placebo during clinical trials were less likely to be admitted to the hospital if they contracted the virus. Further, the CDC’s vaccination reporting system has not “detected patterns in cause of death that would indicate a safety problem with COVID-19 vaccines,” the CDC’s website states.
While many acknowledge the vaccines’ success in preventing coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths, concerns about potential adverse reactions following the shot are abundant, but the CDC reports they are rare.
Anaphylaxis — one of the most common vaccine reactions in which a person experiences difficulty breathing, nausea or a rash — has been reported in just 2 to 5 people per million vaccinated.
“There’s never been any long-term bad effects from any vaccines. Vaccines in and of their nature are an allergic reaction,” said Hamilton Borden, pharmacist at Blount Discount Pharmacy. “It’s just literally your body’s immune system responding to that foreign antigen, so if there’s any effect that happens, it happens immediately within the first couple of weeks.”
But some health professionals remain wary.
Lisa Lawson, pharmacist at Village Pharmacy in Maryville, posted on the Village Facebook page Feb. 13 that she has concerns about the unknowns surrounding the vaccines.
“(Patients) are to be provided information about the potential risks and benefits of the vaccine as well as the extent of what is UNKNOWN about the vaccine,” Lawson wrote. “They are to be informed that they have the right to accept or refuse the vaccination and have their questions answered to their satisfaction.”
Lawson went on to say that 99% of people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S. have had “unpleasant but expected adverse events.”
The CDC, however, states that only 84.7% reported at least one side effect — the most common being pain at the injection site.
“ ... (F)or those who have experienced severe anaphylaxis, neurological problems, platelet issues, or even death, we need to continue to search for answers and assess risk vs benefit in each individual person,” Lawson wrote.
The CDC reports that out of the 41 million doses administered, only 1,170 vaccinated have died. That’s .00285%.
Lawson took to Facebook to express qualms with the vaccine on Jan. 29 when she advised caution while considering receiving any newly approved vaccine or drug.
“While these drugs or vaccines have undergone clinical trials, until you use them in a larger population, certain adverse effects may not show up or show up to a larger degree than expected,” Lawson wrote. “I always look at the proposed mechanism of action of any agent to determine what the possible adverse events or benefits will be.”
During a phone interview with The Daily Times, Lawson repeatedly said she is not advising anyone against getting the vaccine and that she’s not personally against vaccines.
“My thing is we have to go with the best knowledge we have,” she said. “People need to be aware, have caution, understand that nothing is without risk — both the disease and the vaccine.”
Lawson’s Jan. 29 Facebook post raised concerns about the COVID-19 shot being a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine.
Messenger RNA vaccines are different from typical vaccines — getting one doesn’t consist of an active virus injection. Instead, a synthetic mRNA strand is injected into the body and programs cells to make a spike protein that will fight the virus.
Naramore said, “After it does that, the pieces of the spike protein that it makes get placed on the surface of the cells that cause your body to have an immune response that triggers both production of antibodies and a process that allows your body to remember the virus, so that you can sustain immunity.”
The protein, which lives outside the cells, pushes the body to begin its immunization process against the virus.
Said pharmacist Borden: “Essentially what we’re doing is training our body to see this spike protein so whenever the real coronavirus tries to enter the cell, our cells say ‘hey we’ve already seen this,’ and the immune system knocks it out to prevent the coronavirus from getting into the cell.”
Lawson said that she’s heard about microbiologists assuming the cells in which the spike proteins are created are skeletal muscle cells, but the scientists aren’t sure.
“The mRNA and DNA could be taken up by a number of different cells in the body which have different functions, and those could be different for different individuals. Our immune systems are designed to recognize self vs non-self and attack non-self cells,” she said. “We are creating non-self cells with these vaccines. Just as the body will kill off viral infected cells, it will also kill off these cells.”
But Naramore said mRNA goes into immune system cells and poses no threat to other cells in the body because the immune response is specific to the virus.
Lawson also raised concerns about the newness of the vaccine, saying “anything that occurs around the vaccinations needs to be evaluated.”
“FDA approval of any therapy does not indicate that there are no risks involved,” she wrote. “There have been vaccines and drugs removed from the market after FDA approval and widespread use.”
The relative newness of the vaccine does not concern Borden, however.
“Even before it got the emergency-use authorization, there were already 30,000 patients that got the vaccine,” he said. “This is a very large study, and now within the past month or so there have been well over 100,000 additional patients that have gotten it, and that’s another month window that we’re getting to assess the efficacy of it.”
Borden said he believes the vaccine being pushed out quickly can be credited to the federal government’s intervention.
Former President Donald Trump on Dec. 23 announced the federal government would purchase 100 million doses from Pfizer. Vaccines are free to all recipients.
“(Vaccine manufacturers) haven’t skipped any of the safety, but they’ve just been able to decrease and get rid of the hurdles, and a lot of that is financial,” Borden said.
Borden said he has no qualms with the vaccine and is eager to get it himself. Blount Discount is administering COVID-19 vaccines when they are available. Patients can sign up on the pharmacy’s website.
Other doses administered in the county are by the Blount County Health Department and Blount Memorial Hospital.
Blount County still is working through its 1a population — health care workers, first responders, funeral and mortuary workers, and long-term care residents and staff — as well as those ages 70 and older. As of Feb. 14, nearly 9.5% of county residents had gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, the Tennessee Department of Health said.
Other Tennessee counties are vaccinating at similar rates as Tennessee’s vaccine distribution rolls out on schedule. The state’s COVID-19 vaccination plan anticipated moving in February to give shots to people in Phase 1b as well as those aged 70 and older.
All 95 counties are at least in Phase 1a2, with several in Phase 1b — first responder personnel, K-12 teachers and child care staff.
All counties except Davidson have opened vaccination appointments to people ages 70 and older rather than the initial 75 and older age bracket.
“One in three Tennesseans over age 70 have already been vaccinated,” Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey told reporters Feb. 10. “In fact, it’s just a little bit higher than that. It’s closer to 35% of all Tennesseans 70-plus have been vaccinated already. That’s great news. We’re really happy about that.“