Australians will begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations in a matter of weeks, however some key recipients of the vaccine – aged care workers – are nervous about the new drug, fearing it hasn’t been tested properly in the rush to stamp out the virus as it rages across the world, killing almost 2 million.
HelloCare’s ‘Aged Care Worker Support Group’ Facebook page contains several posts and dozens of comments expressing concerns about inadequate testing, side effects, and whether or not the vaccine should be mandatory.
COVID-19 is a new virus and the vaccine is new medicine, being brought to market in record time.
Infectious diseases expert Professor Robert Booy told HelloCare it’s natural there would be reservations about a new vaccine.
“There’s natural hesitation and fear of the unknown that people will have, whether they’re a healthcare professional or not,” he said.
However, trials provided enough evidence for emergency approval, and the real-world rollout of the vaccine, which has now reached millions, is almost hourly providing updated evidence the vaccine is safe.
Aged care workers are “on the front line” looking after people who, if they get COVID-19, are at “high risk of dying”, Professor Booy noted. “We sincerely don’t want aged care workers to be vectors, going from room to room passing virus around,” he said.
But older healthcare workers themselves are also at risk from COVID-19. People in their 50s or 60s have a “real risk” of “severe illness” and a 1–2 per cent risk of death from COVID-19, Professor Booy explained. “That’s 100 times higher than the risk of dying from the flu.”
The risk of dying rises to 5 per cent for those in their 70s, and 15 per cent for those 80 and older.
Over time, Professor Booy believes the vaccine will gain greater acceptance as its success and safety becomes more evident.
Around 20,000 people were vaccinated for the Pfizer trial, a number that is “appropriate” in the circumstances, Professor Booy said.
But perhaps even more tellingly, five million people have received the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, and other vaccines are also being rolled out all around the world. This “real world experience” is “continuing to reassure”, Professor Booy observed.
Public health organisations and governments are daily, almost hourly, following those who have been vaccinated to check for side effects. “If there’s anything serious happening, it’s being picked up.”
Continual follow up of vaccine recipients is “ongoing”, and will remain so for at least a couple of years, Professor Booy said. “We have to keep doing this. We don’t know what might happen after six months, a year or two years, we just don’t have that data because it’s only just being done.”
The vaccine does have some side effects, but they last at most three days and they won’t put you in hospital like COVID-19 can, Professor Booy said.
Kate Roth is an RN working in the United States, where there have now been more than 20 million COVID-19 cases and 374,000 deaths. Roth received the Moderna vaccine last week and experienced “mild”, “flu-like” symptoms, she told HelloCare.
“Some body aches and a slight headache. The injection site was sore and tender for a day, but all good now. The symptoms I had were no different, really, to a flu vaccine,” she said.
Professor Booy told HelloCare that trials revealed “one or two” cases of transverse myelitis, a form of viral induced paraplegia, as well as some other “very rare” side effects, but these things are being looked at carefully, Professor Booy said. “I’ve got no concerns,” he said.
Roth said she had “absolutely no concerns”, about taking the vaccine, even despite the fact she has a pre-existing condition.
“I am definitely pro-vaccine. I did do my research beforehand and spoke to John (her husband, a doctor), the oncologists at work, and of course my own oncologist before I got it,” she said.
“I wish it would roll out faster to the general public,” Roth observed.
Despite the side effects, the benefits of taking the vaccine outweigh the costs to individuals, Professor Booy says.
The vaccine uses mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) to present foreign viral particles that convince the body to make antigens, and the body then responds to the antigen with antibodies.
While mRNA technology has never been “routinely administered” in a vaccine before, the technology has been around for years, and that is a factor that enabled the vaccine to be developed so quickly.
The other COVID-19 vaccines have also been “built on the shoulders of giants”, using technology already in existence, Professor Booy said.
In the first days of rolling the vaccine out, a small number of people experienced anaphylactic shock in response to the Pfizer vaccine.
“We know that there’s a risk of anaphylaxis in about one-in-a-hundred thousand vaccine recipients,” Professor Booy said.
“If you have a history of anaphylaxis, then don’t have that vaccine. Wait for another one,” he recommended.
Even if you experience COVID-like symptoms after being vaccinated, you are not at risk of passing COVID-19 on to anyone.
“We’re not using live virus,” Professor Booy explained. Scientists are using the genetic code for one of the twelve genes in the virus. “It’s nothing like a live virus, it’s just one little part of it.”
Media reports of insufficient research into the vaccine’s effects on older people with chronic diseases are not correct, Professor Booy said.
“The studies are trying to recruit a significant minority of people over 60 or 65 and a good proportion of them will have chronic medical diseases.”
The trials, and now surveillance as the vaccine is rolled out in the “real world”, has provided sufficient information about the vaccine’s effects on older people, Professor Booys believes.
It is estimated that at least 70 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated for the virus to be effective.
“If 70 per cent are vaccinated there’s a good chance that 60 to 65 per cent will achieve protection, and were they to get infected, they’ll be infected only mildly and either not transmit it, or transmit much less than they would have had they had a wild virus infection,” Professor Booy said.
Professor Booy told HelloCare he “massively admires” the work of aged care workers. “It’s not easy… it’s a very tough job,” he said, having seen his own parents require care over the years.
Aged care workers also have a role to play in supporting public health programs to ensure that they themselves, and those they care for, are vaccinated, whether it be for the flu or for covid.
“People can choose to have the vaccine or they can choose to wait. Some people will be hesitant and wait and have it later once they’ve seen how well other people have coped with it.
“I don’t think it needs to be mandatory. I think it will sell itself,” he said.
Healthcare workers have flu vaccination uptake of up to 90 per cent, and because COVID-19 is “much nastier” than the flu, the COVID-19 vaccine should be the first vaccine you take.
Aged care workers should not be concerned about the vaccine’s safety.
“We’re going to do the best we can by way of surveillance and scientific analysis to continue to support the use of the vaccine”.
“Our surveillance, when it turns up problems, will let public health and the world know.”
Image: SolStock, iStock.