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COVID-19 update: Clearing up vaccine information

Health and Benefits|Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Jeff Levin-Scherz, MD | February 9, 2021

Although there is misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, there is more good news on the vaccine front.

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About our “The COVID-19 Crisis” series

“The COVID-19 Crisis” series is a weekly update from Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, Population Health Leader and Health Management Practice Co-Leader, Health and Benefits, North America.

There has been amazingly good news about COVID-19 vaccines over the last week.

For example:

  1. Preliminary data show that those who have received the Astra Zeneca vaccine are less likely to spread COVID-19. This is one more reason why vaccines will be critical to stomping out the pandemic.
  2. Sputnik V, the Russian COVID-19 vaccine, was shown to be highly effective, according to data published in The Lancet, a well-regarded independent journal. While this vaccine is not likely to be used in the U.S., its effectiveness will help increase the supply of vaccine in many low- and middle-income countries that will get supplies of other vaccines much later than wealthier nations.
  3. Johnson & Johnson (J&J) has applied for Emergency Use Authorization for its vaccine, which does not require freezing and is a single dose. So we could have a third available vaccine in the U.S. as early as mid-February.
  4. All three vaccines that have released Phase 3 trial data have proven 100% effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths. People (and employers) should eagerly try to get whichever vaccine is available, regardless of stated effectiveness. People will get more benefit from a vaccine that keeps them from getting severe disease right now than if they wait a few months for a vaccine that's better at preventing more mild symptoms.
  5. All the vaccines continue to be effective at preventing severe disease, even from variants — and the sooner we vaccinate most people, the fewer new variants we will have. The variants all come from places that have had large outbreaks (e.g., there is no New Zealand or Taiwan variant).

For all the good vaccine news, there is a lot of misinformation out there. Misinformation is difficult to counteract. And there is a danger that those trying to debunk a falsehood will inadvertently reinforce it.

Here are some statements that can help inform people about COVID-19 vaccination without amplifying already widespread misstatements:

  • Scientists have been researching coronavirus vaccines since the SARS outbreak in 2003, which is why we were able to get safe, effective vaccines so quickly.
  • Previous safe, effective vaccines have used the same approach that is being used in the COVID-19 vaccines. For instance, the Ebola vaccine used messenger RNA too.
  • COVID-19 vaccines have no impact on fertility.
  • Recent studies have shown that COVID-19 antibodies are passed to a fetus in utero. This means women of childbearing age who get vaccinated can help protect their babies.
  • COVID-19 vaccines do not have live viruses, so they are likely safe in pregnancy. One country, Israel, recommends the vaccine in pregnancy. Neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the World Health Organization oppose vaccinating pregnant women.

You might have read about new requirements to wear medical grade masks on public transit and in supermarkets and pharmacies in Europe. As the more contagious variants spread, we need better protection. Here's a good FAQ on masks from Consumer Reports.

A quick primer:

  • Two masks are better than one. Surgical masks with ear loops are exceptionally good at filtering air, but they tend to fit very loosely. A surgical mask with a tighter-fitting cloth mask over it can filter almost as well as the best medical masks.
  • Cloth masks with flexible nose fasteners have tighter fits and can prevent more viral spread. Better-fitting cloth masks and those that have a pocket for a filter are more effective than looser and nonfiltered masks.
  • Valves can let unfiltered air in or out of a mask, and so should be avoided.
  • Medical masks are becoming more available:
    • N95 masks filter out 95% of particles that are larger than three microns. They should not have valves and should say "NIOSH" on them. They should have bands that go around the head (not around the ears). There are counterfeit N95 masks around; see this note from the CDC.
    • KN95 masks are manufactured in China and should also filter out 95% of particles larger than three microns. There have been many reports of counterfeit KN95 masks. You can search online to find FDA reports on manufacturers’ mask effectiveness.
    • KF94 masks are manufactured in Korea and tend to have tighter fits than KN95s. There have been fewer reports of counterfeit KF94 masks. You can also find FDA reports on those manufacturers’ effectiveness.

All medical masks are disposable, but the ones listed above are too expensive and too scarce to throw away after an hour's use. You can save these in a paper bag (or an unsealed plastic bag) and reuse them after they dry. They should be discarded when they no longer have a tight fit, or when they are soiled. The medical group where I do urgent care recommends replacing N95 masks after ~15 hours of use. Always wash your hands well or use hand sanitizer after touching a used mask!

Masks protect the mask-wearer as well as others nearby. When I'm near you and we are both wearing masks, a virus would need to get through two masks to spread infection if one of us is infected.

Rates of COVID-19 infection continue to trend downward and vaccination rates are picking up in the U.S., so we are likely to have a far better spring.

Nationwide COVID-19 metrics since April 1, 2020

Nationwide COVID metrics continue to show decreases in daily tests, new cases and hospitalizations.
There are continued decreases in daily tests, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, some significant.

Source: COVID-19 Tracking Project

U.S. vaccination rate per day

In the U.S., the latest vaccination rate is 1,426,098 doses per day, on average.
Based on seven-day rolling average, the latest vaccination rate is 1,426,098 doses per day, on average.

Source: Bloomberg


Population Health Leader, Health and Benefits, North America

Jeff is a practicing physician and has led Willis Towers Watson’s clinical response to COVID-19. He has served in leadership roles in provider organizations and a health plan, and is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

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