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What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine

VIEWPOINT

After months of waiting, the COVID-19 vaccine is finally becoming widely available. This is great news for our community because it means we will soon be able to see loved ones and get back to the activities we enjoy. It also means more and more people here in

Maui County will soon be deciding whether to receive the vaccine.

As health care providers, we believe that getting vaccinated is a deeply personal choice, and it’s our job to answer your questions and give you the information you need to make the decision that’s right for you. Here is what you need to know.

There are currently three vaccines available in the U.S. The most important thing you need to know is that all three are safe and highly effective. To put it in perspective, the annual flu vaccine typically reduces your chances of getting sick by 40 to 60 percent. In comparison, the COVID vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna are more than 90 percent effective, which means they are among the most effective vaccines ever developed.

While the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is slightly less effective, it still reduces your chances of getting sick by 70 percent, which is excellent. More importantly, however, all vaccines, including Johnson & Johnson, have been shown to reduce hospitalization and death significantly. That means even if you do get COVID, you are far less likely to get severely ill, and that’s what counts.

Also, the good news is that all three vaccines do seem to protect against the new COVID variants, even if they are slightly less effective.

As for safety, drug companies were able to develop these vaccines very quickly because so much money and resources were put behind them. There were no shortcuts – they went through all the same testing and safety protocols as regular vaccines. Each one went through a large clinical trial, with more than 40,000 participants before it was approved. Since they were released, they’ve been given to millions of people worldwide, with no safety problems. These vaccines do not contain the COVID virus itself. Instead, they contain instructions for your cells to make a part of the virus’ coating — that “spike” protein you see in pictures of COVID. This teaches your immune system to recognize the protein so it can fight it off when it meets the real thing. It’s a bit like training a dog to find someone by letting it smell their jacket. Because there is no actual virus in the vaccine, the vaccine can’t make you sick.

So why do some people have symptoms after getting the vaccine? When your immune system is activated, it can make you feel tired, achy or even develop a fever. This is a sign the vaccine is working. Unlike when you get the actual COVID virus, if you have symptoms after getting the vaccine they will go away after a day or two. It might be uncomfortable, but it’s a lot better than having COVID.

The pathogen can still enter your body even if you’ve been vaccinated, although it’s far less likely. The difference is, your immune system will be primed to fight it, so you are much less likely to get severely ill.

While it’s too early to say whether the vaccine prevents you from infecting others, the data are encouraging. When people have tested positive for COVID after being vaccinated, they were shedding the virus at extremely low levels – so low that the risk of transmission is near zero. So, while you shouldn’t ditch your mask just yet, we do think that there are promising signs that by getting vaccinated, you can help protect others.

Whether or not you decide to get vaccinated against COVID-19, you should have the facts you need to make an informed choice. Remember that not everything you read on social media is accurate, so if you hear something that concerns you, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor about it or seek information from trusted sources like the CDC. By learning about the vaccines and staying informed, you can make the decision that’s right for you.

* Dr. Michael Shea is the chief medical director of Maui Health, an ICU physician at Maui Memorial Medical Center and Emergency Operations Center co-lead.

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