August 31, 2021

COVID-19 concerns: Vaccine answers from an expert

As hospitals fill and the pandemic surges in Oregon, infectious disease physician Katie Sharff shares why it’s more important than ever to get vaccinated.

While the landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, you may have questions about vaccines, variants, booster shots, and more. Katie Sharff, MD, an infectious disease specialist for Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon, answers common questions about the safety and importance of the COVID-19 vaccine. View the Q&A video series.

I’m young and healthy and doubt that I’d get that sick, why should I get vaccinated?

We see young, healthy people getting really sick, hospitalized, and even dying of COVID-19. We also see people who have had no other health issues in the hospital, and it’s really tragic. So even if you are an individual with no medical conditions, it doesn’t mean that you have a free pass. COVID-19 gets everybody — it really doesn’t care who you are or what your past history is. This virus appears to be getting trickier as it mutates and becomes more contagious, possibly causing more severe disease. And you need to get vaccinated to protect yourself because the virus is smart and it will continue to mutate. It gives me a lot of anxiety, because I worry about the next variant that could be even more contagious or cause more severe disease than what we are dealing with right now.

The vaccine hasn’t been around long; how can we know it’s safe?

When we think about this vaccine development, we have years and years of research into the types of vaccine platforms that were used for the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccine. One reason we were able to accelerate the development is because there was great collaboration between scientists around the world and additional funding from government and pharmaceutical agencies. These vaccines are widely distributed and some of the most scrutinized in history and are really demonstrating a great track record for safety and efficacy.

Why should I get the vaccine if I can still get COVID-19 anyway?

If you were to be one of those vaccinated individuals who has a breakthrough infection, you’re going to have mild symptoms. When you get the COVID-19 vaccine, it prevents severe illness, hospitalization, and death. Those are really important things, because we don’t want you to have severe illness or be hospitalized with COVID-19. It’s critically important that we get everyone vaccinated here in the U.S. and throughout the world so that we can stamp out this disease and not have these mutant viruses, like delta, that are going to cause more severe disease — or even no longer respond to the vaccines down the road.

Are we going to need booster shots?

I would remind people that boosters are not unusual for vaccines. For many of the vaccines you got as a child, you needed a booster dose. And if you get a tetanus vaccine, you get a booster dose every 10 years. The doses are designed to enhance or augment that immune response so you’re more protected. I want people to understand that it was probably expected that we would need a booster dose for the COVID-19 vaccines to really enhance our immune response. And when they’re offered, I would recommend that you take them.

If I have had COVID-19, do I still need to get vaccinated?

If you had COVID-19, you might have some protection from that illness. But we know that protection is going to wane and drop off over time. And as we see some of these new variants emerge, like delta, there is a risk of getting reinfected … and people do get reinfected.  We have really good data that the vaccines can actually boost your immune response so you have longer protection. For those individuals who have had a mild COVID-19 illness, maybe early in the pandemic,  we’re seeing that they don’t develop as strong of an immune response … and it doesn’t last as long. And as we see development of these more contagious variants, it’s yet another reason to go get that additional shot to boost your immune system so you stay protected as this pandemic, unfortunately, drags on.

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