This article originally appeared in the July 2021 edition of Senior Scope. Transcript published with permission from New Bedford Guide.
On June 8, the New Bedford Health Department hosted a virtual town hall to address some of the lingering questions about the COVID-19 vaccines, including their safety, efficacy and value. The event was broadcast on New Bedford Guide.
New Bedford Health Director Damon Chaplin opened the program by noting that, at the time, only 43 percent of New Bedford residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine – one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.
“We have vaccines available for anyone in the city who would like to get one,” Chaplin said. “We want to make sure that we provide the community with information that will allow them to make the best, informed decisions for themselves and their families.”
The panelist included: Dr. Eliesel Lacerda De La Cruz, Southcoast Health’s Infectious Disease Prevention Chairman and an infectious disease specialist; Dr. Michael Rocha, a cardiologist at Hawthorn Medical Associates; Dr. Shabana Naz, a primary care physician with the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center and an infectious disease specialist; and Helena DaSilva-Hughes, executive director of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center. The evening was moderated by Chaplan and Marcelina Pina-Christian, Human Services Coordinator at the City of New Bedford.
Below is a partial transcript of that town hall, condensed and edited for clarity, published with permission from New Bedford Guide. The complete program can be viewed online at: facebook.com/NewBedfordGuide.
Is the vaccine safe?
Dr. Eliesel Lacerda De La Cruz: Overall, the vaccines are very safe. Both the mRNA vaccines (the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines) have been successful. Worldwide, we have administered over 400 million doses of these vaccines.
And we see about 2.5 to 10 allergic reactions per million doses. The majority of the allergic reactions happen [in] people that have a history of allergies. The vast majority of reactions are not severe. You have the typical side effects, and that’s something you would expect with any vaccine – soreness, fever, headache.
The other vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, had gotten a lot of press because of the [blood] clotting issues, which is, overall, very rare. We’re talking seven cases per million doses in women below 50. After 50 years of age, the rate of severe reaction is 0.9 per million. The safety profile of the vaccines that we have available is stellar.
Dr. Shabana Naz: Also, we have an effective way of monitoring the side effects of these vaccines. If any patient has reported any side effects, that goes back as a data point to the CDC.
What we have learned from this data is that these are effective and safe vaccines. These are actually reducing the number of COVID-19 infections as well as serious disease that this infection can give us. Having [the] vaccine will prevent COVID-19, but most importantly, will also prevent hospitalizations and deaths.
Am I going to have any side effects from this vaccine a year from now?
Naz: Historically, from the vaccine data, we know that the time frame when people get sick and get side effects [from a vaccine] is the first six to eight weeks after administering any vaccine. So far, we have not seen any signals of long-term side effects from this vaccine.
Why should I get vaccinated?
Dr. Michael Rocha: This is an opportunity for us to achieve enough immunity that we stop the spread. And it’s not just about ourselves; it’s about our family members.
There’s some concern that the technology we used [for the vaccines] was new, but these vaccines have been studied quite extensively. Each one of these vaccines was studied [on] about 40,000 people each, and we’ve continued to follow that afterwards. Clearly, as we’ve seen the vaccine rollout become more robust, the burden of disease has gotten better.
I think we have the unique opportunity [to] protect ourselves, and those around us with something that’s safe and effective, and I would strongly recommend that everyone consider looking into what vaccine is right for them.
Naz: Every day I get in my car, not thinking that I’m not going to get in an accident. I need to take responsibility for how I am driving. People around me need to take responsibility for how they’re driving. And we need to follow rules to all be safe. The vaccine is the same thing. Just because it has not happened to me does not mean it cannot happen in the future.
I’ve had COVID already, why do I need to get the vaccine?
Naz: Typically, if somebody has COVID, we know that they’re protected for about three months, and after that the level of protection can go down. So getting the vaccine will boost your immune response and give you more protection. Having one kind of COVID infection may or may not protect you in the long run from the different variants. We are looking at data around the variants and the vaccines, and we know that the vaccines are effective against the variants.
How was this vaccine developed so quickly?
Lacerda De La Cruz: The technology is not brand new. The mRNA concept was introduced for the treatment of tumors. And the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been used for other vaccines.
The other thing that expedited the vaccine was that there were other coronavirus outbreaks before. In 2008, we had [SARS-CoV-1], and then there was MERS. So scientists already knew how the virus will get into you and cause damage. If it was a brand new virus, we would first have to understand how the virus works and then block it. But we had all that work done before.
Will we need a booster shot sometime later this year?
Lacerda De La Cruz: On the [timing], the data is not clear yet. A booster dose is very likely because we are not expecting the antibody response to last for years and years because coronaviruses usually do not elicit long-lasting immunity like other viruses, like the measles. You can get human coronaviruses every year. And the beauty of the mRNA vaccines is that those variants can be included in the booster shot and reinforce the immunity.
I am 70 years old, and I got vaccinated. I’m so afraid of going out. Can I go out?
Lacerda De La Cruz: I agree with that. Take your precautions. If you’re going to be in a big crowd where you don’t really know who’s vaccinated and who’s not, maybe avoid that. But we have a bunch of things you can do this summer. So go out there and enjoy.
A recording of the town hall is available on New Bedford Guide. Visit: facebook.com/NewBedfordGuide.
For information about vaccine availability in New Bedford, call 508-984-2661 or visit newbedford-ma.gov/health-department.
For more information about vaccine sites in the state, call 2-1-1.