Senior Health

12/11/2020 | By Annie Tobey

Questions and Answers on Vaccine Developments

After all we’ve been through in 2020, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The coronavirus has impacted people throughout the world, but vaccines are becoming available to control the pandemic. The COVID vaccine for seniors especially, holds extra promise. 

A Tragic, Frightening and Unforgettable Year 

The coronavirus began sweeping across the United States in March 2020. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 67 million people and killed more than 1.5 million people. It has infected more than 15 million and killed more than 290,000 in the U.S. alone. Economically, the pandemic has devastated many businesses and individuals. It has forced most of us to drastically alter our lives, as we distance ourselves from others to avoid spreading the disease.

As 2020 draws to a close, the nation is facing a new surge of cases. Vaccines promise to end the nightmare, but some people are skeptical. After all, within the past year, we’ve seen the rise of this powerful new virus, and yet these new vaccines have popped up out of nowhere. Understandably, people have questions. Hopefully, these answers will help.

Q&A on the COVID Vaccine for Seniors

What vaccines will be available first?

Currently, several dozen vaccines are in various stages of development. So far, three vaccines have released data that demonstrates safety and effectiveness in combating the virus.

Vaccine shots from U.S.-based Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech appear to be 95% effective at preventing mild to severe COVID-19 disease. FDA reviewers agreed with the vaccine’s effectiveness, saying that it has “a favorable safety profile, with no specific safety concerns,” and that it worked in older adults as well.

A vaccine from Moderna and the National Institutes of Health has been reported as 94% effective. 

A third vaccine, from AstraZeneca, has been shown to be 70% effective overall. However, it remains unproven how well the vaccine works in those over 55 years of age, because few people in that age group were a part of the study. This is significant since the most serious illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 occur among the oldest patients. Researchers are also still studying which dose regime produces the best protection. 

Other differences in the three vaccines include storage requirements. Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be kept extremely cold: –70 degrees Celsius (colder than winter in Antarctica!). Moderna’s vaccine also needs to be kept frozen, but only at –20 Celcius, more like a regular freezer, at temperatures that hospitals already use for medication storage. The AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored long-term at ordinary refrigerator temperatures, so it’s easier to transport and store.

These vaccines (including the COVID vaccine for seniors) are two-dose shots – a second shot is administered a set number of days after the initial shot.

These vaccines have been developed so quickly! Are they really safe?

The novel coronavirus just began infecting humans in late 2019. Most drugs take years of research and go through a lengthy approval process. Why have these vaccines developed so quickly, and should the speed make us suspicious? 

“The speed is a reflection of years of work that went before,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, told the Associated Press

Both the Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna/NIH vaccines are so-called messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccines, a new technology that researchers have been working on for years. Other coronaviruses, from the SARS and MERS outbreaks, were part of the study.

“When the pandemic started, we were on a strong footing both in terms of the science” and experience handling mRNA, said Dr. Tal Zaks, chief medical officer of Massachusetts-based Moderna.

“This was all brewing. This didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Pfizer’s Dormitzer.

Billions of dollars in company and government funding through Operation Warp Speed also sped up vaccine development. Plus, the large number of coronavirus infections meant scientists didn’t have to wait long to learn whether shots were working. 

The FDA and a panel of independent scientists are carefully reviewing the research data to ensure its efficacy and safety. 

Of the rapid emergency use authorization, the chair of the FDA Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, Dr. Arnold Monto, said, “It’s not being done in a way that is any different than review from regular licensure except for the timeline.”

To demonstrate their confidence in the COVID vaccine for seniors, former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have volunteered to get vaccinated publicly.

Woman receives a COVID vaccine for seniors

When will vaccines be available?

The Pfizer vaccine is officially approved and will be available to the public shortly (some Americans have already received it!).

Although no firm deadlines or promised dates are being given, Moderna should be available by early January, and AstraZeneca soon after. More vaccines will likely gain approval later.

Hospitals, healthcare providers, pharmacies, nursing homes, and others who are first in line to receive the vaccines have already made plans for administering the shots as quickly as possible. 

Who gets vaccinated first?

Senior living facilities have been among the hardest hit locations for COVID-19 illness and death. Approximately 40% of deaths in the U.S. have occurred in long-term care facilities. People aged 65 and above are categorized as high-risk, among the most vulnerable to the disease. 

In recognition of these facts, an advisory panel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that the first vaccines should go to health care workers, who are frequently in contact with COVID-19 patients, and to residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

Have people begun getting vaccinated yet to “test the waters”?

In addition to the research volunteers who received the vaccines, people in Britain have started to get vaccinated. The U.K. began implementing its vaccination program on Dec. 8. Britain is beginning with people aged 80 and older and workers in nursing homes for the first shots, with frontline medical workers at hospitals offered a dose afterwards.

The first person to get the shot was 90-year-old Margaret Keenan – a week in advance of her 91st birthday. “I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19,” said Keenan. “It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year after being on my own for most of the year.”

Will the shots make me sick?

None of the vaccines currently in development in the United States use the live virus that causes COVID-19. Instead, they teach our immune systems how to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID-19. Sometimes this process can cause symptoms, but this is normal and a sign that the body is building immunity. 

Like most vaccines, the COVID vaccine for seniors can have minor side effects, including soreness at the injection site and flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, and achiness. These typically last a day or two. 

In its initial review of the Pfizer vaccine, the FDA reported that more than half of adults under 55 experienced fatigue or headache, about a third reported chills or muscle pain, and 16% had a fever. Older adults were less likely to experience those reactions. More importantly, though, The FDA found no serious side effects among the more than 37,000 volunteers who’ve been tracked for at least two months after their last dose, the time when vaccination problems typically appear.

Two healthcare workers who received the vaccine in Britain did experience an allergic reaction, and both recovered. Both workers have a history of serious allergies, so British regulators warned hospitals not to give the shots to people with a history of “significant” allergic reactions. 

Should people who have already had COVID-19 still get the vaccine?

Yes. Due to the fact that re-infection is possible, the CDC advises those who have had the illness previously to get a vaccine. Experts don’t know how long someone is protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19. As more information becomes available on natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity, the CDC will update the public.

Will the shots be expensive?

The vaccines doses will be available to the American people at no cost, says the CDC. Vaccination providers, however, can charge an administration fee, which can be reimbursed by the patient’s public or private insurance company or, for uninsured patients, by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Provider Relief Fund. 

Can I stop wearing a mask and social distancing after I’ve completed my vaccinations?

Two people who did not receive the COVID vaccine for seniors

No, for two reasons. 

First, it typically takes a few weeks for the body to build immunity after a vaccination. 

Second, the CDC explains that it will be important for everyone to continue to use prevention tools while experts learn more about protection from the vaccines. Factors such as how many people get vaccinated and community spread will affect leaders’ decisions on when to curtail these precautions. So keep wearing your face mask!

How soon will life return to normal? 

No firm predictions have been made about when the coronavirus pandemic will abate and when measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing can be abandoned. It’s important to note that the vaccines will not have sufficient doses manufactured and distributed to give to everyone right away – in the U.S. or worldwide. 

A significant number of people currently express skepticism of the vaccine, too. And if not enough people receive vaccinations, the virus can continue to spread.

Like many things in life, progress comes with dedication and commitment. The more we commit to taking precautionary measures and to getting a vaccine when it becomes available to us, the sooner we can shed our masks and hug our friends and loved ones again!

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey