New York doctors and health care workers want people with questions about the COVID vaccine to do one thing: Ask.
No vaccine-related question is silly or unacceptable, infectious disease experts said Tuesday, citing common concerns about the one- or two-dose vaccine to protect against coronavirus COVID-19.
“If you have questions, ask,” said Dr. Anja Bottler, chief of infectious disease at Unity Hospital within Rochester Regional Health. “Don’t just sit there and pout and get stuck in your thinking hole. Ask questions. Talk to other people. Get a feeling on what is the right thing for yourself to do.”
Bottler also works at United Memorial Medical Center in Batavia, and regularly sees patients from all backgrounds.
About a quarter of New Yorkers eligible to receive the COVID vaccine, or about 3.5 million adults, have opted not to get the shot. More than 68% of state residents ages 18 and older are fully vaccinated against the upper respiratory disease, which has killed more than 54,200 New Yorkers to date.
“People are skittish about the vaccination because of the FDA approval,” said Dr. Alan Sanders, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Albany Medical Center. “I’m not trying to be flip about this — I’m not sure a lot of these individuals have knowledge that the FDA has been involved with approval of vaccines for many, many decades.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the state’s vaccine Clinical Task Force separately approved Pfizer and Moderna’s two-dose coronavirus vaccines in December under Emergency Use Authorization. Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine was approved for emergency use in late February.
U.S. patients frequently use medications and treatments that are not FDA-approved, Sanders said. Physicians often prescribe off-label medications.
“People do prescribe and seek medications that aren’t FDA-approved, and they wouldn’t think twice about it,” Sanders said. “I don’t think anyone was looking for FDA approval for the polio vaccination. It’s been many months now since December; we have eight months of a track record of great safety and great efficacy.”
Each vaccine was tested in tens of thousands of patients before the FDA granted its emergency-use approval.
Other patients express hesitancy to get the vaccine because of the speed it was developed.
The novel coronavirus was first discovered in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Pfizer-BioNTech’s two-dose COVID-19 vaccine was approved for emergency-use authorization Dec. 11, or one year later.
The COVID-19 vaccine was developed based on years of research on mRNA vaccinations, and previous epidemics caused by coronaviruses, such as the SARS virus in 2002 and MERS in 2012.
“This is the first mRNA vaccine rolled out, but the technology is not new,” Sanders said.
The H1N1 flu epidemic in 2009 led to the rapid development of a vaccine against the virus that year.
“I don’t recall any marked vaccine hesitancy at the time,” he added. “Nurses and doctors took that vaccine like it was magic. ... That vaccine was manufactured very rapidly using existing technology and it was very efficacious.
“We have studies around the world. These vaccines work.”
The prevalence of the COVID delta variant, which originated in India, has caused coronavirus infections and hospitalizations to largely increase in unvaccinated people over the last month.
New York’s daily positivity rate was 2.46% Tuesday. The state’s coronavirus infection rate was one of the nation’s lowest about a month ago, or 0.34% June 23.
Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine was discovered this spring to be linked to rare instances of blood clots — especially in young women. The FDA in April added a warning label on the vaccine about the rare side effect.
The issue and addition of the label were widely publicized throughout the world and nation.
The side effect has emerged in dozens of patients, opposed to 1.08 billion fully vaccinated around the world as of Tuesday, according to ourworldindata.org.
“Look at the number of vaccines that are distributed — then all of a sudden, that severe side effect is not that common,” Bottler said. “If we find side effects like that, we want to know about it so we can adjust and make recommendations.”
Some people worry about common side effects caused by the coronavirus vaccine, including pain, redness or a swollen arm where the shot was administered and headaches, fatigue, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea for up to a day or two afterward.
“It could be that you don’t feel great after the second shot, but you feel a whole lot better than getting COVID,” Bottler said.
A sore arm or fever are typical vaccine side effects for several routine vaccinations, including measles, mumps, rubella; DTaP for tetanus; hepatitis A or B; rabies; Zoster vaccine for shingles; and yellow fever, according to CDC.gov.
People in rural, low-income and minority communities who often lack access to health care are quickest to question the vaccine’s safety and efficacy.
The towns of Willard and Romulus, Seneca County, have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the Finger Lakes region at 8.8% and 23.8%, respectively.
About 29.1% of people in Attica, Wyoming County, have received one vaccine dose to date. The municipality has the lowest vaccination rate in the GLOW region, and the fourth-lowest in the Finger Lakes region. Holley, in Orleans County, has one of the GLOW region’s highest vaccine rates at 50.3%.
Vaccines are the only way to stop a virus from mutating and to nearly eradicate an illness, as seen with polio and smallpox, which stopped naturally occurring in the world because of inoculations.
“If we all get the vaccine, everyone will benefit,” Bottler said. “We can travel, participate in sports, we can go to restaurants ... the economy will be better.”
Bottler often recommends people visit cdc.gov and see the correlation between each state’s COVID infection and vaccination rates when they question the vaccine’s efficacy.
Employees in New York are mandated to receive four hours of paid time off, per dose, to get the COVID vaccine. Any necessary recovery period from receiving the vaccine or its side effects is covered under the state’s Paid Sick Leave law.
“New York State continues to fight COVID-19 statewide by getting shots in arms and to date, over 22 million doses of vaccine have been administered statewide — meaning over 74% of New York adults have received at least one vaccine dose, and 68.1% are fully vaccinated,” state Health Department spokeswoman Abigail Barker said in a statement. “All COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use in the United States have proven extremely effective at preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19, and remain strong against newer strains, including against variants of concern such as the Delta variant.”
The state Health Department promotes fact-based graphics about the vaccine on social media and other advertising across the state to bust misinformation about the vaccine. Graphics are framed in sensitive Q&A formats to promote vaccine education.
“Those who are unvaccinated have the greatest risk of becoming seriously ill, which is why the New York State Department of Health continues to do everything possible to make the vaccine accessible and available in every community — and we urge all eligible New Yorkers to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” Barker said.
To see where you can get a free COVID vaccine, visit vaccines.gov.