COVID: A seven-minute update of the facts

COVID-19 comes and goes, despite our hopes in early summer it was on its way out.

The virus will stay in our lives if there are vulnerable people – people who have not been vaccinated or infected. We have a lot of vulnerable people in the U.S. and far greater numbers worldwide.

Vaccines are by far our strongest protection against infection. Masks, social distancing and staying at home – our only weapons in 2020 – are also effective, but far less so, because many people do not, will not or cannot sustain these activities over time.

Here are seven facts about the vaccines:

Fact 1: Vaccines are effective against serious illness and death.

The Pfizer vaccine (soon followed by the Moderna vaccine) was first given to 15,000 people in July 2020, so we now have over 12 months of follow-up data. These vaccines remain over 90 percent effective against serious COVID-19 disease and death. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine is also very effective, though less so, against COVID-19.

Fact 2: The COVID vaccines will be approved by the FDA.

Many people and organizations are waiting for full FDA approval of the vaccines before getting them or requiring their employees to get them. Full approval is expected in the late summer or fall of 2021. However, there is no need to wait for full approval to get the vaccine. The scientific proof of their effectiveness and safety has been demonstrated. The FDA is now dealing with details such as distribution and storage of the vaccines before issuing full approval.

Fact 3: Breakthrough COVID infections in vaccinated people are very uncommon.

Some vaccinated people get infected by the COVID-19 virus and have become mildly ill. These “breakthrough” infections are uncommon. They seem surprising, but no vaccine is 100 percent effective.

Fact 4: Vaccines are safe.

Over 340 million doses of the Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine and another 13 million doses of the Johnson and Johnson (J & J) vaccine have been given in the U.S. Studies of these vaccines began over 12 months (Moderna/Pfizer) and 9 months (J & J) ago, meaning that we now have over one year of real-world experience with the vaccines people in the U.S. received.

These dose numbers and timeframes mean we have a very good understanding of potential side-effects of vaccines. As a result, there are few side effects of the vaccines.

Fact 5: Side effects of vaccines are rare.

While rare, these are the most common COVID vaccine side effects:

  • A bleeding clotting disorder among people, mostly women under age 50, who have gotten the J & J vaccine. The condition is rare, showing up in seven cases in 1 million women under age 50 who have been vaccinated and even fewer among everybody else.
  • Heart inflammation (myocarditis and pericarditis) has been seen in some people who have received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. It is rare and has occurred mostly among males under age 30. The condition is treatable and usually completely resolves. The risk of heart inflammation is higher among people who have COVID-19 disease than among people who have been vaccinated against it.
  • Temporary weakness and paralysis (Guillain Barre syndrome) has occurred rarely after the J & J vaccine. 140 of the 13,000,000 people who have had the J & J vaccine have developed this effect. It tends to occur in men over 50 and most people fully recover.

It is more likely unvaccinated people will get a severe case of COVID-19 rather than getting side effects from one of the vaccines.

Fact 6: Long-term side effects of the COVID vaccines are “extremely unlikely,” per the CDC.

Vaccines that have been in use for decades include measles, polio, flu, and yellow fever. The track record of these vaccines shows long-term side effects rarely occur.

Remember, the COVID -19 vaccine contains a small amount of genetic material of the virus that does not affect or interact with the DNA of humans. It disappears within a few days after the vaccine is injected. It does not persist in the body, so there is no opportunity for it to cause longterm negative side effects.

Fact 7: Booster vaccine shots will most likely be needed.

Whether due to Delta or to another variant, the virus has or will eventually find a way to dampen the protection provided by the vaccines. This is no surprise. Remember, we are offered a new flu vaccine every year.

The booster will update our protection, and it will represent a success in our ability to stay ahead of a very nimble virus. If you have not been vaccinated, do not wait for the booster shot. It will work after the person has already received the currently available vaccines.

In conclusion

Those are the facts, and they are what you need to know to make decisions about how to protect yourself and your family.

COVID-19 has now killed more people in the U.S. than the number of Americans who died in our nation’s bloodiest war – the Civil War (618,000 deaths).

Let us stop the killing.


Steven Markowitz, MD, DrPH, a physician specializing in occupational and environmental medicine, directs the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment and is a professor of environmental sciences at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY). The Insulators Union has been working with Dr. Markowitz for many years and appreciates his expertise on issues that matter to our industry and our members.
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