A safe step toward normal

A note from Dr. Glasner: Out of an abundance of caution, the US Food and drug administration paused distribution of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine for 10 days to reconsider potential side effects. On April 23, the organization re-approved use of that vaccine.

Even during the pandemic, the vaccine approval process is thorough and safe. Benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risk of getting COVID-19 and the long-haul health issues associated with the virus. 

By Dr. Greg Glasner, BCBSND Chief Medical Officer

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed daily life. North Dakotans continue to work toward herd immunity, a phase when more than 85% of residents become immune through exposure to the virus or immunization. Vaccinations provide a safe and effective solution to reach herd immunity efficiently without putting a strain on the health care system.

Built upon a sturdy foundation
While the COVID-19 vaccines are new, the underlying science is not. The three FDA-approved vaccines—manufactured by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson—incorporate proven research and delivery technology used successfully in previous vaccines. As of this writing, there are two different vaccine types that have been given emergency use authorization—mRNA vaccines and vector vaccines.

Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines
Current examples of mRNA solutions include the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines. Researchers have been working on this type of vaccine delivery system for many years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mRNA vaccines:

  • Are engineered safely in laboratories
  • Help get your body ready to fight off the COVID-19 virus if you were to get it
  • Don’t contain any actual virus
  • Have passed many tests in the lab and with thousands of people
  • Meet the strict standards from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration
  • Don’t affect your DNA

The effectiveness rate is 95% for the Pfizer vaccine and 94.5% for the Moderna vaccine. The CDC  considers a person fully vaccinated two weeks after the second dose of an mRNA vaccine.

Vector vaccines
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is an example of a vector vaccine. Vector vaccines use a genetic material from the COVID-19 virus that is inserted into a different kind of weakened live virus, such as an adenovirus. The weakened virus, also referred to as a viral vector, gets into your cells and delivers genetic material from the COVID-19 virus that gives your cells instructions to make copies of the S protein. Once your cells display the S proteins on their surfaces, your immune system responds by creating antibodies and defensive white blood cells. The CDC says:

  • Vector vaccines teach your body how to respond if you become infected with the COVID-19 virus
  • Vector vaccines can't cause you to become infected with the COVID-19 virus or the viral vector virus
  • The genetic material that's delivered doesn't become part of your DNA

The effectiveness rate for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 85.9% in the US population and 66.9% in worldwide studies. The CDC considers a person fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving a single dose of the vector vaccine.

A safe solution   
The FDA reviewed studies for the three approved vaccines, a process that normally can take months or years, and has given emergency use authorization due to the urgent need for vaccines and data that shows that the vaccines are safe and effective. Currently, several additional COVID-19 vaccines are in clinical trials. More COVID-19 vaccines will likely make it into the marketplace, but not until they meet the same high standards as the existing vaccines. Also, there are ongoing trials with the currently approved vaccines for pregnant women and children under age 16.

As with many other vaccines, sore muscles, fatigue or a mild fever are common side effects. Mild side effects are a sign the vaccine is working. COVID-19 vaccines have not been linked to infertility or miscarriage. Side effects are monitored by an FDA Dashboard that measures adverse events to all COVID-19 products.

What comes next?
The CDC reports that it doesn’t know how long protection lasts for those who are vaccinated. They also report that experts are working to learn more about natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity.

It is still possible to spread the virus after vaccination. While the vaccine will prevent most from getting sick, experts don’t yet know whether the vaccine prevents you from harboring and spreading the COVID-19 virus. Therefore, mask-wearing, social distancing and handwashing are still necessary.

North Dakota continues to lead the nation with one of the highest distribution rates—approaching 99%. This is a stark comparison from states that are seeing less than 50% of its allocated vaccines distributed.

Our recommendation
At BCBSND, we recommend getting vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus as soon as you are able. To encourage vaccination, we are eliminating member cost sharing/deductibles for members who get vaccinated, identifying high risk members and reaching out to them directly, and working with the North Dakota Department of Health to encourage all residents of North Dakota to get vaccinated.

To see North Dakota vaccination locations and eligibility phases, visit the Department of Health’s COVID vaccination locator. If you have questions about whether you should receive the vaccine, talk to your physician.