Stay up-to-date on Vaccines during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Betty Chaffee, PharmD, is owner and sole proprietor of BetterMyMeds, a Medication Management service devoted to helping people get the maximum benefit from their medications.
Vaccinations are a routine part of preventative healthcare. Vaccinations decrease the chances that we'll contract infectious diseases, or that we'll suffer critical illness if we do. We're all hoping for a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19, and there are lots of researchers working hard on that. But it's likely to be quite some time before there's one available and in widespread distribution.
In the meantime, we still have all those other routine vaccinations for children and adults. Vaccines for influenza, measles, chickenpox, pneumonia, shingles, hepatitis, pertussis, and more. Vaccines provide immunity to infectious diseases of all sorts, not only to the individual getting the vaccine, but also to society as a whole. When most community members are immunized against an infection, the whole community is protected. Even those who aren't vaccinated benefit, because the infection has limited places to go. But when vaccination rates are low, diseases can spread widely. This phenomenon is called "herd immunity". Staying up-to-date on vaccinations is important for your health and the health of your community.
But health experts did sort of an about-face earlier this spring when they recommended putting a temporary stop to routine vaccinations. There were several reasons. First was the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE was in very short supply, and using PPE for what was considered to be a non-lifesaving procedure wasn't justifiable. At the same time, without sufficient PPE, healthcare providers couldn't ensure their own safety while administering vaccines to patients. And worse, the virus was spreading so quickly in many areas that the risk of contracting the virus just by going out in public outweighed the benefit of the vaccine. So healthcare professionals were forced to put routine vaccination on the back burner.
Now's the time to start thinking about vaccines again
That's changed now, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) currently recommends that routine immunization be restarted. PPE is more readily available so that both healthcare providers and patients can be protected. And in most areas, new cases of COVID-19 continue to decrease each day, so the risk of getting sick (while still definitely there) is lower. But here's the other, and maybe most important, part of the story. Staying up-to-date on routine vaccinations is one way to protect yourself from another surge of COVID-19 cases. How? Immunization will decrease your risk of coming down with a preventable infection that might end up with you in the doctor's office or hospital.
Most experts are still expecting another surge of COVID-19. States are opening up their economies, putting people back to work and in close proximity to one another. And since only a small percentage of the population has contracted the virus so far, nearly everyone is still susceptible to it. The hope, of course, is that if we're cautious, virus transmission will be slower than during the first surge. This means continuing to maintain distance, practice hand hygiene, and wear face masks in public. But even with caution, it's likely that when we start gathering, the incidence of COVID-19 will go up. When that happens, the last place a person without COVID-19 wants to be is in a healthcare facility with lots of people who might have the virus. You'll minimize your chances of needing acute healthcare by staying up-to-date on vaccinations.
Common adult vaccinations
It's more important than ever to get your influenza vaccination this year. Influenza requires hospitalization in about 500,000 people in the US every year. Those who are over 65 or have chronic health problems are at higher risk from both flu and the coronavirus. Plan now to fit flu vaccination into your fall schedule!
It's expected that the 2020/21 flu vaccine will be available in August so that vaccination can begin in September. But this year the hope is that most people will be immunized by the end of October. That's a much shorter timeline than most years, when people get vaccinated against flu all the way through November and even later. Experts hope that early immunization against seasonal flu will decrease its spread significantly. Widespread immunity to the flu will allow more healthcare resources to be available for to that next surge of COVID-19.
The pneumococcal vaccines, Prevnar and Pneumovax, protect us from pneumococcal infections like pneumonia. Most adults only need one dose of Pneumovax when they turn 65. But some with underlying chronic diseases need a dose of Pneumovax before they turn 65, and some with immune-compromising diseases even need a third dose. Adults with certain risk factors may also need a dose of Prevnar 13 for the best protection. If you're not sure which group you're in, talk with your doctor or pharmacist.
The newer shingles vaccine, Shingrix, is a two-shot series, with the second shot two to six months after the first. Shingrix is quite effective at preventing shingles, which in some cases can cause nerve pain severe enough to land people in the hospital. If you're 50 years of age or older, your health insurance is likely to pay for this vaccine.
The pertussis vaccine only needs to be given once to adults, and it's often given with a tetanus booster. The pertussis vaccine prevents "whooping cough", which actually strikes the very young more than adults. Being up-to-date on the pertussis vaccine will help protect the youngsters in your life from needing acute medical care during a future COVID surge.
Other adult vaccinations include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, human papillomavirus, and meningococcal. All should be given routinely to adults in certain risk categories.
And don't forget to keep the kids up-to-date on vaccinations
We all put a lot of things on hold during the past several weeks. If the kids missed some routine healthcare appointments, they may have fallen behind on vaccinations. No need to worry, the vaccine schedule is flexible! Children's vaccines protect them from measles, mumps, chicken pox, polio -- many infectious diseases that we hardly ever see anymore. That's because of herd immunity - it works! Getting things back on track will provide the protection your children need.
Vaccinations can be given by your community pharmacist!
Yep, that's me in the photo, getting one of my routine vaccinations just this week from Dr. Ted Scott, a pharmacist at Jensen's Community Pharmacy in Dexter. Most community pharmacies will likely begin providing routine vaccinations again soon. Procedures may be a bit different than what you're used to though. Your pharmacy may require an appointment so that they can minimize wait times. They may require you to wear a mask. They may ask that you complete and sign the consent form at home and bring it with you. Any procedural changes are there to protect you, other patients, and the staff in the best way possible.
Make plans now to get your vaccinations when they're due!
If you're not sure what vaccinations you need, check with your doctor or pharmacist. Stay healthy. Stay safe. Get vaccinated!
Since the Covid-19 is a virus, AND it has mutated (from what I’ve read elsewhere), any vaccine will have to be an annual thing, correct? When a Covid vaccine is developed, would it be able to mix with the common flu shot vaccine that we currently get? One annual shot is certainly more desirable than two.
Wow, that’s a great question Tony. From what I understand, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is mutating, but very slowly. And it’s not like there are a bunch of different strains or types of the virus like there are with influenza. So it may not be that they’d need to actually change the vaccine every year.
On the other hand, no one knows yet how long immunity will last. The flu vaccine needs to be given annually partly because different strains tend to spread each year, but also because immunity to the influenza virus doesn’t last all that long. Hopefully some clues will emerge as they’re developing and testing vaccines in the coming months.
And here’s the other thing – some immunizations are given into a muscle, others underneath the skin. Some can even be given through nasal inhalation. If they can’t be given by the same route, we’d be stuck with two separate immunizations.
Personally I’m hoping that a vaccine against COVID-19 will provide longer-lasting immunity so we won’t need yearly vaccines. What a great idea, though, if it turns out we all need annual vaccinations for flu and COVID, to see if they can be combined into one formulation!