COVID-19 Vaccines Q&A: What You Need to Know

January 18, 2022

GW Hospital is dedicated to keeping the community informed during the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked three physicians who serve GW Hospital patients to discuss the vaccines and give our community some answers in the following Q&As.

General Vaccine Facts and Information

Marc Siegel, MDMarc Siegel, MD, is a board-certified infectious disease physician. He is also Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases at The George Washington University.

Q. What are the benefits of getting vaccinated for COVID-19?

A. The first major benefit is these vaccines reduce your chance of getting symptomatically ill if you get exposed to COVID-19. The second is that for those vaccinated people who do contract COVID-19, they are very unlikely to require hospitalization and even less likely to die from the disease.

Q. How fast do the vaccines take effect? 

A. We noticed that people started to show signs of protection as early as 14 days after the first shot. For the Pfizer® vaccine there was about a 50-percent reduction in symptomatic infections before the second shot, and for the Moderna® vaccine there was about an 80-percent reduction in symptomatic infections before the second shot.

Q. What would you tell people who are reluctant to get the vaccine? 

A. I think we have established the safety of these vaccines and we know that they are already making a significant difference in the number of people getting infected and the number of people being admitted to the hospital. We also know that coronavirus remains a very dangerous disease with limited therapies for treating it, and therefore the vaccine is our best protection against this virus.

Who Should Get Vaccinated

Tenagne Haile-Mariam, MDTenagne Haile-Mariam, MD, is a board-certified emergency medicine physician. She is also Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at The George Washington University.

Q. Can I get a COVID-19 vaccine if I have a history of allergic reactions?

A. In short, yes. The vaccines that have been approved for use in the U.S. all have excellent safety profiles. However, anybody with known allergy to polyethylene glycol (found in Pfizer and Moderna) or related polysorbate (found in Johnson & Johnson®) needs to consult with a physician before being vaccinated.

Q. Can pregnant or breastfeeding women get the COVID-19 vaccine?

A. Yes, the vaccines can be administered to both pregnant and breastfeeding women. Pregnant women are at increased risk for severe COVID-19, but they are at no heightened risk for vaccine-related side effects and allergic reactions. When pregnant or breastfeeding, a woman should discuss the pros and cons of vaccination with her obstetrician.

I Am Vaccinated. Now What?

Raymond Pla, MDRaymond Pla, MD, is a board-certified anesthesiologist and critical care medicine physician. He is also Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine at The George Washington University.

Q. Can I take an over-the-counter pain medication before or after getting a vaccine?

A. Some of the nonsteroidal drugs like Aleve® and ibuprofen, to treat the inflammatory response, can adversely impact the degree of immunity that you receive from the vaccine. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to take Tylenol® either beforehand or afterward to decrease the severity of side effects.

Q. Why does a vaccine that is supposed to prevent sickness make people feel ill?

A. The vaccine teaches the body how to make a certain protein, a protein that’s very similar to the protein that COVID-19 has on the surface of the virus. Antibodies will develop an immune response to that protein. You’re experiencing the body doing what you want it to do, and that is have an inflammatory or an immune response to a protein that’s being made, that your body was taught to make by the vaccine.

Q. Are there long-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines?

A. If we were going to see long-term, serious consequences, we would have begun to see them by now. That we’ve not seen anything so far is very good news.

Q. Can I stop taking safety precautions after getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

A. I think that answer is not a straightforward yes or no. We understand that people want to get back out there and reestablish those personal connections. There are a number of variants that are out there, against which these vaccines were not initially studied, because those variants didn’t exist at the time these vaccines were developed and studied. Only a certain percentage of U.S. adults are now vaccinated. We certainly don’t want to see a resurgence or an uptick in COVID-19 activity because people are letting their guard down a little early.

Q. The Pfizer vaccine was approved in August 2021 by the FDA. How well do you think all of these vaccines have been working so far?

A. Those who have been vaccinated represent a very, small fraction of those who have gotten seriously ill. Those who have still contracted the virus, though vaccinated, have been either asymptomatic or very mildly symptomatic. I think that highlights very well how effective these vaccines have been.

Q. Please speak a bit about the different variants and why they can be so dangerous.

A. Viral strains have led to a dramatic uptake uptick surge in the number of hospitalizations and the number of critically ill patients. One thing I can point out is that it appears as if the variants are more communicable, more easily spread from person-to-person within the community.

The reports are quite disturbing. While D.C. has a high vaccination rate, there is now a shortage of critical resources in some hospitals in other communities.

Q. Who would you recommend receiving a booster?

A. As of mid-January 2022, CDC recommends booster shots for all those 12 and older who completed the Pfizer or Moderna series of two vaccines five months after the second shot. For those who received the Johnson & Johnson® vaccine, they should receive a booster shot as well at least two months after the initial shot.

Q. Knowing that nobody has a crystal ball, what do you anticipate the pandemic situation will be in the fall and winter of this year?

A. Certainly with the caveats that I am not an epidemiologist and that predicting the future quite the challenge for such an unprecedented situation, I fear a surge on top of a surge as we enter winter — ongoing reluctance by many to be vaccinated plus congregations indoors, often without masks. Keep in mind that many of those unvaccinated are opposed to wearing masks as well. Add to that travel and large gatherings during the holidays that may exacerbate the spread.