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ROCKFORD — It's been over a year since the coronavirus vaccines were made available, and within the ever-changing climate of the pandemic questions are inevitable.
In December 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, likewise in February for the Johnson & Johnson version.
Since then local hospitals, pharmacies, community centers, and churches have played host to vaccination sites.
Despite recommendations from local officials and health professionals, a large number of area residents have not gotten the vaccine. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, about 52% or 148,902 people in Winnebago County have been vaccinated as of Monday.
Here's what Dr. Kavitha Subramanian, infectious disease specialist for OSF HealthCare had to say about the vaccines.
What does the COVID-19 vaccine offer in terms of protection? Does it mitigate contracting the virus? Mitigate developing severe symptoms or prevent death?
Subramanian: COVID-19 vaccines protect everyone from the ages of five years and older from getting infected and becoming severely ill. Evidence shows that it significantly reduces the likelihood of hospitalization and death.
Getting vaccinated is the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to prevent infection from delta and other variants. A vaccinated person can still contract the virus and when vaccine breakthrough infections happen they can still transmit the virus. So even if you are vaccinated, taking the extra steps including hand washing, social distancing, and wearing a mask in indoor public places will assist in controlling the transmission.
Does the COVID-19 vaccine offer any guarantees to those who take it?
Subramanian: I will not call it a guarantee, but there is enough research to back up the recommendation. The CDC, WHO, and other organizations continue to actively monitor vaccine safety and effectiveness against new and emerging variants for all FDA-authorized COVID -19 vaccines. So far the evidence shows that the vaccines offer protection against severe disease hospitalization and death against currently circulating variants in the United States.
How effective is the COVID-19 vaccine against the different types of variants?
Subramanian: Scientists monitor all variants, some spread more easily and quickly than other variants.
The current variants of concern are omicron (B.1.1.529) and delta (B.1.617.2). Among these two, omicron may spread more easily than other variants including delta. Breakthrough infections in people who are vaccinated can happen, but we do know the booster dose offers increased protection against these variants, and the vaccine is still effective in preventing severe disease. Omicron data is still early but available information is encouraging enough to recommend that we continue getting the vaccine and the booster dose.
How long will booster shots be needed? Should people expect to need to get a shot routinely?
Subramanian: Data from clinical trials showed that a booster shot increased the immune response in trial participants. With an increased immune response we expect more protection against severe disease. ... Regarding future boosters, we need to continue to monitor how this particular virus evolves. If the disease continues in the community and causes severe disease then there is a possibility that we may need further boosters, but if the disease goes away we won’t need boosters.
Are there things people can do in conjunction with the vaccine in order to build up their immune system?
Subramanian: Yes, since we are currently seeing a case spike and vaccine breakthrough infections, the general population needs to take all extra steps including hand washing, social distancing, and indoor masking. There is also a correlation between severe disease and underlying chronic respiratory conditions so this would be a good time to quit smoking, vaping and other habits that lead to lung disease.
Take all the prescribed medications for your chronic conditions including asthma, hypertension, and cardiac conditions as per your doctor's instructions so that you can stay healthy at a baseline. If you have family members who have low immunity due to chronic conditions, make sure you are vaccinated and boosted so that you don’t transmit the disease to them, because immunosuppressed individuals can get a severe disease even if they have received the vaccine.
Other tips include: get your seasonal flu vaccine, eat healthily, and include vitamin C-rich foods like fruits and fresh vegetables in your diet. If you develop any upper respiratory symptoms you should quarantine and get tested. If the test is positive then reach out to your doctor regarding available early interventions including monoclonal antibodies.
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: OSF specialist answers questions about COVID-19 vaccine