COVID-19 vaccines: what to expect and how to combat hesitancy

With the arrival of the first COVID-19 vaccines in Canada, most are eager to roll up their sleeves. But not every Canadian is feeling confident about getting the jab.

According to a recent survey conducted by Angus Reid, less than two thirds of Canadians surveyed said they would get the vaccine right away. Twenty-three per cent indicated they would prefer to wait, while 12 per cent reported they would not get vaccinated and five per cent remained unsure.

Dr. Julie Bettinger is an associate professor in UBC’s faculty of medicine, a vaccine safety scientist at the Vaccine Evaluation Center at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, and a member of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization. In this Q&A, she discusses vaccine hesitancy and what to expect when it comes to the short and long-term side effects of COVID-19 vaccines.

Dr. Julie Bettinger

Dr. Julie Bettinger

Why are some people hesitant when it comes to getting a COVID-19 vaccine?

Vaccine hesitancy is defined as refusing vaccination in spite of the availability of a vaccine. Given the severely restricted supply of COVID-19 vaccines, we do not have vaccine hesitancy, yet, but some people have expressed concerns or worries that we hear anytime we have a new vaccine. Many are concerned about whether or not the vaccine will work, about short- and long-term safety of the vaccine, about its “newness” and the unknowns that come with a new vaccine.

Most of these concerns can be addressed. We know the two vaccines we are currently using (the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) work incredibly well. The clinical trial results were striking in terms of efficacy. We expect to see some decrease in terms of how well these vaccines will work when used in real-life settings, but given how well they performed in clinical trial settings they will still be very effective.

What can be done to combat vaccine hesitancy?

Improving scientific literacy among all ages, but particularly in children is critical to combatting vaccine hesitancy. B.C.-developed platforms such as www.kidsboostimmunity.com can be used and integrated into formal and informal teaching and outreach to achieve this.

It’s important to educate yourself and your friends and family about the immune system and how vaccines work. Recognize and counter vaccine misinformation and disinformation, in-person and online. There is no debate in the scientific community about vaccines. They work and are safe.

Will we be able to reach herd immunity in Canada if not everyone is vaccinated against COVID-19?

We don’t currently know if any of the vaccines will lead to herd immunity. We know they prevent symptomatic disease, but we don’t know if they stop transmission of COVID-19. If they can stop transmission, then it would require high vaccine coverage to reach herd immunity.

What are the short-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines?

In terms of safety, in the short-term people can expect a sore arm. Some will feel bad, perhaps like they are getting sick with a cold or the flu, for 2-3 days, but then will be fine. These are normal side effects to the vaccine and demonstrate the immune system is responding.

We have seen some allergic reactions following vaccination. Again, these are expected and are not occurring at a rate higher than what we would expect with a new vaccine. It is important for us to monitor these effects so we can make sure they are what we expect to occur and at a frequency lower or similar to what occurs in a population that has not been vaccinated.

What are the long-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines?

In terms of long-term side effects from the vaccine, we don’t have the data and will need to continue to monitor to ensure the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. We also don’t know the long-term effects of being infected with COVID-19. But what is emerging shows there are long-term effects from COVID-19 infection, such as “brain fog,” which severely alter an individual’s health.

Based on what we know about how COVID-19 vaccines work, we would not expect them to have long-term adverse effects. It is our hope that they will provide long-term protection against disease, but this also remains to be seen.

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