COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects and Risks Frequently Asked Questions

By: Dr. Christina Canfield, Fisher-Titus Family Medicine-Wakeman Physician and Fisher-Titus Medical Care Chief Medical Officer

We have now been living in our COVID-19 pandemic world for over a year and half and we are closing in on one year of having vaccines available to help us in the fight against COVID-19. However, there are still many people hesitant to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective both in large-scale clinical trials and now in real world situations. Worldwide, over 6 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered with 2.65 billion individuals fully vaccinated. However, with 34% of the global population and 56% percent of the United State population being fully vaccinated, we need more individuals to get vaccinated in order to slow the spread of this deadly disease.

We know there are many questions and misinformation circulating about the COVID-19 vaccine. Here are some answers to some of the most common questions we hear.

What are some of the common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines?

There are several side effects that are fairly common after receiving the COVID-19, particularly after the second dose of Pfizer or Moderna. These include swelling, redness, or pain at the injection site as well as fever, headache, tiredness, muscle pain, chills/nausea.

What are the less common, more serious side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?

While extremely rare, there are more serious side effects that have been reported after COVID-19 vaccination. Anaphylaxis, or severe allergic reaction has been reported in 2-5 cases per one million vaccines. Thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) which is the formation of blood clots combined with low platelet levels, has been reported after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in around 47 cases per 14.8 million doses and is more commonly seen in women under 50. Guillain Barre Syndrome—a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves—is also rare with only 210 preliminary (not confirmed) cases per 14.8 mil doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Guillain Barre is more commonly seen in men over 50. Myocarditis/pericarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) is very rare with 892 cases confirmed by the CDC & FDA after Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. It is more commonly seen in males under 30.

Have there been any serious vaccine side effects resulting in death?

Reports of death after COVID-19 vaccines are rare. In 390 million doses given, there were 8,164 deaths reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System or VAERS. However, it’s important to understand that even though these deaths were reported in VAERS, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a vaccine was the cause. A review of the death certificates, autopsies, and medical records has not established a causal link to the COVID-19 vaccines. The exception to this being that recent studies indicate a plausible causal relationship between the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome which has caused deaths.

Do the different vaccines have different risks/side effects?

Yes, as stated above the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has different rare serious side effects than the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) because it is a different type of vaccine.

If you can still get COVID-19 after getting the vaccine what’s the point in getting it?

Vaccination reduces the risk of severe illness and death. We have seen this even at the local level as evidenced by the daily reports put out by Fisher-Titus. The significant majority of patients hospitalized, in the ICU, and on ventilators are unvaccinated. You can see these local daily reports Monday-Friday at fishertitus.org/coronavirus and on Facebook Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Also, vaccination does reduce the risk of someone spreading the virus. A new CDC study finds the mRNA vaccines reduce the risk of infection by 91% for fully vaccinated people.

Where can I find data trustworthy about the vaccine, its risks, etc.?

I recommend the CDC website for accurate and up to date information about the COVID-19 vaccines and their risks and side effects. You can find a lot of great information and data there at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html.

Are there any health conditions that may put a person at increased risk for vaccine side effects or are there any groups that should not get vaccinated because of medical conditions and vaccine risks?

The CDC recommends COVID-19 vaccines for most people with underlying medical conditions. Adults of any age with certain underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and the risks from COVID-19 illness are greater than the risks from vaccination. However, if you have an underlying medical condition and are hesitant to receive the vaccine, you can always talk to your primary care provider and they can answer any specific questions you have. Additionally, you can learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine for people with underlying health conditions on the CDC’s website here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations/underlying-conditions.html

What are some common vaccine concerns that have been disproven?

As a family medicine physician in our community, I have had numerous conversations with my patients about various rumors and concerns relating to the COVID-19 vaccine. Most, if not all, of these concerns have been proven to be completely false.

There are no microchips in the vaccines, they do not make you magnetic, they do not contain live viruses, the do not alter your DNA. The presence of COVID antibodies doesn’t negate the need for a COVID-19 vaccine as scientists have not yet established a serologic correlation of protection from the virus. This means you should still get the COVID-19 vaccine even if you previously had COVID-19 as the protection from the vaccine is much stronger than what scientists have seen from those who had COVID-19.

Most importantly, there is currently NO evidence that any vaccine, including the COVID vaccines, causes fertility issues. In fact, the CDC recommends vaccination for individuals who are pregnant as they are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19. The CDC recently issued a health advisory which recommends the COVID-19 vaccine for pregnant people to prevent serious illness, deaths, and adverse pregnancy outcomes. They recommend urgent action to increase vaccination among woman who are pregnant, recently pregnant, lactating, and those who are trying to become pregnant now or in the future because the benefits outweigh known risks.

At the end of the day, even though there are side effects and serious adverse events as I discussed, the COVID vaccine is overall safe and effective, and the data shows it is truly decreasing the severity of the disease, preventing hospitalizations, reducing ICU admissions and ventilator usage, and reducing deaths.

COVID-19 is a very serious disease. I have had several patients, both young and healthy and older and not so healthy (most recently those that are unvaccinated) die from this disease. I have seen the health care providers at Fisher-Titus cry over the death of patients after working so hard to save them. I have seen their weariness and their sadness and my heart breaks. I have seen the leaders in our hospital struggle to make sure we have adequate staff to take care of our patients, even when many of our staff are out on quarantine, are taking care of family members ill or in quarantine, or are just not coming back to work because they can’t do it any longer.

I know that vaccines historically have saved mankind from the terrible effects of diseases like polio, smallpox, tetanus, and measles among many others. While I absolutely respect the individual right to choose for themselves, I pray that our community does its part to help stop the ravages of COVID by getting vaccinated.

If you are interested in receiving your COVID-19 vaccine, Fisher-Titus offers COVID-19 vaccinations at our five Primary Care locations, two Pediatrics locations, and Convenient Care. Appointments are required for Primary Care and Pediatrics and can be made online at fishertitus.org/schedule by choosing either Family Medicine or Pediatrics and selecting COVID-19 vaccination from the drop-down under “reason for appointment.” Walk-ins are accepted at Convenient Care during normal hours, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, visit fishertitus.org/coronavirus.