Understanding the COVID-19 Vaccine, part 5: Myths & Misinformation - The Truth Behind the Vaccines
In this blog series about the new COVID-19 vaccinations, we will discuss what vaccines are, how a COVID-19 vaccine works, what side effects to look out for, and work to clear up some of the myths and misinformation that’s currently floating around about these immunizations. This is an exciting and promising step that can help us stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect those of us working on the front lines as well as our patients, friends, family, and loved ones. In case you missed them, catch up on the first posts in the series!
Catch up on the rest of the series:
Today we’ll be tackling some major myths and misinformation surrounding the new COVID-19 vaccines.
Myth: The mRNA vaccine will alter my DNA.
The MRNA vaccine will not alter your DNA. The truth is that while these new vaccines utilize mRNA technology, they never even come close to interacting with your DNA. The mRNA enters your cells in order for your ribosomes to make the spike protein to initiate an immune response. Yes, your DNA lives within your cells, too, but it is isolated inside the nucleus of your cells. Simply put, the mRNA and your DNA never even cross paths. You can read up about the technology behind the mRNA vaccine in our third post in this series.
Myth: The COVID-19 vaccines will give me the virus.
Again, this is a very common misconception, but it is patently false! The COVID-19 vaccines will not give you the COVID-19 virus.
As we discussed in our first post about the basics of immunology, it is absolutely expected that you may feel sick after the vaccine. This is not because you actually are sick! Instead, this is something known as “reactogenicity.” Your immune system is reacting to the vaccine and attacking the produced protein as though it were a real threat. Fatigue, fever, chills, and muscle pain are all bothersome side effects, but they are not harmful, nor are they a result of contracting COVID-19. Because the mRNA vaccine is not delivering any single portion of the live or attenuated virus to you, it is scientifically impossible to contract the virus from the vaccine.
Myth: I cannot get COVID-19 once I’ve been vaccinated.
Unfortunately, this is also not true. It's possible for a person to test positive for COVID-19 after they have been vaccinated. There are a few reasons this can happen:
- The individual was exposed to the virus prior to the vaccine. The vaccine cannot create immunity if the virus is already circulating in your body. This person may not have known they were sick yet due to the incubation period of the virus.
- The individual was exposed to the virus after the first vaccine. Remember, the vaccine takes time to work, and you are not protected right after the first dose! The first dose of either vaccine only provides some protection. Pfizer clocks in at about 52% efficacy after the first dose, while Moderna is closer to 80%. The second dose is crucial for providing the maximum protection! So if an individual were exposed to the virus after receiving the first vaccine, they could still be infected. This is why it is so important to continue wearing masks and practice social distancing even after being vaccinated!
- The individual was exposed to the virus after the second vaccine. Again, it takes up to two full weeks after the second dose to receive the maximum benefit, so it is still possible to contract the virus!
- The individual was exposed to the virus after full efficacy from the vaccine was reached. Remember that neither Pfizer nor Moderna’s vaccines grant 100% immunity to the virus! Although they are extremely effective (between 94-95%), it is still possible that some small portion of vaccinated individuals will still go on to contract the virus. The good news is that these vaccinated individuals who do get COVID-19 are overwhelmingly likely to suffer only mild symptoms thanks to the vaccine.
Myth: Once I am vaccinated, I no longer need to wear a mask or socially distance from other vaccinated individuals.
Again, this is unfortunately false. Once you receive a vaccine, you should still wear a mask and socially distance.
It is likely that the vaccine reduces transmission rates of COVID-19, however we simply do not have the data to say for sure that this is the case. The aim of the vaccine research studies was to determine their safety and efficacy. Simply put, the studies weren’t designed to determine if the vaccine would reduce transmission rates of the virus, as this wasn’t the priority. The great news is that vaccine transmission rates in vaccinated individuals is being studied now, and we should have data about that in the near future! Until we know for certain, it is best to continue wearing your mask any time you leave your home, and practicing social distancing.
Myth: The vaccine will cause infertility.
Thankfully, this is a myth through and through! The COVID-19 vaccines do not cause infertility.
There is no scientifically grounded reason to believe that the vaccine will cause infertility. As we’ve discussed previously, the mRNA vaccines utilize your own body to create the artificial threat, but do not interfere with or alter your DNA at all. The overwhelming majority of adverse reactions to vaccines happen within the first 30-45 days, because the vaccine doesn’t just hang around in your body! As with other parenteral therapies, it is fully excreted from the body. Furthermore, the major professional organizations for obstetrics and gynecology are in full agreement that the COVID-19 vaccine should be given to those who are trying to conceive or undergoing fertility treatments. It is far more dangerous to a patient’s health and that of their potential fetus to contract COVID-19 than it is to receive the vaccination. Check out the next myth for more information on these statements!
Myth: The vaccines are not okay for pregnant people.
We can breathe another huge sigh of relief, because this is false as well! As mentioned above, all major professional organizations for obstetrics and gynecology unanimously agree that the COVID-19 vaccines should be offered to pregnant patients.
A practice advisory from The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) states, “ACOG recommends that COVID-19 vaccines should not be withheld from pregnant individuals who meet criteria for vaccination.”
Similarly, a practice advisory from the Society of Maternal-Fetal Medicine (pdf) states, “In general, SMFM strongly recommends that pregnant women have access to COVID-19 vaccines in all phases of future vaccine campaigns, and that she and her healthcare professional engage in shared decision-making regarding her receipt of the vaccine.”
A paper published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology MFM states “Based on increased COVID-19–related morbidity and mortality during pregnancy combined with the currently available efficacy and safety profile of COVID-19 vaccines in nonpregnant people, FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines should not be withheld from women solely based on their pregnancy or lactation status when they otherwise meet the criteria for vaccination.”
It is important to remember that this is a personal decision that should be made between a patient and provider, however there is no reason pregnancy or lactation should exclude someone from receiving the vaccine if they want it!
Myth: The vaccine isn’t safe because it was produced so quickly.
It is true that the vaccine was produced quickly, however that does not mean it is not safe! If you’d like to read more about how the vaccine was produced and tested, check out our blog post on The Road to Vaccine Approval in the United States.
Myth: If I’ve had COVID-19, I don’t need the vaccine.
Unfortunately, this is also false! You can benefit from the vaccine even if you have had COVID-19.
While previously contracting COVID-19 does provide antibodies, there is a wide range of time that these antibodies exist and provide immunity. For some people, natural immunity only lasts about 90 days, while others are granted immunity for 8 months. What we do know, however, is that it is absolutely possible to contract COVID-19 again after your natural immunity wears off. For that reason, the CDC recommends all people be vaccinated regardless of whether or not they’ve had the virus before.
Myth: If someone declines the vaccine, they are selfish.
As healthcare professionals, we know this is not true. Patients have the right to bodily autonomy, and it is our job as nurses to always uphold that ethical principle. There are many people who have very valid reasons to distrust science and medicine, especially those in communities that were taken advantage of, lied to, or experimented on in the past. There are, unfortunately, copious examples of this throughout the history of medicine.Marion Sims is known as the “father of gynecology,” but everything he did and learned was done by performing experiments on enslaved Black women. The Tuskegee Experiments existed, ostensibly, to study the progression of syphilis. However, the 600 Black men who were recruited to be in this “study” were treated only with placebos and told they were receiving actual medical treatment. Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust were routinely experimented on by medical staff such as Dr. Josef Mengele, who was especially focused on performing cruel experiments on twins.
There are countless other examples of racism and unethical treatment of marginalized peoples in medicine, and it would be absurd to dismiss these very real concerns out of hand. As medical professionals, it is our job to listen to the concerns of our patients, provide education as to medical facts, and ultimately support the decisions of our patients. Although we may not agree with the choices our patients make at times, it is not our job to decide on their behalf, or to judge them for their choices. That said, we can lead by example, inspiring confidence in those who might be wary of receiving the vaccine.
If you’d like to become better educated about the history of racism in medicine, we recommend these books:
- “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” by Harriet A. Washington
- “Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Healthcare” by Dayna Bowen Matthew
- “Black & Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism” by John Hoberman
- “Black Man in a White Coat” by Damon Tweedy, M.D.
- “Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology” by Deirdre Cooper Owens
Now, there is some truth to this particular myth. There are some individuals who spread harmful misinformation that is not rooted in science or grounded in reality. And there are other individuals who are unaware that their perception of vaccines and the virus stem from widespread conspiracy theories. It is, again, the right of the patient to make medical decisions about their own bodies, and it is our job to support those decisions.
But, we can do our best to combat conspiracy theories as well as more innocent misinformation by addressing it directly. Correct those you hear who spread incorrect statements about the vaccine or the virus. Share our blog posts with them. Patient education and education of the public may seem like it isn’t doing much, but it truly can change minds. Truth grounded in science is the best way to combat willful misinformation, along with leading by example. Get vaccinated, wear your mask, and continue to practice social distancing.
The decision on whether or not to be vaccinated is an important one which should not be taken lightly. It is our sincere hope that in this series of five blog posts we have given you information to help you feel better prepared to make that decision with your healthcare provider. We also hope that these posts provide information to help you explain the benefits and risks of vaccination to your friends, family, colleagues, and patients.
Do you have more questions about COVID-19, the vaccines, or other related subjects? Let us know in the comments, and we can further explore these topics together.
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