At long last, the possibility of getting ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic through achievement of herd immunity actually appears attainable in our foreseeable future.

Notably, the historically unprecedented speed for the development and deployment of the effective COVID-19 vaccines is wonderful news for all of us and a most welcomed proud accomplishment for America. Unfortunately the distribution of the vaccines has thus far been more challenging, confusing and frustratingly slower than many expected. Variability between and across states and regional communities in terms of vaccine proficiency and glaring vaccine access disparities have unfortunately exasperated many stakeholders and left too many silent generation members of our community perhaps too patiently and quietly waiting their turn. However, “every cloud has a silver lining.” Rather than further dividing, inclusive stakeholders are unifying in unprecedented ways around brainstorming and implementing more coordinated, equitable and effective vaccine distribution strategies. In my humble opinion, proximity between federal, state and local governmental agencies and stewards of public resources — including health care provider systems and pharmacies in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines — has rarely been more tangible, direct and adaptable.

What’s especially heartening to see is that community demand for the COVID-19 vaccines is very high. We at The Wright Center for Community Health can attest to this, considering the countless phone calls and emails we get from the general public on a daily basis seeking vaccination. This is precisely the courageous level of interest necessary to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19. This demand for the COVID-19 vaccine has also had the unexpected benefit of allowing us to engage patients and catch other troublesome health conditions when they visit our practices to be inoculated. This is why we vaccinate within the context of office visits or a well-planned larger population event, leaving the vaccine-only experience for lower risk patients to our pharmacy partners. While this means patients we vaccinate may encounter co-pays when they come in for COVID-19 vaccines, it also ensures the opportunity to get your blood pressure checked and addressed and to bring other issues forward you may have been deferring during the pandemic. Consider this: In a single month, almost 25% of patients who came in for the COVID-19 vaccine were found to have

undiagnosed or uncontrolled hypertension, which was discovered by medical staff taking their routine vital signs before they received their shot. Left untreated, hypertension is a leading cause of kidney failure, heart disease, strokes and related mortality in this country. Finally, now is the time for community members to prepare themselves for the eventuality of the opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. To promote your knowledgeable decision making, here are the answers to some common COVID-19 vaccine-related questions: Should I be vaccinated if I have already had COVID-19? Yes, you absolutely should be vaccinated, since it is possible to be reinfected with the virus. That said, do not get vaccinated if you currently have the virus — wait until your symptoms and the quarantine period have passed. Be sure to talk to your primary care physician prior to scheduling your vaccination as this guidance continues to change. Can I receive other vaccines at the same time I receive my vaccine? No, you should give yourself 14 days prior to or following both COVID-19 vaccination doses to receive any other type of vaccine. What sort of side effects can I expect from the vaccine? Many people exhibit no symptoms at all after vaccination. Others experience sore and even swollen arms. Some have COVID-like symptoms such as fatigue, fever, chills and headaches appearing hours after and lasting for about one to three days. It does appear that these symptoms are more pronounced following the second dose — but remember, these side effects are an indicator that the body is developing the immunity necessary to ward off COVID-19. How should I manage the side effects from the vaccine? If you experience side effects, make sure to get sufficient rest, drink plenty of fluids and manage fevers with a cool shower. Try to support your immune system’s work and avoid or minimize over-the-counter pain relievers. Once you’ve recovered, report your side effects, including images of rashes or swelling, to the provider who vaccinated you, as this data will be very important for reflective learning and future research. Do any medications preclude me from getting the vaccine? No. Steroids and other medications that alter your immunity may reduce vaccine efficacy. Talk to your prescribing provider if medications should be held or avoided around the time of vaccination. What about the chances of a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine? If you have a history of anaphylaxis, consult your physician prior to getting the vaccine. So far, severe allergic reactions have been rare for those who have received the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Some people have experienced moderate to severe reactions, which is why it is recommended that you be observed for 15 minutes at the vaccination site. A longer observation period of 30 minutes is recommended for those with a history of severe allergic reactions. How long will it take for the vaccine to work? Although immunity starts building quickly after vaccination, with both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines, optimal protection comes after the second shot. What if I get COVID-19 before receiving both shots? There is the possibility of becoming infected between the two vaccine doses. If so, you should still plan to get your second shot on time, though make sure to consult with your physician first. Given that the vaccines are not 100% effective, there is still the chance of contracting the virus after receiving both doses. However, symptoms should be milder because of the immunity you’ve developed. Thankfully, new strains to date appear to be covered by the current vaccines. Is the vaccine safe for pregnant/breastfeeding women? Pregnant and breastfeeding women have been cleared to be vaccinated if they choose, but they should consult with their physicians before making arrangements. Despite the lack of current data, the consensus among medical professionals is that the risks of COVID-19 for pregnant women are far greater than the potential risks of receiving the vaccines. The vaccines don’t appear to pose any documented risks to fetuses, nor do they cause infertility, despite false claims and myths circulating on the internet. Should children receive the vaccine? Many studies show children to be common sources of adult infections. So far, there have been no vaccines approved for young children — the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for those 16 and older, while the Moderna vaccine is available to those 18 and older. However, both companies have spent the past several months studying the vaccine on children as young as 12. Results are promising, so changes may be coming in the next few months. Like COVID-19 infection, children appear to have less adverse effects from the vaccine. I do hope this information has been helpful to you, and I strongly encourage everyone who can receive the vaccine to do so as soon as possible once it becomes available to them. As we all know too well by now, COVID-19 has taken an overwhelming and tragic toll on our society during the past year. We need to do everything in our power to end this terrible pandemic. The vaccines and continued adherence to precautions and treatment guidelines are our best option to accomplish this goal together, so let’s all do our part for our collective health. Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health as CEO and serves as President of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

At long last, the possibility of getting ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic through achievement of herd immunity actually appears attainable in our foreseeable future. Notably, the historically unprecedented speed for the development and deployment of the effective COVID-19 vaccines is wonderful news for all of us and a most welcomed proud accomplishment for America.

Unfortunately the distribution of the vaccines has thus far been more challenging, confusing and frustratingly slower than many expected. Variability between and across states and regional communities in terms of vaccine proficiency and glaring vaccine access disparities have unfortunately exasperated many stakeholders and left too many silent generation members of our community perhaps too patiently and quietly waiting their turn.

However, “every cloud has a silver lining.” Rather than further dividing, inclusive stakeholders are unifying in unprecedented ways around brainstorming and implementing more coordinated, equitable and effective vaccine distribution strategies. In my humble opinion, proximity between federal, state and local governmental agencies and stewards of public resources — including health care provider systems and pharmacies in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines — has rarely been more tangible, direct and adaptable.

What’s especially heartening to see is that community demand for the COVID-19 vaccines is very high. We at The Wright Center for Community Health can attest to this, considering the countless phone calls and emails we get from the general public on a daily basis seeking vaccination. This is precisely the courageous level of interest necessary to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19.

This demand for the COVID-19 vaccine has also had the unexpected benefit of allowing us to engage patients and catch other troublesome health conditions when they visit our practices to be inoculated. This is why we vaccinate within the context of office visits or a well-planned larger population event, leaving the vaccine-only experience for lower risk patients to our pharmacy partners.

While this means patients we vaccinate may encounter co-pays when they come in for COVID-19 vaccines, it also ensures the opportunity to get your blood pressure checked and addressed and to bring other issues forward you may have been deferring during the pandemic. Consider this: In a single month, almost 25% of patients who came in for the COVID-19 vaccine were found to have undiagnosed or uncontrolled hypertension, which was discovered by medical staff taking their routine vital signs before they received their shot. Left untreated, hypertension is a leading cause of kidney failure, heart disease, strokes and related mortality in this country.

Finally, now is the time for community members to prepare themselves for the eventuality of the opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. To promote your knowledgeable decision making, here are the answers to some common COVID-19 vaccine-related questions:

Should I be vaccinated if I have already had COVID-19?

Yes, you absolutely should be vaccinated, since it is possible to be reinfected with the virus. That said, do not get vaccinated if you currently have the virus — wait until your symptoms and the quarantine period have passed. Be sure to talk to your primary care physician prior to scheduling your vaccination as this guidance continues to change.

Can I receive other vaccines at the same time I receive my vaccine?

No, you should give yourself 14 days prior to or following both COVID-19 vaccination doses to receive any other type of vaccine.

What sort of side effects can I expect from the vaccine?

Many people exhibit no symptoms at all after vaccination. Others experience sore and even swollen arms. Some have COVID-like symptoms such as fatigue, fever, chills and headaches appearing hours after and lasting for about one to three days. It does appear that these symptoms are more pronounced following the second dose — but remember, these side effects are an indicator that the body is developing the immunity necessary to ward off COVID-19.

How should I manage the side effects from the vaccine?

If you experience side effects, make sure to get sufficient rest, drink plenty of fluids and manage fevers with a cool shower. Try to support your immune system’s work and avoid or minimize over-the-counter pain relievers. Once you’ve recovered, report your side effects, including images of rashes or swelling, to the provider who vaccinated you, as this data will be very important for reflective learning and future research.

Do any medications preclude me from getting the vaccine?

No. Steroids and other medications that alter your immunity may reduce vaccine efficacy. Talk to your prescribing provider if medications should be held or avoided around the time of vaccination.

What about the chances of

a severe allergic reaction to

the vaccine?

If you have a history of anaphylaxis, consult your physician prior to getting the vaccine. So far, severe allergic reactions have been rare for those who have received the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Some people have experienced moderate to severe reactions, which is why it is recommended that you be observed for 15 minutes at the vaccination site. A longer observation period of 30 minutes is recommended for those with a history of severe allergic reactions.

How long will it take for the vaccine to work?

Although immunity starts building quickly after vaccination, with both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines, optimal protection comes after the second shot.

What if I get COVID-19 before receiving both shots?

There is the possibility of becoming infected between the two vaccine doses. If so, you should still plan to get your second shot on time, though make sure to consult with your physician first. Given that the vaccines are not 100% effective, there is still the chance of contracting the virus after receiving both doses. However, symptoms should be milder because of the

immunity you’ve developed. Thankfully, new strains to date appear to be covered by the current vaccines.

Is the vaccine safe for pregnant/breastfeeding women?

Pregnant and breastfeeding women have been cleared to be vaccinated if they choose, but they should consult with their physicians before making arrangements. Despite the lack of current data, the consensus among medical professionals is that the risks of COVID-19 for pregnant women are far greater than the potential risks of receiving the vaccines. The vaccines don’t appear to pose any documented risks to fetuses, nor do they cause infertility, despite false claims and myths circulating on the internet.

Should children receive the vaccine?

Many studies show children to be common sources of adult infections. So far, there have been no vaccines approved for young children — the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved for those 16 and older, while the Moderna vaccine is available to those 18 and older. However, both companies have spent the past several months studying the vaccine on children as young as 12. Results are promising, so changes may be coming in the next few months. Like COVID-19 infection, children appear to have less adverse effects from the vaccine.

I do hope this information has been helpful to you, and I strongly encourage everyone who can receive the vaccine to do so as soon as possible once it becomes available to them. As we all know too well by now, COVID-19 has taken an overwhelming and tragic toll on our society during the past year. We need to do everything in our power to end this terrible pandemic. The vaccines and continued adherence to precautions and treatment guidelines are our best option to accomplish this goal together, so let’s all do our part for our collective health.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health as CEO and serves as President of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

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