What Seniors Need to Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine
Written by Lisa Buffington
Many seniors over the age of 65 have already received the COVID-19 vaccine. As the California rollout continues, all residents ages 16 and up will be eligible for vaccination. Many may have questions about the status of the coronavirus in their area, how to schedule a vaccine appointment, possible vaccine side effects and when they can resume normal activities after being vaccinated.
“Due to the increased risk of COVID-19 complications in older adults, we need to educate people over the age of 50 about the importance and safety of getting a vaccine,” says Tammy Ginder, PharmD, assistant director of pharmacy services at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, who is one of the coordinators of the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccinination program. “Although we aren’t there yet, the vaccine is a pathway to safely getting back to normal—particularly for older adults who want to socialize, visit with family or travel.”
According to David Rand, MD, infectious disease specialist and co-medical director of infection control at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, there is some good news. The number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 at Torrance Memorial has declined after a surge that lasted from mid-November 2020 to mid-January 2021.
However, Dr. Rand says despite the decreased number of hospitalized patients, getting a vaccine is critical to resuming “new normal” activities. “The vaccine is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19,” he says. “We need to get approximately 70% of people vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.”
Dr. Rand and Dr. Ginder provided some answers to questions frequently asked by older adults about COVID-19 and its vaccine.
Do people who have had COVID-19 and recovered still need to get the vaccine?
Yes. Researchers aren’t sure how long COVID-19 immunity lasts, so it may be possible to get COVID-19 again. However, people who have recovered from COVID-19 should talk to their health care provider before getting the vaccine.
Who is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine?
Beginning April 1, individuals ages 50 to 64 became eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. Starting April 15, every Californian age 16 and older is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It is critical for people to get their COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible,” says Dr. Rand. “And it is especially critical for older adults and people with health concerns putting them at higher risk of complications from COVID-19.”
What is the best way to schedule a vaccine appointment?
One of the best ways to schedule a vaccination appointment is to visit the California Department of Health’s My Turn website at myturn.ca.gov. There are also several options for South Bay residents including select Walgreens, CVS and Ralphs stores, which are now offering vaccine appointments. To sign up, simply visit vaccinefinder.org to check availability near you.
Where should people get vaccinated?
Community vaccination clinics are the best option for receiving a vaccine. The My Turn website will connect patients with vaccination clinics in their area. Torrance Memorial is also holding limited vaccine clinics for eligible patients as vaccines are made available.
“I would urge people not to wait to receive the vaccine at a hospital, but get it anywhere they can as soon as they are eligible,” says Dr. Rand.
What are some common vaccine side effects?
Common side effects of the vaccine include soreness at the injection site and mild symptoms such as low-grade fever, headache, body aches and fatigue, consistent with the vaccine’s initial side-effect profile.
“These side effects are a good sign the vaccine is working and the body is learning to fight off future infections,” says Dr. Ginder. “Side effects are usually mild and subside after a few days.”
Is the vaccine effective for COVID-19 variants?
Although COVID-19 variants are certainly a concern, early evidence suggests the current COVID-19 vaccines will provide enough protection to significantly lower the risk of infection and severe complications associated with current COVID-19 variants.
“Research shows the Pfizer mRNA vaccine has an approximately 90% efficacy rate against current COVID-19 variants,” says Dr. Ginder. “The Johnson & Johnson* vaccine received Emergency Use Authorization in late February and has a 74% variant efficacy rate.”
“Due to the vaccine’s mRNA technology, it can be easily modulated for new variants,” says Dr. Rand. “That means it would be possible to get a booster vaccine out to the public relatively quickly.”
How long does it take for the vaccine to reach maximum efficacy?
Although vaccine recipients may receive some protection after receiving the first shot, the vaccine doesn’t reach maximum efficacy until a few weeks after the second shot is administered. The Pfizer vaccine requires a second shot to be administered approximately three weeks after the first shot. The Pfizer vaccine is 95% effective at preventing symptomatic infections a week after the second shot.
The Moderna vaccine requires a second shot approximately four weeks after the first shot. The shot is 94% effective at preventing symptomatic infections about two weeks after receiving the second shot.
The Johnson & Johnson* vaccine is a single-shot dose found effective about two weeks after the injection. The shot is 74% effective and 85% effective against severe disease, preventing deaths completely and hospitalizations after at least 28 days.
“In more good news, real-world research has shown the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine reduces symptomatic coronavirus infections by more than 90% in people who received both doses,” says Dr. Ginder. “This is consistent with data from the vaccine trial.”
What can I do after I’ve been fully vaccinated?
Gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask.
Gather indoors with unvaccinated people from one other household without masks, unless those people or anyone they live with have an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Even after you are vaccinated, you should still take steps to protect yourself and others, like wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet apart and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces when in public. It is recommended to continue to avoid medium or large-sized gatherings and still delay domestic or international travel when possible.