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Duke Field medics tackle myths surrounding COVID-19 vaccination

Maj. Katharine Saunders, 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron public health emergency officer, and Maj. Kathleen Styron, 919th SOMDS clinical nurse, clarified some of the common myths surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. (Air Force photo illustration by Michelle Gigante)

Maj. Katharine Saunders, 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron public health emergency officer, and Maj. Kathleen Styron, 919th SOMDS clinical nurse, clarified some of the common myths surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. (Air Force photo illustration by Michelle Gigante)

DUKE FIELD, Fla. -- In an effort to protect the health and wellbeing of the force, the Department of Defense has directed all Air Force Reserve members be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 2, 2021.

To meet the mandate, the 919th Special Operations Medical Squadron is administering the approved Comirnaty [Pfizer-Biontech] COVID-19 vaccine during the October Unit Training Assembly. While many Reservists  are in the process or are already fully vaccinated, there is misinformation on social media outlets and some news sources leaving some Reserve members hesitant to receive it.

Maj. Katharine Saunders, 919th SOMDS public health emergency officer, and Maj. Kathleen Styron, 919th SOMDS clinical nurse, clarified some of the common myths surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Saunders has a Master’s Degree in Public Health and a doctorate in Nursing with ten years working in Air Force Public Health, focusing on population health, disease surveillance, epidemiology, and on the civilian side is a family nurse practitioner. Styron has a Bachelors of Science in Nursing and has been a clinical nurse with the Air Force for 11 years and specializes in obstetrics and women’s health on the civilian side.

There has been a host of misleading information surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines, causing some Reserve members to be reluctant. This attention has brought up the safety of vaccines in media stories and blog postings. How do vaccines work and is the Comirnaty safe for our military members and their families?

Saunders—So just to clarify first, when the Pfizer vaccine received full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, the manufacturer was required to give it a brand name. So Comirnaty is the exact same vaccine as the Pfizer; Comirnaty is just the brand name label.

Also, messenger RNA technology has been researched for nearly 30 years. The way it simply works is it gives you the mRNA [single-stranded RNA molecule] from one of the spike proteins that is surrounded on the SARS-CoV2 virus. Your body then uses that mRNA to build the spike protein so your antibodies can recognize that spike protein and learn how to attack it. If you were ever to be exposed to the actual Coronavirus you would have antibodies already built within your immune system to ward it off.

There are many myths streaming the web about making the vaccine decision. What are some common myths you have noticed and what are the facts?

Saunders—I think the brand name is one of the bigger ones. [Second] the concern over the mRNA technology, which has been studied for decades now, and [third] the COVID vaccines themselves have been studied for almost 18 months now. The first clinical trials started in June of 2020 and they have since been given to billions of people, so we know they are safe. There is always a risk of adverse reaction or side effects with any vaccine.  But the COVID vaccines have been shown to be highly effective.  As medical professionals, we really believe the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks.

Styron—Another myth is it alters your DNA, which is not true, because mRNA does not go into the cell. Your DNA is inside the cell. There is no way for that to happen.

Saunders—The vaccine is actually out of your system within 72 hours. Once your body uses the vaccine, that mRNA, to make the protein and build the antibodies—the vaccine itself—goes away and is fully out of your system.

Do any of the COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the United States shed or release any of their components?

Styron—No, they are not live viruses. The only way you can shed, is if you get a piece of the virus in your vaccine, and none of the vaccines have a live component of COVID-19 virus.

Saunders—There is no component in the current vaccines that can cause an actual COVID-19 infection.

What if a Reserve member has pregnancy considerations?

Saunders—Pregnant members can be granted a temporary medical exemption. However, the CDC and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists do recommend vaccination against COVID-19 for people planning to get pregnant, during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Talk to your medical provider if you have specific concerns, but there are not automatic exemptions for members planning to get pregnant or during breastfeeding.  

If a Reserve member has post-partum but breastfeeding, do they have to take the vaccine?

Styron—Yes, they are not exempt from the vaccine as a breast-feeding mother. However,  if there is a recommendation from their obstetrician, as to why they should not, then the mother has to bring in that supporting documentation to the medical squadron.

Does COVID-19 vaccine cause infertility?

Styron—It does not. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, as well as the Society of Maternal Fetal Medicine, both recommend the vaccine for pregnant, breast-feeding women, women planning to become pregnant and it is recommended for their partners too.

The maternal death rate is much higher pre-term if you become infected with COVID. We’ve started to see data that if the mother receives the vaccine and then she breast-feeds, she passes the antibodies to the baby. Since the baby would not be old enough to be vaccinated, there are benefits with protecting the baby against COVID-19 too.

Whether you are reading about it, or hearing from your friends, pregnancy is a scary time and family planning, you question everything. So, I can understand the hesitancy, but our message has been that the benefits outweigh the risks ten-fold in pregnancy. You are more likely to have severe, long-term complications, or death from a COVID infection while pregnant vs. not pregnant.

It is of the utmost importance to stay up to date on all your vaccines, to include the flu vaccine. That’s always going to be encouraged as well, through pregnancy. Talk to your doctors and look at the right data. The data is promising and supports the use of the vaccine.

Saunders—Pregnancy and birth seem to be one of the biggest concerns, because I think especially if you are in that phase of life, you are concerned about it. Like Major Styron said, all the [obstetricians] groups recommend it. Again, that benefit versus risk – I have seen several cases of pregnant women having severe COVID and even passing away from getting COVID infection.  

What if a Reserve member has already had COVID-19 infection, should they get the vaccine?

Saunders—Yes, if they have had COVID-19 infection in the past, it is still recommended to get vaccinated, because the natural immunity is not as good or lasting as long as the acquired immunity from the vaccination.

I have seen data of people that had previous COVID infection who then got vaccinated and had even more of a boost in their antibody levels. The vaccine is providing better protection than even those of us who didn’t have the infection and got vaccinated.

What happens if a person gets the first shot administered, but fails to get the second shot?

Saunders—It takes two weeks past your final vaccine (after the second dose if you got a two-dose series or after the single dose Johnson&Johnson vaccine) to be fully effective. So if you are exposed to the SARS-CoV2 virus within that time, you don’t have full protection from the vaccine yet.  So, you can very well test positive.

The effectiveness of just the one dose is not as good, it’s about 50 percent or less. We really encourage that second dose, because that is what boosts you up to that 88-93 percent effectiveness with the mRNA vaccines.

Are all events reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System caused by vaccination?

Saunders—The VAERS is a Center for Disease Control and Prevention system where healthcare providers report adverse reactions from vaccines, but also the public can report to it directly as well. So, it’s an open public source that anybody can go in and put what side-effects they were having after the vaccine.

It’s a great system to alert us to potential reactions or problems with the vaccine and be able to recognize those early. But, you have to realize it’s based on whatever data is put into it.  People who get sick after vaccination, it’s not necessarily because of the vaccine.

Can COVID-19 vaccine make individuals sick with COVID-19?

Saunders—No, that goes back to that there is no live virus component of the vaccine.

Styron—The vaccine does cause an immune system response, but that doesn’t mean you are sick with COVID-19. It means it is activating your immune system to go in protect mode. You might get a low-grade fever, body-aches, headache, etc for a day or two, but does not mean you have COVID. If you test positive for COVID just days after your vaccination, then it is likely you were exposed to the virus within days of your vaccination. The vaccine cannot give you a COVID-19 infection.

Why, from just your experience and working in this environment, do you encourage getting the COVID-19 vaccine?

Saunders—The risk of getting COVID infection is worse than some of the side-effects we have seen with the vaccine. The side effects from the vaccination typically only last a couple days.

Like Styron said, low-grade fever, fatigue, body aches, some headache and then it goes away within a couple days versus people who have been getting COVID infection have potentially long-term complications.

We have seen people with blood clots after getting COVID, strokes, people with high blood pressure or heart conditions after having the infection and never having heart problems before. Of course, the severe cases, hospitalizations, and deaths too. Again the risk versus benefit in medicine, and what we have seen overwhelmingly in the data is the vaccine is the best method to prevent severe cases, hospitalization, and deaths.

For Reserve members who want to protect their wingmen and are unsure if the vaccine is right for them, what are their options?

Saunders—They can always come talk with one of the providers, nurses or public health officials in the medical squadron. If they have questions about it they can also reach out to the Preservation of the Force & Family Military Family Life Consultant, Chaplains or their own personal healthcare provider.

For further information, I encourage people to do their research, but go to reputable, scientific sources. I recommend the CDC website, or the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Go to the scientific sources, Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The Food and Drug Administration reviews of all these vaccines is also public information.  

Just make sure you are going to reputable sources and not social media outlets or news sources that might not be scientifically based. Also, the Defense Health Agency has a lot of helpful resources on COVID.

Anything you would like to add?

Saunders—The vaccine’s purpose is to train your immune system how to respond, so it is not staying in your body, it is not altering your DNA, it is not disrupting your cells. It is really, just training your body to build antibodies to fight off COVID. It is like you are training your body how to have an army to fight off the infection later on versus getting surprised by the infection and not having any soldiers ready to go to the fight. Please reach out to the medical squadron, helping agencies or your chain of command if you have any questions or concerns. The 919 SOMDS is here to support you during this time.

 

Editor’s note: By Oct. 28, 2021, the 919th SOMDS will need proof of initial dose of a COVID-19 vaccine from all Reserve members. Additionally, all 919th SOW Reserve members are ordered to receive the second dose of the same vaccine and provide proof by Nov. 18, 2021. The Oct. 28, 2021 due date also applies to exemptions. This means a Reserve member must provide either a completed request for a religious accommodation addressed to the Air Force Reserve Command or proof of a medical exemption approved by a military medical provider.

If Reserve members plan to receive their vaccine at the Duke Field SOMDS, they must start their first vaccine series during the October Unit Training Assembly weekend on Oct. 2 or Oct. 3. The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is not the only option available for complying with the order. Reserve members may receive the Moderna series COVID-19 vaccine and must receive the initial dose by Oct. 21, 2021 and second dose by Nov. 18, 2021 to meet the Dec. 2, 2021 deadline. Reserve members who choose the Johnson & Johnson must comply with the first deadline.

There will be a drive through for the Pfizer/Comirnaty COVID vaccine from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the 919 SOMDS (Bldg 3120) on both Saturday and Sunday of the October UTA.  Flu shots will also be available on  Sunday from 8 a.m. until noon at the 919th Special Operations Logistics Readiness Squadron (MADD building).

Any members who have concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine have access to free advice and counseling through any of the installation agencies listed below.

  1. Medical Concerns –contact the 919 SOMDS at usaf.eafb.919-sow.mbx.919-somds-sgd@mail.mil to request additional information or schedule appointments to address medical exemptions.
  2. Legal Implications—the Area Defense Counsel can be reached at 850-882-4185.
  3. Religious Objections—the Duke Field Chaplain’s Office can be reached at 850-883-6484 or contact Chaplain Randall at 850-557-5116, eric.randall.3@us.af.mil.