Get the shot: Area expert stresses importance of vaccines, explains rare complications

BROWNSVILLE – Don’t hesitate. Vaccinate.

The COVID-19 vaccinations are perfectly safe, according to experts, and health professionals are strongly urging people to become fully vaccinated in the midst of some growing hesitancy.

Recent concerns about complications from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have some people thinking twice about getting any of the vaccinations. The complication from the J&J vaccine, more specifically, is cerebral venus sinus thrombosis, which is a blood clot.

The rare condition occurred in six individuals out of nearly seven million doses delivered, said Dr. Christopher Romero, medical director of PanAmerican Clinical Research in Brownsville.

“If you look at the incidence of CVST in the general U.S. population, it’s about 14 – 28 cases per million individuals,” Romero said. “This happens at a higher rate than was noted to happen with the vaccine itself. It also happens with COVID-19 infections. CVST happened in about five or six cases per million SARS COVID-2 infections. There’s a much higher risk of this happening from the virus itself than from the vaccine used to prevent it. It’s a very rare episode.”

Romero also addressed the serious, though rare, allergic reactions some people have had to the Moderna vaccine.

“That’s actually a treatable condition, and that’s one of the reasons we have a monitoring period for this very rare event,” he said. “It was less than three cases per million doses given.”

This is in stark contrast to the catastrophic effects of COVID-19, which can cause massive organ failure and strokes.

The Valley has been especially hard hit, Romero said. Over 46 percent of COVID-19 related deaths in the State of Texas were Hispanic. Cameron County ranks 14th in the state for the number of COVID-19 cases, but it ranks seventh in the state in the number of deaths.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic is not over,” he said. “To date, we’ve had over 2.4 million Texans come down with COVID-19, and it’s had a mortality rate of right around two percent for the state. We’ve lost over 49,000 Texans to COVID-19.”

This is up from the previously reported mortality rate of less than one percent.

Why the increase?

“It’s hard to say right now,” Romero said. “It may be that there has been reduced testing and identification of cases as people have moved through this pandemic. We may not be having as many drive-thru testing encounters as we did in the past. As people have become fatigued with it, they may not be testing at the same level. So I don’t think it’s really a change in the care or the virus itself, but time will tell. It’s an evolving science.”

He urged people to do everything they can to bring this crisis to an end, and the best way to do that is through immunity by way of vaccination.

“The vaccines we have right now are extremely effective, over 90 percent effective for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines which is unprecedented and also extremely safe,” he said.

It bears noting that the high rate of effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines is much greater than that of other vaccines. The flu shot, for example, is about 60 percent effective.

“It varies from season to season,” Romero said. “We use vaccines all the time that are much less effective than this, and they save a lot of lives and prevent a lot of disease. You can imagine how monumental it is to actually have a vaccine that is 90 plus percent effective.”

He clarified concerns by some that the vaccines were rushed. The vaccine itself wasn’t rushed. A great deal of “bureaucratic red tape” was simply streamlined to speed up the process.

“There was still all of the safety, the Phase One through Phase Three studies, that were done with these vaccines before they got emergency use authorization,” Romero said. “And, the safety monitoring is still ongoing and is very encouraging to date. The fact that we have a health care system willing to pause the use of a vaccine because of a very rare event, such as what happened with J&J, I think should give us more confidence in the system rather than erode our confidence.”

Vaccination against COVID-19 isn’t just for personal protection. It has a wider purpose.

“I think a lot of people need to think about vaccination not only at a personal level but also at a community and social level,” Romero said. “I still will continue to say that vaccination is a personal decision. I don’t believe in vaccination mandates. I think it can erode the trust we have in the system. People should do these things voluntarily if they feel like they’re inclined to do. But the decision to vaccinate is not just about protecting yourself from the virus but being part of the wall of protection for the most vulnerable in our population whom we’re trying to save from this deadly virus.”

COVID-19 vaccinations not only protect individuals from infection but also slow the spread of the virus which in turn can slow the development of variants. The vaccinations are less effective against those variants, but they can reduce the severity of those infections.

Those who are not vaccinated must still comply with the safety restrictions by avoiding crowded gatherings, wearing masks in public places, washing hands and not touching their faces.

“The great news is that after vaccination there are recommendations that people can interact more with other healthy people who have been vaccinated in a more normal way,” he said. “That’s just been great to see.”

The isolation imposed by the COVID-19 crisis has taken a huge emotional toll on everyone. Romero urged those who are vaccinated to start returning to some of their normal social activities. In fact, a great deal of science supports claims that social and family networks can enhance health and lifespan.

“The pandemic has been very rough on the health and wellbeing of everybody, above and beyond the health risks that it directly posed through the infection of this deadly virus,” he said. “We’re social creatures by nature. It’s important for us to have those interactions. That’s just the nature and fiber of our beings. So being able to get back to those activities, interacting with people we love and care about, is critical for our personal health and for our community health.”

twhitehead@valleystar.com