Dr. Timothy Farrell, a geriatrician at the University of Utah, said he was surprised but thrilled by the vaccines’ effectiveness in this group. “It’s going to be very important to see the subgroup analysis,” he said — that is, to learn whether there are significant differences after age 85.
Even so, he has been recommending the vaccine to all of his patients, who range in age from 65 to 106 years old.
“We have a clear and present danger of Covid, and we have social isolation,” Dr. Farrell said. “We know that that’s an independent risk factor for mortality, even stronger than individual chronic diseases.”
Dr. Inouye also arrived at the same conclusion, both professionally and personally.
Her 91-year-old mother, who lives in an assisted living facility, is independent and spry, still playing piano and bridge and exercising regularly. Still, her mother’s age, medical condition and living situation put her at “very, very, very high risk for Covid,” Dr. Inouye said.
“We’re just desperately worried about her every single day,” she added. “When you balance that tremendous fear, I just think the risk for her of getting Covid is so much higher than the risk of a side effect, which we know is going to be very rare.”
With distribution of a coronavirus vaccine beginning in the U.S., here are answers to some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
- When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated? Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
- If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
For many people, the prospect of receiving a new vaccine for a new virus is daunting.
Fear of side effects deterred Jeffrey Balkind’s wife from volunteering for the vaccine trials, but Mr. Balkind, 74, has stared down death twice — once during a 13-day hijacking in Pakistan in 1981, and again three years ago when his Vespa crashed.
“When you’ve come to near-death experiences twice, volunteering for a vaccine trial — it wasn’t a great sense of worry or apprehension for me,” Mr. Balkind said.