Ever since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized emergency use for the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, older adults and their caregivers have worried about safety. How can we be certain the new COVID-19 vaccines are safe for the elderly? What are the long-term vaccine side effects? Is it better to wait and see how the vaccines affect people before signing up to get vaccinated?
These are a few of the questions and concerns caregivers and older adults may share. However, medical experts say the vaccines have proven to be very safe. And to make that point, several well-known Americans — Mike Pence (age 61), Anthony Fauci (80), and Joe Biden (78), to name a few — have publicly rolled up their sleeves for their first dose of the vaccine, demonstrating confidence in the vaccine to safely protect them from becoming infected by the coronavirus.
The main worry about the COVID-19 vaccine being safe for the elderly is side effects. Yet these have proven minimal. “The side effects have been mild to moderate — arm soreness, fatigue, headache,” says Judith Beizer, a geriatric pharmacist and clinical professor at St. John’s University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Queens, New York. In fact, a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine shows older adults reported fewer side effects after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine than younger people.
A large number of people were included in the coronavirus vaccine studies — called trials — and many participants were older adults.
“Generally, side effects occur at the time you receive a vaccine,” Beizer explains. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is administered in two doses three weeks apart. The Moderna vaccine is administered in two doses four weeks apart. Getting two doses ensures the strongest immunity to the coronavirus. “With these vaccines, side effects occur after receiving the second dose,” Beizer says. “That’s why doctors tell people to plan for a lighter schedule on the day of the second dose or the day after the dose. It’s the same with the shingles vaccine — sometimes there are side effects with the second dose.”
People who have had a severe allergic reaction (called anaphylaxis) to any of the vaccines’ ingredients in the past shouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Doctors, nurses, medical assistants, and anyone who administers the vaccine is required to keep antidote medication close by in case of a serious reaction.
Some caregivers and their families also worry that not enough time was taken to study the new COVID-19 vaccines, and have decided to take a wait-and-see approach before getting vaccinated. But the risks of contracting the coronavirus for older adults can be deadly. “I know a lot of people are waiting for the trials to be continued over a longer period of time, but it’s not necessary,” says Beizer.
There are good reasons to be confident about the vaccine safety. A large number of people were included in the coronavirus vaccine studies — called trials — and many participants were older adults. The Moderna trials included about 30,000 people, of which 7,000 are 65 or older. The Pfizer trials involved about 44,000 people, and nearly 7,500 of them are 65 or older. Reactions to the vaccines were monitored closely for more than two months — and continue to be monitored — which is why the absence of serious side effects has been such exciting news.
Scientists who are not associated with the drug companies have checked the studies, too. Results from the trials were carefully reviewed by the FDA and medical advisory boards to make sure they were correct. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices at the CDC also reviewed all the safety information before recommending the COVID-19 vaccines.
I feel very confident in the vaccine’s safety.Judith Beizer, geriatric pharmacist and clinical professor at St. John’s University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Queens, New York
These experts determined the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have been shown to be more than 94% effective in protecting people from becoming infected by the coronavirus, and countries all around the world are beginning vaccine programs for their elderly and health care workers. Both vaccines use the synthetic mRNA, which triggers our bodies’ immune response to fight the protein found on the spikes of the virus.
Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for elderly people who have other health conditions such as heart disease, asthma, or diabetes? So far, people with preexisting conditions have not experienced different or more severe adverse reactions to the vaccine compared with people without other medical conditions.
“Nothing in the research shows that older adults who are weak are more susceptible to vaccine side effects than others,” Beizer says. But as time goes on, and more and more people receive the vaccine, more information will become available. “Older adults are the people we want to be protecting,” she adds.
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Before receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, you or your older relative must tell the person giving the vaccine if you have any allergies, a fever, or bleeding disorders. The health care professional administering the vaccine should know if anyone has a compromised immune system, is receiving immunosuppressive therapy, or has already received another COVID-19 shot.
“I feel very confident in the vaccine’s safety,” says Beizer, who closely followed the research and development of the vaccines as part of her professional work. She has also recently received the first dose of the vaccine.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Interim Considerations. “Preparing for the Potential Management of Anaphylaxis at COVID-19 Vaccination Sites.” https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/info-by-product/pfizer/anaphylaxis-management.html.
Moderna. “Moderna Announces FDA Authorization of Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine in U.S.” https://investors.modernatx.com/news-releases/news-release-details/moderna-announces-fda-authorization-moderna-covid-19-vaccine-us.
Pfizer. “Pfizer and BioNTech Receive FDA Advisory Committee Vote Supporting Potential First Emergency Use Authorization for Vaccine to Combat Covid-19 in the U.S.” https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-receive-fda-advisory-committee-vote.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How CDC is Making COVID-19 Vaccine Recommendations.” https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/recommendations-process.html.