This is a bit of a departure from the normal content of this column, in which we generally focus on problems involving the musculoskeletal system.
My co-workers and I are asked questions on a daily basis about the COVID-19 vaccine, so I decided to speak to a local expert about it.
What follows is my conversation with Dr. Todd Sheperd. Dr. Sheperd is board certified in family medicine and fellowship trained in sports medicine and sees patients from all over Northern Michigan from his office in Petoskey.
While it seems important for everyone to get vaccinated, should active/athletic people be especially eager to do everything they can to avoid becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2 (Covid)? If so, why?
Sheperd: “Many of the patients I see in consultation for both sports medicine and family medicine conditions are very interested in becoming vaccinated for COVID-19. However, a small amount of patients are less interested because they feel that they are young, healthy and feel that they are at low risk of dying from the disease.
“There are several reasons why it is very important for every adult to get their vaccine when it is available. A couple are very important to athletes. Every athlete trains hundreds and thousands of hours to improve their performance. COVID infections have already been associated with damage to the heart and the lungs. Can you imagine working and training in all of those practice sessions only to see all of those gains lost to a preventable illness?
Death is not the only important outcome from COVID infections; currently there isn’t a complete picture of how many people may face long-term side effects from the infection. Vaccines allow a person to get the protection from COVID infection without having the damage associated with an actual infection. Another important consideration for young athletes to think about is the risk of bringing infections home to family members who might be at higher risk for severe disease. Unlike many of the other choices student athletes make about their health, a disease as contagious as COVID can affect the health of an entire household, because home spread is a very common COVID exposure mechanism.
How might local vaccination rates affect sport seasons?
Sheperd: “I don’t know of anyone involved in high school, college or recreation sports who hasn’t been really frustrated by the unprecedented impact COVID has had on the sports calendar during the last 12 months. Whether or not you missed out on regular season games, playoffs or group bike/running events, 2020/2021 was a total bust for most athletes.
“Two interventions will allow us to get back to a more normal schedule (and a more normal spectator experience). The first will be getting everyone vaccinated so that we can break the cycle of community transmission ( so-called “herd immunity”). The state restrictions for athletes are closely tied to the burden of disease in Michigan and when the data begins to reflect improvement in Michigan’s pandemic numbers, all high school and college athletic seasons will get back to a more normal appearance. The second intervention that will have the most immediate impact will be the continued use of prevention strategies that are very effective at reducing community spread.
“Strategies that everyone can do right now include continued use of masking, frequent hand washing and ongoing efforts to maintain social distancing. These strategies have very good data of effectiveness and when combined with increased vaccination rates will drive down the burden of Covid in our area and our state and will allow athletes to get back on the court/field more quickly.”
Do the COVID vaccines change the DNA of the person who receives it?
Sheperd: “No. The vaccines used for Covid do not interact with human DNA and can’t change our DNA.”
Some are concerned that since this is a new vaccine, they should consider waiting until more data on it is available. Is the vaccine new, and was its development rushed?
Sheperd: “The technology of mRNA vaccines is a new approach to vaccine development and both Moderna and Pfizer products use this technique. Other candidates for vaccines use previously established types of technology that are used for other diseases such as shingles, influenza and other types of targets. The mRNA technique delivers a small part of the genetic information for Covid into our cells. This information allows our body to make a protein which our body is able to create antibodies too.
“This process actually happens with real infections as well, but in the real infection our body is tricked into making complete copies of the virus which leads to the actual illness to occur. The vaccine can’t cause the actual infection to happen.
Should people who have already had COVID-19 consider getting the vaccine as well?
Sheperd: “Yes. Even though a person may have had the infection previously, they should still receive the vaccine. There is reason to believe that vaccination may allow for improved protection against future infections beyond the protection one gets from having the disease. It is true that within 90 days of their infection, a patient is very unlikely to get a second infection, but data about long-term immunity is still being investigated. The recommendation to get a vaccine after infection is true in other vaccine preventative viral infections including shingles.”
If someone has not been vaccinated but would like to be, what local options exist for them to receive the vaccine?
Sheperd: “We are very fortunate to have multiple options to receive the COVID vaccine locally. These locations include: The health department, Rite Aid/Walgreens/Meijer pharmacies and the local tribal health center have all been providing vaccines to local residents. The supply of vaccines appears to be improving significantly and by early April all adults will be eligible to get the vaccine. I also hope that primary care providers will be able to routinely offer these vaccines in the office, but currently that is not a common option in Northern Michigan.”
When will school students be able to get vaccinated?
Sheperd: “There are ongoing studies which are now being conducted to test the safety and effectiveness of vaccines in children as young as 6 months. It is my opinion that there will likely be data available for middle and high school students by the end of summer. I am hopeful that a significant portion of these students may be able to get vaccinated about the time that school starts in the fall. I can only imagine that having children vaccinated will only help to ensure the safety of kids, teachers, and staff when our schools are back in session.”