DuBOIS — The development of the two approved COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S., Pfizer and Moderna, both of which are reportedly 94 to 95 percent effective, is an important step in bringing the pandemic under control.

While both vaccines are also considered safe overall, many people still have questions about whether they should get a COVID-19 vaccine. Some may question whether they should have the vaccine because of natural reservations about something relatively new, but widespread misinformation could also be to blame.

Dr. Shaun Sheehan, Penn Highlands Healthcare medical director of emergency medicine and COVID-19 task force leader, Andrew Kurtz, PHH system director for retail pharmacy services and vaccination lead, and Chief Financial Officer Mark Norman recently addressed specific questions about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines during a media teleconference.

What happens if an employee of PHH turns down the vaccine? Do they have to do anything different than they are not already doing?

“Employees are not required, but obviously we encourage them to receive the vaccine,” said Sheehan, noting that PHH has vaccinated approximately 3,000 employees throughout the health system with the first dose.

Have there been any serious side effects reported?

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in 1 million people are experiencing any type of serious side effects, said Kurtz.

“Approximately 3,000 employees have been vaccinated with the first dose,” said Kurtz. “Each facility has seen a few employees experience minor side effects. So far, the vast majority of employees have reported feeling well, with just some soreness to the injection site for two to three days following their immunization.”

What would you say to someone who is concerned about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine?

“I would again point to Andrew’s response,” said Sheehan. “Certainly there was a lot of unknown and now that the vaccine is being distributed, the safety profile is shown to be excellent. And we’ve also seen that here locally, with the individuals that we’ve vaccinated.”

“But I’ll tell you that, personally, I had no reservations about getting the vaccine, and I hope that the rest of the public feels the same,” said Sheehan. “But medicine is an individual interaction and it’s important that if you have concerns, that you speak with your primary care doctor about those concerns and make sure that everything is a-okay for you to get the vaccination. But I would say it’s safe, and let’s get vaccinated.”

Have any employees turned down the opportunity to get the vaccine?

“As professionals in healthcare, most employees understand the benefits to receiving the vaccine and today, nearly 3,000 have done so,” said Norman. “Others are in talks with their own healthcare providers due to their own personal medical situations, and some are still considering it for various other reasons. Overall, we had a good response rate from our employees to the vaccine.”

At each facility there were 975 vaccines given to Elk, Huntingdon and DuBois. What are you doing to make sure that everyone gets the vaccine? Does this include both doses?

“We launched a significant internal communications plan to enable employees to register to receive the first dose and had a very organized system in place for participation and oversight from our human resources, employee health, nursing staff, pharmacy staff, our communications department, and our executive leaders,” said Kurtz. “It would take us much more of the afternoon to explain our system for tracking how many employees get the vaccine, but we have a strong system in place across Penn Highlands. Each vaccination administered to every employee, including the second dose, is documented and reported to the Department of Health and other necessary authorities through our clinical pharmacy.”

How long is the vaccine expected to provide immunity to those who’ve received it?

“There are some preliminary studies recently published that are indicating that that could be anywhere from eight to nine months,” said Sheehan. “I would emphasize that these are preliminary, singular studies, but so far the data we have indicates eight to nine months.”

Is infertility a possible side effect to the vaccine?

“That’s a resounding no,” said Sheehan. “Given the mechanism of action and the safety profile of the vaccine in non-pregnant individuals, the COVID-19 messenger RNA vaccines are not thought to cause any increased risk of infertility and if an individual does become pregnant after they receive the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, the second dose should be administered as indicated. And I would encourage, this is an unfortunate rumor that is being disseminated, but I would encourage everyone to go to ACOG.org’s website. That’s the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and read their physicians statements, which essentially echo what I have just said.”

How long will the vaccine administration process take?

“Just within our number of individuals in our health system ...half-a-million people and to help organize this, the Department of Health has developed phases that we’ve talked about,” said Sheehan. “We’re closely following their guidelines on a step-by step roll out of each phase. And as I said, it’s really going to take a village to get this completed. It’s a very complex, logistical, and operational activity that we’re undertaking here.”

Why are there reports that vaccine is not being administered?

“It is important for all of us to remember that even though we refer to the makers of the vaccine as a ‘manufacturer,’ this vaccine is a fragile biologic, and there’s a great deal of quality control to ensure safe and effective use,” said Kurtz. “That is just one example of the many logistics involved in distribution of this vaccine.”

Is the vaccine effective with the new variant of COVID-19?

“I would point to the fact that this was not unexpected for a virus to mutate, or create a variant, as it’s being said. I think people feel more comfortable saying the word variant compared to mutation,” said Sheehan. “It is more transmissible. It’s up to 70 percent more transmissible than the current virus. And the positive thing is that so far, with all these variants, the vaccine is still showing to be effective.”

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