If you have reservations about whether to get a COVID-19 vaccine, you’re not alone.
A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 15 percent of people living in rural areas and 18 percent living in urban areas in the United States put themselves into the “wait and see” category when asked if they would get vaccinated for COVID-19.
There are plenty of reasons that might play into why some people are less keen to line up for their vaccination, including lingering questions about safety, side effects, and how well the vaccines work against new virus variants.
Additionally, barriers to access the vaccines remain a significant problem for many people, particularly for members of Black and other marginalized communities.
We spoke to Dr. Reed Tuckson, co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, and Linda Goler Blount, MPH, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, to get clear answers to some of the most common questions about COVID-19 vaccines.
1. Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine?
“It is absolutely, totally impossible for the vaccine to give anyone COVID. There is no mechanism by which that could occur,” Tuckson said.
The reason, he explained, is because the vaccine does not contain the whole virus, so it can’t cause an infection.
Instead, the vaccine helps the body’s immune system develop the tools to fight off future infections.
2. Can the vaccine cause infertility?
Tuckson said there’s no evidence to support any claims that the vaccine can affect fertility, and that this isn’t something people should be concerned about.
“We have strong, unequivocal information that none of the vaccines available on the market have any impact on fertility,” he said.
3. Should I get the vaccine if I’ve already had COVID-19?
Tuckson urges anyone who has had COVID-19 to still get vaccinated because we currently do not know exactly how long immunity lasts after recovering from an infection.
The most recent research suggests immunity could last 8 months or longer, but experts say more research is needed.
“We would urge people to get vaccinated so that we, and you as the individual, have more confidence that you are protected for a longer period of time,” Tuckson said.
4. What about coronavirus variants?
Tuckson is concerned that coronavirus variants pose a serious threat. Reaching herd immunity is the only way to get the pandemic under control, he said.
“Herd immunity” is a scientific term. It means that enough people in the population have immunity to a disease to stop it from spreading.
“So, this is the most critical moment in this entire pandemic. We’re so close to the finish line,” Tuckson said.
“We are in a full flat-out race to the finish line to see whether we can get enough people vaccinated to create herd immunity before the variants do take over, or new variants emerge that will be resistant to the vaccines that we currently have,” he said.
5. What about side effects?
“I don’t generally use the term ‘side effects’ because it makes it seem as if this was something abnormal,” Tuckson explained.
“What most people refer to [when they say they’re experiencing] side effects is [actually] the vaccine doing what it is intended to do, which is to ramp up the immune system,” he said.
Tuckson said that while people may feel mildly uncomfortable for a short period of time with flu- and cold-like symptoms, these are merely the signs of the immune system responding to the vaccine and building immunity to fight the virus.
He also pointed out that in most cases this discomfort pales in comparison to the seriousness of developing COVID-19 itself, which has killed more than 578,000 people in the United States alone.
6. What does it mean when a vaccine is put on hold? Is it dangerous?
Tuckson applauded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for pausing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine a few weeks back after reports of rare blood clots emerged.
“Acting out of an abundance of caution, scientists carefully evaluated the cases to determine the total number of vaccine-related incidents [and] the characteristics of the population of affected individuals,” he explained.
“[They] were able to propose guidance that informs potentially at-risk persons as they make their own personal risk-benefit decisions regarding the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine,” he said.
The vaccine now carries a warning of a rare risk of blood clots. These clots were reported mostly in women ages 18 to 49.
The CDC says people in this group should be aware that there are other COVID-19 vaccines available that do not have any reports about such blood clots.
“We believe the meticulous scientific review of the data and the transparency of the process will reinforce the confidence that the American people deserve to have regarding the overall vaccination campaign,” Tuckson added.
Addressing trust and safety at a critical time
On COVID-19 vaccines specifically, both Tuckson and Goler Blount spoke about a number of reasons why some people are hesitant to get vaccinated.
Among the biggest concerns many people have regarding the COVID-19 vaccines are the speed with which they were developed and the breakthroughs in technology that aided in their creation.
Specifically, people worry whether scientists used new, untested technology to create vaccines.
“What most people don’t realize is we’ve been working on coronavirus vaccines since MERS and SARS. So, the effort to develop vaccines for coronaviruses is not new,” Goler Blount said.
“This particular novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is new, but the technology has been around for a long time, and that’s what allowed the vaccine to be built so quickly,” she said.
Tuckson echoed this sentiment.
“The journey to producing the COVID vaccines began well before COVID-19,” he explained.
Tuckson said that in the wake of SARS and Ebola, the international scientific community had established surveillance systems for emerging infectious threats.
“[One of the] reasons that we were able to be successful so rapidly is because of the advances in genetic and genomic sequencing. From the moment that [the new coronavirus] was identified as a threat, we were able to sequence the virus within a matter of weeks,” he said.
Tuckson further explained that the groundwork for the rapid development of new vaccines was already there in the form of prototype mRNA vaccines.
“For those reasons, we urge people to celebrate the fact that the world’s scientific community was ready, that we caught it early, that we had the technical ability to understand it, and then we had a prototype that could be programmed to be effective,” Tuckson added.
But the incredible speed with which these new vaccines were developed has prompted many people to question their safety.
“On the of the speed, the approval process through the clinical trials experience was certainly sped up, but not sped up in a way that was irresponsible,” Tuckson said.
“The clinical trials that normally would be done in sequence, we were able to do those in parallel. So that enabled the things that would have taken longer to be able to be done simultaneously, but still being able to be conducted safely,” he said.
In addition to these concerns, both Tuckson and Goler Blount pointed to the deeply rooted lack of trust that many Black Americans have in the healthcare system, which stems from historical and continuing, present-day mistreatment.
This lack of trust is a contributing factor to vaccine hesitancy for some in Black communities.
People of Color are historically underrepresented in clinical trials, raising even more questions about whether the demographics of the clinical trial participants reflect the diversity of the U.S. population.
However, Tuckson assures this was not the case during the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.
“We are very fortunate that we are able to say that there was adequate participation by People of Color and people with the conditions that would be of most interest to People of Color in terms of preexisting chronic illness,” Tuckson said.
“We are very happy to be able to say that there were enough people involved so as to make safe and appropriate decisions that the vaccine was not only effective, but also safe,” he said.
Overcoming barriers to provide fair and equitable access for all
For Linda Goler Blount, access to vaccination is an important issue that needs tackling.
She highlighted a number of specific points that might discourage some people from getting the COVID-19 vaccine:
- Booking an appointment requires time and access to a computer in many cases.
- The location of vaccination centers are not easy to get to for everyone.
- Attending appointments may mean losing pay or vacation time.
- Child care costs may be prohibitive.
- Language barriers can make communication about the vaccine or side effects difficult for non-English speakers.
However, Goler Blount hopes that federal and local efforts will mean that vaccines will be available to all who want them.
She pointed out that local health departments, community and recreation centers, radio stations, local newspapers, and churches all have the opportunity to provide information about the vaccines and where to get them.
“We need to put vaccines in the way, so people literally can’t help but see that there’s a vaccine site available for them,” she said.
Tuckson agrees, saying he believes access is very much a local issue at this time.
“I am concerned about access and I’m concerned about fair and equitable access,” he said.
“Just as we are seeing Black voters being disenfranchised from easy access to the voting machinery, the very same officials that are perpetrating this horrific insult to the Black community are also in many cases the same people that may be making decisions about the availability of the vaccine,” he said.
Tuckson said advocacy and vigilance are critical to ensure that marginalized communities have fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines across the country.
“The federal government can do its part. But at the end of the day, this still is up to local jurisdictions,” he said.
For people who want to get the vaccine but worry the side effects may affect their ability to work for a day or two, Goler Blount said she encourages people to plan ahead and try to schedule their shot for the day before their normal day off.
“You [probably don’t] want to spend your day off feeling lousy, but at least it keeps you from having your pay cut or having to take vacation time. From a policy perspective, we should not force people to have to take vacation time because they’re having a side effect from a vaccine,” she said.
Some states, such as California, have enacted Supplemental Paid Sick Leave laws. These laws provide employees with additional paid sick leave when they cannot work for reasons related to COVID-19.
Many employers are also extending a variety of benefits during the pandemic, but Goler Blount points out that these benefits aren’t available to everyone everywhere.
“Some employers are great and are giving people time off and it’s not counting against their vacation time, but that’s not all employers. And certainly, for low-wage employees, that is not the case at all,” Goler Blount said.
Additional resources that can help
For more information about COVID-19 vaccines, Tuckson and Goler Blount both recommend visiting the CDC COVID-19 webpage.
Goler Blount also pointed out that the Black Women’s Health Imperative has published a COVID-19 Pandemic Survival Guide for Black women and their families. It includes information about COVID-19 vaccines and how to navigate the unique challenges during the pandemic.
You can also find more information about where to get your shot in our state-by-state guide to COVID-19 vaccines.