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Why should I take the vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccine helps to build up your immunity to the virus, so your body will fight it off more easily if you are exposed. It is an important tool to help stop the spread of the virus and allow individuals and families to return safely to normal life. Taking the vaccine can help protect you and your family from COVID-19.

How do the vaccines work?

When our immune system sees something it doesn’t recognize (foreign to it) - for example, a virus - it learns and launches a response using antibodies. It can take a few days for our bodies to build up the army of enough antibodies to respond and during that time the virus is spreading through our bodies. The good thing is once we have built up the antibodies and fought off the infection, our bodies remember how to protect against future infections like it. So if we are exposed again, it can use its past experience to destroy the virus quickly before it can do a lot of damage.

Scientists noticed the COVID-19 virus has a “spike protein” on the outside, which is what it uses to enter our cells. The scientists then looked at how the virus makes that protein and essentially copied the instructions. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are the two vaccines approved in Canada, are “mRNA vaccines” (mRNA stands for messenger RNA). mRNA vaccines take the instructions and teach our cells to make a single viral protein. The vaccine does not contain the coronavirus; it just contains the directions for the protein key which give the virus access to our cells.

Once our cells get the instructions from the mRNA they start to make the protein. When the protein appears on our cells, our immune system recognizes that it doesn’t belong there and it begins to build an immune response (antibodies), like what happens in natural infection against COVID-19. Remember though, there is no virus attached to this protein so as your body is building up its army of antibodies, there is no real virus in your system to make you sick. While your body is safely creating antibodies to destroy the protein, it’s also saving the memory of how to do it again in the future. If/when the actual COVID-19 virus enters your system, your body DOES recognize that protein the virus uses to get into your cells and it already knows how to attack it and destroy it before the virus does any harm.

It’s also important to note that after our cells make the protein from the vaccine instructions, they break down the mRNA instructions and get rid of them. The benefit of mRNA vaccines, like all vaccines, is that those vaccinated gain this protection without the risk of the serious infection from COVID-19.

Some people believe that it is possible to get COVID-19 from the vaccine.  This is a myth. There is nothing in the vaccine that causes COVID-19. The vaccine does not contain a live or inactivated virus and cannot cause COVID-19. It teaches your body to fight the virus so your immune response will protect you.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?

Vaccine safety is heavily researched in all vaccines before they ever become available for use. Vaccine safety is first established in clinical trials and then it continues to be analyzed in real time after release to the general population, as more doses are given.  Pharmaceutical companies are required to continuously monitor the use of their health products and report any side effects to Health Canada. For all vaccines, we continue to report if there are any problems, after any dose ever given. So when it’s your turn to get the vaccine, the safety data is not only from patients in Toronto or Canada, it’s from the millions around the world. Read here to find out about the vaccine testing, approval and monitoring system in Canada. Read here to find out about the development and approval of the COVID-19 vaccine in Canada.

How can the vaccines be safe when they were developed so quickly?

Researchers were not starting from scratch with this vaccine. The virus that causes COVID-19 is a member of the coronavirus family. There are hundreds of coronaviruses, including four that can cause the common cold and the coronaviruses that caused the SARS epidemic in 2002. Scientists have been studying coronaviruses for years so they had a head start with this type of virus and vaccine development. There was also worldwide scientific cooperation helping the research to happen quickly. Even though the vaccine development process was quick, it still went through all the required steps to ensure safety and effectiveness. The approved COVID vaccines have been carefully tested through clinical trials and are continually monitored for safety and effectiveness.

What are the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?

Most side effects are mild and should not last longer than a week. They include: a sore arm where the needle went in; feeling tired; a headache; fever; and feeling achy. It’s very rare for anyone to have a serious reaction to the vaccine (anaphylaxis). If this does happen, it usually happens within minutes.  When this has happened, it has been treated effectively at the vaccination Centre.

I’ve heard people who have experienced anaphylaxis or allergies should not take the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Who else should not take the vaccine?

It’s important for everyone to know that people who had food allergies and other allergies were included in the testing for the Pfizer vaccine and did not have problems.  The only people excluded were those with allergies to components in the vaccine.  Health Canada has recommended that people who have an allergic reaction to the first dose of the two-dose Pfizer vaccine should not get the second dose, nor should those who are allergic to one of its components—such as polyethylene glycol.

I’ve heard the vaccine alters your DNA. Is that true?

No. The vaccine does not work that way. (See the explanation in this FAQ under How does the vaccine work?)

I’ve heard it can cause infertility. Is that true?

No. There is no evidence at all that the vaccine causes infertility.

What are the ingredients in the vaccines? Are they Halal/Kosher?

Many vaccines use pork gelatin as a stabilized, however the COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved in Canada do not contain any pork products. You can learn more about COVID-19 vaccines and Islam in this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLbRjkIOyw4).

What about if I am pregnant?

As in question 9, we do not do studies on these specific populations initially, so the answer is that there really is just no data on this.  However, what starts to be seen now that the vaccine is being done is data from women who got the vaccine who may discover they were pregnant, or get pregnant shortly afterwards, and are followed and observed for any health problems.  The scientific community is also reviewing the risks of COVID-19 infection during pregnancy, and the feeling is that the risk of infection and harm during pregnancy may make the vaccine the safer option.  It is best for any pregnant person to talk with her doctor.

Why are children not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine?

As it stands, the available vaccine is approved in people 16 years and older (Pfizer) and 18 (Moderna). There are clinical trials underway in pediatrics for 12 to 15, as well as for those under 12. As is the process with many vaccines as they’re developed, their first established safety is in adults and then we start looking at pediatric trials.  Hopefully by the phase 3 rollout, children will be included. 

Why do we need two shots - and when can we consider ourselves protected?

After the first dose, we start seeing some protection show up in the first 10 to 14 days, but it doesn’t mean we can only get one shot and call it a day. The vaccines were tested on a two dose protocol (the second dose is administered 21-28 days after the first), and the effectiveness rate you hear of 95% was seen only after the second dose.  You are hearing some different schedules for injections with a delayed second dose being discussed because of the high rates of infection in the community and the trade off between giving fewer people full protection, or more people partial protection.  Ideally we want both: as many people as possible protected at a higher level.  It is very important that everyone receive both doses for effective protection. 

How long will this vaccine protect us? Will we need to get it annually like the flu shot?

We don’t know the answer to that quite yet. These vaccines were just created in the last year and we only started using this particular product in humans last March when the phase one clinical trials began, so we don’t actually know how long protection will last.  These people are continuing to be watched to determine their levels of protection, so that any recommendation for “boostering” will be made over time.  Whether or not we’ll need to take it annually like the flu shot is something that will reveal itself with time.  So far with the variations/mutations that have been seen, the vaccination is still very effective.

Can you still carry and spread the virus if you've been vaccinated?

It is likely that you can. The vaccine is shown to protect people from getting sick from the virus, but it’s possible that you could still carry the virus and be contagious to others even though you got your immunization. Until researchers know more, we need to continue wearing our masks and practicing physical distancing. 

Will the current approved COVID-19 vaccines be effective against the new UK variant strain of COVID-19?

Although there is no specific data to indicate the vaccine would not be effective, experts believe the changes in the spike protein of the UK variant are small and unlikely to affect the efficacy of the vaccine.

If I’ve already had COVID-19, should I still get the vaccine?

It is currently recommended that all individuals who have had COVID-19 still receive the vaccine in order to “boost” their immunity and prevent it from weakening over time. Currently, recommendations are that once you have been well and symptom free for at least 14 days you receive a single dose of vaccine.

After I get the first or second vaccine shot, do I still need to follow the guidelines – wear mask, physical distance, etc.?

Yes, following public health guidelines remains critical, even after you have been vaccinated. Studies indicate that the vaccine is highly effective but not 100% effective, making these general health principles critical for preventing further illness and transmission. Think of the vaccine as an additional measure, or layer of PPE, that serves to protect you against the virus. Until we have further information on this subject, please continue to wash your hands, wear a mask, and physically distance in order to avoid more outbreaks and protect others.

How soon can we return to life before COVID-19 after getting the vaccine?

It is going to take time, as the risk of infection for an individual will decrease as the rate of disease in the community decreases, which should happen as more people are vaccinated. It still may take months or even years to return to “normal”.  In the meantime, we’re still going to wear a mask and physical distance, stay home if we are sick, and screen our kids before we send them to school. Protecting the vulnerable—those who live in shelters, long-term care homes, and those who may suffer more serious consequences should they get COVID-19—means we must give everyone a chance to get vaccinated.

How will I know (and where do I go) when it is my turn to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Authorities are discussing notification systems for the public as they develop and proceed with the mass vaccination program.  Provinces are gearing up for mass immunization campaigns right now.

On Jan. 13, Ontario unveiled its latest vaccination distribution plan, giving more details about the province’s second phase, which is scheduled to start in late March and continue into the summer. In this phase, Ontario expects to vaccinate up to 8.5 million people.  The second phase includes people living in congregate settings such as prisons and shelters, seniors living outside congregate settings, individuals with high-risk chronic conditions and their caregivers and groups at greater risk due to barriers to health care, including Black and other racialized people. And there are essential workers, such as teachers and food industry workers, though the government hasn’t finalized its list of professions. As a general rule, the Ontario government experts are putting age before setting, so it’s likely a 75-year-old will get a dose before a 50-year-old teacher or a 25-year-old construction worker.

Distribution will occur at mass vaccination sites, pharmacies, doctors’ offices and public health clinics.  Public health units and other health care professionals are getting ready for the major push. We are currently working on setting this up for Rexdale CHC.  Targeted calls to patients—say, to those 80 and older, and then to those age 75 to 79—will likely come from primary care doctors and nurses.  Also direct notifications and public awareness campaigns are being developed for the city of Toronto also.

Who will get the COVID-19 vaccine first?

Phase 1 of vaccination includes senios in congregate living facilities, healthcare workers in direct contact with patients. Priority has been given to areas of the province where prevalence of infection is high, including Toronto and Peel regions. The goal is to get these groups vaccinated in the first batch of vaccines up until March, and then start to get the vaccine to the general population after that.

Where will we go to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The vaccines initially are being distributed at a few centres across the province and GTA. Due to storage requirements, the Pfizer vaccine doesn’t travel well. Because of this, it is being distributed through 17 hospitals across Ontario.  But as more vaccines become available, and from different manufacturers, more sites are being made available to get vaccinated.

If I take the COVID-19 vaccine, do I need to take the flu vaccine?

To protect against flu, you still need to take the flu vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccine does not prevent the flu and the flu vaccine does not prevent COVID-19.

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