PINEHURST, N.C. -- The COVID-19 pandemic has gotten better in the Sandhills in the spring of 2021, but it's far from over. There are still active cases and some who are sick are still ending up in local hospitals.
Dr. Gretchen Arnoczy, an infectious diseases physician at FirstHealth of the Carolinas, spoke with Star 102.5 FM about the state of the pandemic, why vaccines are so crucial to controlling it and why the recent pause in Johnson & Johnson vaccines should give the public more confidence in the safety of the shots.
Question: We have been seeing the decline of COVID-19 cases, but is it something we should still be concerned about?
Dr. Arnoczy: Yes, unfortunately, we are still not done with COVID-19. Everyone working in this field is ready to be done. We are ready for COVID-19 to be over and for us to stop thinking about it. We are much, much better than we were in December and January - we had our peak of cases locally during that time, at least we are hoping that was our peak. Since then we had a significant decline in cases, but over the last month or so we have had a bit of a plateau where we still see patients with COVID, we still see patients coming into the hospital with COVID. We are getting much better than we were, but we are not quite done. We are also continuing to watch these variants to make sure they don't prompt another surge.
Question: I know many people are thinking about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and its possible side effects. Should people be worried about vaccine side effects?
Arnoczy: The thing is, for these vaccines, we have a lot of data because of how quickly this has been rolled out. They have given out over 7 million doses of the J&J vaccine, and then they had six cases of this unusual blood clot that can occur. It's a blood clot in the veins that go to your sinuses, and it's an unusual thing. It was less than 1 in a million cases, but they did what we're supposed to do, which is be as transparent as possible, prioritize the safety of this vaccine over everything else and say pause. We are going to see if this is something that's meaningful. Remember, if you are vaccinating the entire population, we see these types of blood clots in a certain number of people just naturally. This is a pause because we want to see if this is really associated with the vaccine. They are pausing to evaluate it, which is the right thing to do, safety-wise. One of the good things about the way they did the studies is they really tried to not cherry-pick participants, so we do have a lot of data.
What's happening with the J&J vaccine does make people nervous, but I think this should show us that we're not hiding anything, that we're not trying to push through an unsafe vaccine. This is a less than 1 in a million event and we are pausing things because we want to make sure, above all else, that these are safe vaccines.
Update on Johnson & Johnson vaccine:
During an 11-day pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, medical and scientific teams at the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration examined available data to assess the risk of this rare type of blood clot in people who received the vaccine. The FDA determined that the data shows that the vaccine's known and potential benefits outweigh its known and potential risks in adults. North Carolina health officials are recommending that health care providers in the state resume use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. FirstHealth has not received additional allocation of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. At this time, FirstHealth is only offering Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Question: I've heard somebody say, 'I've already had COVID, I don't need to get vaccinated.' Should they still be vaccinated?
Arnoczy: This is a great question. We do know that after having COVID you do have some type of durable immunity, but we don't know how long it lasts. Different people carry it for different lengths of time. We feel pretty confident that within the first 90 days of having COVID you're not going to get it again most likely but in general, we don't have good data that if you had COVID back in March of 2020 is going to protect you in April 2021. We do recommend people with a history of COVID get vaccinated because the durable immunity that we are seeing from the vaccine seems to be fairly reliable and long-lasting.
Question: What about someone who might be thinking about starting a family? Should pregnant women be vaccinated? Or maybe women who are thinking about getting pregnant?
Arnoczy: Initially they said don't get vaccinated if you're pregnant because pregnant women were not included in the clinical trials. A whole lot of pregnant health care workers said this should be a decision they get to make for themselves. Then pregnant women were allowed to get vaccinated, and I talked to many women in our system about this. A woman who is pregnant or breastfeeding should talk to her doctor about it, but this has moved from where we were in November or December to many physicians recommending that the vaccine benefits could outweigh those potential risks.
To schedule your COVID-19 vaccine, visit www.firsthealth.org/shot.