Q&A with UF Health physician on misinformation about coronavirus, vaccines

Mary Moffett receives her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine from UF Health nurse Robbie Stringfellow at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in February.
Mary Moffett receives her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine from UF Health nurse Robbie Stringfellow at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in February. (Photo by Jesse S. Jones/UF Health)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The novel coronavirus is still sickening Americans by the tens of thousands. But three vaccines are now available to stem the pandemic and, for many, hope is increasing that a future free from the fear of COVID-19 is near.

In the meantime, people are still sorting through claims about vaccines and the coronavirus as they try to separate fiction from truth.

Kartik Cherabuddi is an infectious disease expert with wide experience overseeing the administration of COVID-19 vaccines at UF Health and an associate professor in the UF College of Medicine’s division of infectious diseases and global medicine. Here are his thoughts on some of the questions being raised about the vaccines.

Question: Infection numbers have come down from winter highs. Vaccinations are well underway. People are getting tired of all the precautions like face masks and physical distancing. Can we relax some of the precautions we’re taking?

Answer: I am quite positive the pandemic is going to go down significantly in the next few months. But we’re not out of the woods yet, and this is not the time to pause. We have overcome this last surge through masking and avoiding eating indoors in groups. We are now plateauing at the pre-surge level. But we need to reduce infection much further. We have found that no measure is 100% protective in preventing infection. The way I think of the various protective tools is that each dilutes the virus to a degree. Masks dilute the virus when we breathe. Physical distancing and good ventilation dilute the virus in the ambient air. Immunity from the virus through vaccination dilutes the virus by attacking it. Rather than argue that none of them are 100% protective and therefore shouldn’t be used, stack them together so that, in tandem, they completely neutralize spread. Real-world evidence shows vaccination does decrease spread of infection significantly and is the most important measure to ensure that, long-term, we will move away from this pandemic as quickly as possible.

Q: Should people choose one of the three available COVID-19 vaccines over another?

A: We are confident that all three vaccines are comparable in preventing severe disease, and that is the most important metric. All three vaccines have demonstrated in studies that they prevent severe disease and hospitalization 100% of the time. That’s why it is recommended that you get vaccinated with whichever one is available to you rather than wait on a specific kind.

Q: If so many people are getting their COVID-19 vaccination, why bother getting your own vaccination if everyone around you is already protected?

A: Even when a high level of vaccination is achieved in society and we achieve herd immunity, we will continue to experience a few sporadic cases. Herd immunity is great from a population standpoint, in that it allows for schools, businesses and health care systems to function well and the community not be overwhelmed. But from an individual standpoint, vaccination is still your best protection strategy against a severe or prolonged illness. Each of us may need to attend an important event, such as a birth or death of a loved one. Vaccination makes attending these events much safer for everyone.

Q:  Some young, healthy people without pre-existing conditions might argue that a vaccination won’t do them any good and is a waste of time. How do you counter that?

A: I have personally seen individuals such as these get quite sick. It does not happen to a lot of people in this population, but it does happen commonly enough to make it concerning. One of the things that breaks my heart is seeing otherwise healthy individuals either getting hospitalized or having long-term health problems post-illness because they downplayed the threat of infection or had vaccine hesitancy. There is now an extremely high level of assurance that these vaccines are safe and effective. When a vaccine is available, I strongly recommend you take it. That is your protection against severe and/or prolonged illness.

Q: Can I still be an organ donor if I’ve had COVID-19 or been vaccinated against it?

A: Yes, absolutely. It’s not a problem at all to be an organ donor if you have been vaccinated. You go through the same checklist to determine donor eligibility as anyone else. Now, if you had COVID-19, we would perform additional review for your eligibility as a donor to ensure you are not infectious.

So, if you are an eligible organ donor, go ahead and get vaccinated.

Q: What do you recommend we all do moving forward?

A:  Have a game plan for each event and task and use protective measures accordingly. Meet outdoors, mask indoors, and when eating socially, do so outdoors and distanced. Talk to your friends and family. Convince them of the need to receive the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them. When high numbers of folks in communities are vaccinated, we can do away with the protective measures knowing that no one who is vaccinated will get severely ill even if they catch the infection.