As more COVID-19 vaccines become available in the U.S., Mayo Clinic has begun community vaccinations for older adults. Dr. Abinash Virk, an infectious diseases expert, explains why it’s especially important that adults 80 and older are vaccinated for COVID-19.
“The older a person gets, the higher the risk. This is likely because patients lose immunity as they get older. The older they are, the more immune dysfunction they have. That causes them to have a higher risk of complications from COVID-19,” says Dr. Virk.
Both of the messenger RNA COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. ― Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna ― have been shown in studies to be about 94% to 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 infection in all patients. But are they just as safe and effective for those 80 and older?
“In both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccine studies, they had a large number of older patients. This was based on FDA (Food and Drug Administration) guidance to these companies to make sure that they included people who were older because we know that the older patients are at higher risk of severe COVID-19,” explains Dr. Virk.
“We have some evidence to show that it’s similarly effective in the older population. The immune response may not be as good as the younger, less than 65 age group, but did not seem to be that significantly different.”
Of interest, Dr. Virk says older patients in the studies had fewer side effects from COVID-19 vaccines than younger patients.
While getting the vaccine into the arms of as many older adults as possible is important, Dr. Virk says everybody needs to continue taking precautions after being vaccinated for COVID-19, including:
• Wearing a mask.
• Practicing social distancing.
• Washing hands frequently.
“We need at least 70% to 80% of the population to be protected against COVID-19, whether it’s through natural infection or it’s through vaccination. Until we have that amount of the population protected, the virus can still continue to transmit and continue to grow within our community,” says Dr. Virk.
Dr. Melanie Swift, co-chair of Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 Vaccine Allocation and Distribution Work Group, says the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are approximately 95% effective in preventing COVID-19.
“That’s an incredibly good number. I mean, when we look at our annual flu vaccine, the effectiveness of that is only about 50% to 60%. So this is incredibly good news that we have vaccines that are this effective,” says Dr. Swift.
She says the vaccines, which are administered in two doses spaced 21 or 28 days apart, are especially safe because they do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. Instead, they are messenger RNA vaccines that trigger an immune response that teaches the body’s cells to fight off the virus by producing antibodies.
“The immune response begins with the first dose. And then, with the second dose, it intensifies. And it will take about two weeks after that second dose before the immune response has fully developed. So, from two weeks after your second dose is probably a good time to expect you’ll have your maximum protection,” says Dr. Swift.
No COVID-19 vaccines are available yet for children under 16. But several companies have begun enrolling children in COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials.
The Moderna vaccine is only authorized for use in ages 18 and up, and the Pfizer vaccine is authorized in ages 16 and up. So we don’t yet have a vaccine that is actually authorized for anybody under 16 years old,” says Dr. Swift. “There will be more trials in March recruiting and enrolling subjects who are ages 5 to 11. So we will ultimately have a vaccine for the pediatric population, but we don’t have one of those yet.”