Information About the COVID-19 Vaccines

Our patients will be notified via email, text and/or phone call when vaccine is available to you at Roswell Park. Our limited vaccine supply will be offered based on the prioritization guidelines from the NYSDOH and our own patient risk prioritization that takes into account the risk categories recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure that the highest-risk patients are offered the vaccine first. It is imperative that you respond immediately to the scheduling request. Let us know if you want to receive the vaccine, if you wish to decline it, or if you have already been vaccinated. We will need this information in order to allocate our limited vaccine supply appropriately.

Please do not contact your doctor at this time to schedule a vaccine appointment.

How Does a Vaccine Work?

Dr. Kelvin Lee explains how vaccines work to protect your body and immune system.

Amid a surge in COVID-19 infections, vaccination is beginning around the nation with the first COVID-19 vaccines authorized by the FDA for emergency use.

If you believe you are eligible and have not yet been scheduled for vaccination at Roswell Park, you are encouraged to schedule an appointment at a community vaccination site outside of Roswell Park. The most important thing is that you get vaccinated and protected from COVID-19 — do not wait for an appointment at Roswell Park if you have an earlier opportunity to get the vaccine.

Kelvin Lee, MD, Chair of Immunology at Roswell Park and a member of the New York State COVID-19 Clinical Advisory Task Force, answers key questions relating to cancer care below. Last revised 1/13/21.

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COVID-19 Vaccines FAQs

For Patients

Dr. Kelvin Lee explains the difference between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Cancer patients do. Probably anyone with cancer is at higher risk than the general population for suffering severe consequences from a COVID-19 infection, regardless of the type of treatment they are undergoing. That’s also the case for people with a lot of other preexisting conditions — high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes — and people in nursing homes and other settings where the consequences of getting COVID-19 are particularly bad. For cancer survivors, it’s less clear.

The first groups to get the vaccine are healthcare workers in emergency rooms, ICUs and similar settings, because they’re in harm’s way and are the most likely to be exposed to the virus. Vaccination is beginning for healthcare workers in high-risk settings and will expand as supply grows. 

It’s unlikely to affect your cancer treatment, but very little is known right now about the interactions of the vaccine with cancer therapy or with cancer patients. Your cancer treatments would probably have a negative effect on the vaccine, because the vaccine works with your immune system, and most cancer treatments suppress your immune response. It may be that the vaccine won’t work very well in people who are in active treatment.

But even if the cancer treatment decreases the effectiveness of the vaccine by as much as 50%, it’s still worth getting, because if you have at least 50% protection, that is a good thing.

On January 11, 2021, we began vaccinating patients 75 years and older who are in active treatment or who completed therapy (surgery, radiation or systemic therapy — for example, chemotherapy) within the past 12 months. This information will be updated on a regular basis.

We are following Food & Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and New York State Department of Health guidelines on who can be vaccinated safely, and when. The first groups approved to get the vaccine at Roswell Park are our medical staff who have a high risk of exposure to the virus.

As we continue vaccinating our staff, extensive planning for the vaccination of our patients is also underway. We expect doses to become more rapidly available as additional vaccines go before the FDA and other regulatory agencies for authorization, and we hope to have more information to share in the coming weeks.

We will send our patients information about how to receive the vaccine as soon as it becomes available. Please do not contact your doctor at this time to schedule a vaccine appointment.

Because the vaccines were not studied in cancer patients specifically, Roswell Park physicians have developed eligibility guidelines based on all available scientific and medical knowledge. They are using those guidelines, along with the New York State Department of Health guidelines, to recommend which patients should receive the vaccine based on their unique characteristics and the treatments they are receiving.

Your type of cancer, the kind of treatment you received or are receiving, or an immune-compromised condition will not automatically exclude you from receiving the vaccine.

If you have significant thrombocytopenia — not enough platelets (<50) — and are unable to receive an intramuscular injection or need to have a platelet transfusion before immunization, you should contact your Roswell Park physician or Advanced Practice Professional (APP) for approval before being immunized.

If you received a blood or marrow transplant or cellular therapy, see the corresponding question below for further information.

If and when you become eligible for vaccination at Roswell Park, you will be notified through the My Roswell patient portal, email, phone call, or text to your mobile phone and asked to schedule your appointment. You must respond immediately to let us know whether you want to receive the vaccine or if you want to decline it. We need to know your decision either way.

If you believe you are eligible and have not yet been scheduled for vaccination at Roswell Park, you are encouraged to schedule an appointment at a community vaccination site outside of Roswell Park. The most important thing is that you get vaccinated and protected from COVID-19 — do not wait for an appointment at Roswell Park if you have an earlier opportunity to get the vaccine.

Due to the large number of Roswell Park patients who are currently receiving treatment and the limited supply of vaccine worldwide, we must focus on patients who are most at risk. It is our goal to ensure that all our current patients receive both doses of vaccine over the next few months.

During the week of January 11, 2021, we will begin vaccinating patients 75 years and older who are on active therapy or who completed therapy (surgery, radiation or systemic therapy — for example, chemotherapy) within the past 12 months.

This information will be updated on a regular basis.

If and when you become eligible for vaccination at Roswell Park, you will be notified through the My Roswell patient portal, email, phone call, or text to your mobile phone and asked to schedule your appointment. You must respond immediately to let us know whether you want to receive the vaccine or if you want to decline it. We need to know your decision either way.

Again, please do not contact your doctor at this time to schedule a vaccine appointment.

Other health conditions are being factored into the prioritization list, as well as consideration of such factors such as age, whether a patient is on active chemotherapy treatment, the kind of cancer the patient has, etc.

No. We do not expect to offer the vaccine to the general public.

It is not yet clear whether home-based vaccination will become available. We will answer this question as soon as we have an answer.

The vaccine is free, but an administration cost may be charged, and it is to be covered by insurance.

At this time, patients who received a transplant or cellular therapy will be offered the vaccine by the Transplant & Cellular Therapy Center based on when the transplant occurred or when the cellular therapy was given. You should contact your Roswell Park physician or Advanced Practice Professional (APP) before being immunized.

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Vaccine Science & Safety

 

Thousands of people were vaccinated in the phase 1, 2 and 3 studies of the COVID-19 vaccines, and so far, data from those studies indicate that the vaccines are safe. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is conducting stringent reviews of the vaccines by some of the brightest, most accomplished scientists and health professionals. We can be confident that any vaccine authorized by the FDA is safe and effective.

In addition, a separate COVID-19 Clinical Advisory Task Force has been created in New York State to independently evaluate the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. Kelvin Lee, MD, Chair of Immunology and Senior Vice President of Basic Science at Roswell Park, serves on this panel. Their recommendation will be considered before any vaccine is made available in New York State.

Learn about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination so you’re ready when the vaccine is available to you.

No, you cannot get COVID from being vaccinated. Learn more about the facts behind COVID-19 vaccines.

The vaccines are not live viruses. They are all either just one or two molecules out of the entire virus or they are a piece of the virus — one or two genes that have been put into another virus that just causes the common cold and that has been inactivated.

No. The COVID-19 vaccines are not live-virus vaccines and cannot affect your DNA.

The side effects recorded during the COVID-19 clinical trials look very much like those associated with other vaccines, such as vaccines for the flu, measles and mumps. It is normal to experience some arm soreness, and some people will experience mild side effects that are a sign that the immune system is working, such as low-grade fever, fatigue, muscle aches or headache.

All vaccines — from the COVID-19 vaccine to the childhood vaccines you received as a kid — have very rare side effects that happen to between one in 100,000 to one in a million patients. Less than 2% of the people who took part in the clinical trials experienced severe side effects, and none were out of the ordinary. There were no autoimmune side effects, for example.

The phase 3 clinical trials included people with high blood pressure, diabetes, emphysema, cardiovascular disease, HIV and other conditions, and in those people the vaccine was shown to be safe and effective. While the data are still being analyzed, there were no clear differences in safety or efficacy for those people.

Here is the FDA's fact sheet about the Pfizer vaccine, and here's the one for the Moderna vaccine. Both include a complete list of ingredients. Mercury and aluminum are not on the lists.

Both are about 95% effective. What does that mean? In the clinical trials, half the patients were given the vaccine and the other half received a placebo (which doesn’t do anything). It is unethical to deliberately expose people to the coronavirus, so researchers just followed up to see which people later became infected.

In the Pfizer/BioNTech trial, of the 43,448 participants (who were 16 years and older), 21,720 received the vaccine and 21,728 received a placebo.

Twenty-eight days after the first dose was given, 170 cases of COVID-19 were observed among those who participated. Of those 170 COVID-19 cases, 162 or 95%  were observed in the placebo group, versus 8 cases in the vaccination group.

It usually takes from two to three years to develop a vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccines were developed in six months.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed quickly because they used brand-new mRNA technology, which uses instructions for building proteins that can be used to prevent or treat a disease. The same technology was used to develop at least one of the vaccines for the Ebola virus.

The traditional way of making a vaccine was to inoculate chicken eggs with a virus, grow the virus, purify the virus, inactivate the virus, and then make a vaccine out of it. That process is extraordinarily complicated, and that’s why vaccine development took as long as it did.

If the situation weren’t as urgent as it is, Pfizer and Moderna probably would have taken the standard route. But the advantage of this technology is that it’s incredibly fast — faster by magnitudes than any previous technology we used for developing vaccines.

The regulatory scientists at the Food & Drug Administration are some of the finest scientists and professionals around. They’ve been doing this a very long time. Their interest is in the health of our citizens. Their review of the safety and efficacy of the vaccines is going to be as high-quality as we can possibly get in these rapidly changing times.

Our physician leaders at Roswell Park are reviewing every aspect of safety to determine which patients would benefit from the vaccine, which patients probably should not receive the vaccine at this time, and when it should be given to those who do get it. We expect to have those guidelines in place within a few weeks.

The clinical trials excluded pregnant women, although some women became pregnant during the trials, and no adverse effects have been reported.

The American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology (ACOG) advises that women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not be prevented from receiving the vaccine. ACOG also notes that pregnant women are at higher risk for becoming seriously ill if they become infected with COVID-19, and that “Black and Hispanic individuals who are pregnant appear to have disproportionately higher prevalence of COVID-19 infection and death.”

There should be no concern about vaccinated people being around pregnant women, infants or small children. The vaccine is not a live-virus vaccine; it is not infectious and cannot spread to others.

Yes. Depending on how many people choose to receive the vaccine, you may be vaccinated in your Roswell Park clinic or another location at Roswell Park — and certainly we are prepared to respond to an allergic reaction — or you may go to a local pharmacy that has been approved for vaccine distribution.

All vaccine sites are prepared to deal with anaphylactic responses. At Roswell Park, we are monitoring people for 15 minutes after vaccination, which is when an allergic reaction is most likely to occur.

Results of the clinical trials indicate that there were no significant side effects for people with general allergies.

Two people in the United Kingdom and two in Alaska did experience anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction, within 10 minutes of receiving the vaccine. One of the two in Alaska had no history of allergies. Both people in the U.K. had histories of allergic reactions and carried adrenaline auto-injectors as a result.

The Pfizer vaccine clinical trials enrolled 43,448 participants. Half received the vaccine and the other half received a placebo (which does nothing) in order to compare safety and effectiveness between the two groups. Data show that a few people in both groups experienced what were assumed to be allergic reactions, although the difference between the two groups was slight (.63% vs. .51%).

The phase 3 trial for the Moderna vaccine also had no instances of anaphylactic reactions in the 15,208 subjects who received the vaccine. There has been one incident with the Moderna vaccine being administered under the Emergency Use Authorization.

These anaphylactic reactions have been rare, and have been well managed using the same medical approaches used for other hypersensitivity reactions (for example, peanut allergies, etc.). The current recommendations from the CDC are that unless you are specifically allergic to an actual ingredient in the vaccine itself, you should get vaccinated.

Clinical trials leading up to the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization of the Pfizer vaccine involved tens of thousands of people, half receiving the vaccine and half receiving a placebo (which does nothing). Significant side effects were very, very rare, and when they did occur, there was no clear evidence that they were caused by the vaccine. Most side effects occurred on the first day and included pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, muscle aches and some joint pain.

The clinical trials included people who were HIV-positive or who had diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, chronic lung disease, obesity or hypertension (high blood pressure).

With the Moderna vaccine, the side effects were a little more frequent but not more severe.

Please see the question above for specific information about patients who have received a transplant or cellular therapy.

Being immunocompromised will not automatically exclude you from being eligible for the vaccine. Both vaccines were tested in patients with HIV, which is associated with an immunocompromised state. Although the results in those patients were not available when the Emergency Use Authorization was granted, no serious safety concerns were noted.

Neither vaccine was tested in cancer patients in the clinical trials. However, Roswell Park’s experts have developed eligibility guidelines based on the latest available medical and scientific evidence.

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Efficacy and Administration

 

On Dec. 1, 2020, the Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices (ACIP) made recommendations about who should be offered the vaccine in the initial phase of the U.S. COVID-19 vaccination program, when there is limited vaccine supply. ACIP is a group of experts who advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Details of those recommendations can be found here and are summarized below.

Vaccination in the initial phase of the COVID-19 vaccination program should be offered to both 1) healthcare personnel (defined as paid and unpaid people serving in health care settings who have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients or infectious material) and 2) residents of long-term care facilities.

Vaccination began in healthcare workers in high-risk settings and will expand as supply grows. 

Eventually, yes. Because these first vaccines are being offered under an Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA, at first they will be recommended for those at highest risk of getting infected with COVID-19 or from experiencing the most severe illness from COVID-19.

With the first vaccines starting distribution, so are the associated scams. Look out for emails claiming to allow you to get the vaccine sooner. They can contain malicious links or pay-for-cure scams, or harvest your personal information.

Only trust reputable sources for vaccine information. You can find more information about these scams from the FCC.

Both the Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine are two-shot vaccinations. You’ll get the vaccine and then you’ll get a booster later. Right now we don’t know how long that immunity will last. We may need a shot once a year, twice a year or never again. We’ll find out as time goes on.

Both the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine require two initial shots for a person to develop immunity. The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses, given three weeks apart. The Moderna vaccine also requires two doses, given four weeks apart.

At the time of your first dose, you will be advised when to return for the second dose, which will be given at the same location.

The vaccines produce a rising level of protection. You will get some protection from the first vaccination and more after the second shot. While we don’t know for certain, it looks as if it takes the immune system from two to four weeks to achieve the greatest level of protection.

Yes. The vaccines are not 100% effective, and in the first clinical studies, 5% of people who got vaccinated later became infected with COVID-19. If you do get infected and have symptoms, you can spread COVID-19 to others.

Also, in the clinical trials, only the people who developed symptoms of COVID-19 were tested for the virus. We know that some people  especially younger people  can be infected with the virus but don’t develop any symptoms  the so-called “asymptomatic infections.” We do not yet know if the vaccines protect people from asymptomatic infections, which is important because asymptomatic patients can still spread the virus to others.

Therefore, the key takeaway is this — continue to wear your mask, wash your hands and social distance EVEN IF you get the vaccine.

We don’t know. The phase 3 trials of the vaccine enrolled some people who had previously been infected with COVID-19. In some cases, people who had mild to moderate symptoms with their infection seem to have lost their initial immunity fairly quickly after infection, suggesting that the vaccine can provide additional protection.

However, we don’t have enough data yet to know whether the vaccine will help you if you were previously infected and have positive antibodies against COVID-19. We don’t even know what level of antibodies you need to be protected.

Until the virus is gone, you should not. We don’t know what’s going to happen. And what if half the population doesn’t want to get vaccinated? We cannot let our guard down.

There are going to be issues with supply-chain shortages and the vaccine-manufacturing process that may be affected as the pandemic gets worse. That’s why all of us need to continue to be vigilant — socially distance, wear a mask, wash our hands. And even though the vaccines are here, they're not going to be available to the general public for months.

The safest thing to do is to get vaccinated as soon as you can and continue following the current safety measures until we get the pandemic under control. Then we can consider lightening things up a little, but until people stop dying, we need to do everything we can to stop this pandemic.

For more information about the COVID vaccines, please visit:

The phase 3 clinical trials for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were designed only to look at whether the vaccines prevented COVID-19 disease that was symptomatic (causing symptoms). Both vaccines very clearly reduced the chance of getting severe disease.

However, there is no data yet on whether the vaccines can prevent COVID-19 infection that has no or minimal symptoms, such as is often seen in young people. Therefore, it is possible that a vaccinated patient could still be infected with the virus — but without symptoms — and spread it to others.

So even if you get vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, wash your hands and practice social distancing.

This is still being studied for the new virus variant that was initially detected in the United Kingdom. We also don’t know whether new virus variants will evolve in response to the vaccines themselves, which is being closely monitored.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Experts do not know what percentage of people would need to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity to COVID-19. Herd immunity is a term used to describe when enough people have protection — either from previous infection or vaccination — that it is unlikely a virus or bacteria can spread and cause disease.”

This will depend primarily on vaccine manufacture and distribution, which may be impacted by the current worsening of the pandemic itself, through disruption of supply chains and essential workforces. It is likely that full vaccination in the U.S. will not occur any sooner than summer 2021 – and possibly significantly later than that.

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