Health Watch: National Institutes of Health Director discusses long term effects of COVID-19

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Published: Nov. 10, 2021 at 4:21 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health spoke on a variety of topics including the approval for COVID-19 vaccinations for children, the importance of testing, and research into the long term effects of COVID infections.

According to Dr. Collins the approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children in the 5 to 11 age group is a large advancement in tackling the pandemic.

“The approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children is a big deal,” Dr. Collins explained. “It’s one third the dose that you’d give an adult but it gives a very good immune response, 91% protection against infection and it seems very safe. Now people may say, ‘Well kids don’t get that sick with COVID-19, so maybe it doesn’t matter,’ but that really isn’t quite true. Some kids do get quite sick. There are pediatric ICUs all over the country now that have lots of kids with COVID, some of them even on respirators - and some kids have died of this disease, more than 100 in the age group of 5 to 11. We can prevent that with the vaccine and parents, looking at the evidence, I think will want to take advantage of that after they’ve asked all the appropriate questions.”

For those parents with questions or concerns regarding the safety of the vaccine for young children, there are resources available to answer those questions.

“The vaccine seems safe,” Dr. Collins remarked. “It can prevent kids also from being infected and then infecting others in their classroom or maybe at home. It’s the best way we know to try to knock this virus out of here, and goodness knows we all would like to see that happen. So I think it’s a really big advance. Parents will be able to get their questions answered. Go to a website that has some pretty good information called ‘We Can Do This’ and it will give you answers to some of those questions about why you might want to consider this for your kids.”

Dr. Collins also spoke on booster shots and why those vaccinated who qualify should consider getting a booster.

“Booster shots are now recommended for three groups,” Dr. Collins continued, “People who are over 65, people who have medical conditions that place them at higher risk of significant illness from COVID, and then people whose professions put them at a higher risk of exposure to the virus like healthcare providers and teachers. All of those folks are now eligible for boosters and can get them readily all over the place in most pharmacies, and that is one of those things that many of us are taking advantage of. I’m getting my Moderna booster having got the original immunization way back in January, and it is clear that the original vaccine is highly effective but it wanes a bit over time, so the boosters are a good way to be sure your immune system is fully ready to take on the virus if it happens to pass near to you.”

Along with vaccine efficacy, Dr. Collins spoke on the importance of testing for COVID-19 especially for those vaccinated.

“Testing is another really important tool in the tool box,” Dr. Collins elaborated. “People who are vaccinated can still get infected with the virus. Although they’re much less likely to, it’s still possible and it would be very helpful if somebody in that situation knew that so that they didn’t go out and infect other people. Oftentimes those infections, if you’re vaccinated, can be very mild or have no symptoms at all but you are still potentially passing that on to somebody else. The testing has gotten easier and easier. Remember, it used to be you had to get a nasal swab, and you would send a sample away, and it would take sometimes days to get the result back. Well now you can go to the pharmacy and buy a home test that only takes 15 minutes and you get a quick answer about whether you’re carrying the virus or not.”

Dr. Collins continued, “I think this is something for people to think about, especially now with colder weather and holidays coming. I know if I’m going to a gathering of vaccinated people, I’ll feel even better if they’ve all tested themselves that morning to be sure that nobody is carrying the virus. Then we can really all relax and be quite sure we’re not putting ourselves at risk. So, testing has turned out to be really valuable. I wish we had those kinds of tests a year ago. It took awhile to develop the technology but we got them now.”

And for those who have been infected with COVID-19, some still feel the effects for weeks and months after infection, which the NIH is researching as to causes and possible treatment.

“One of the things we didn’t really expect with this puzzling, mysterious virus, is that it’s capable of causing people to get sick and then not quickly get better again,” Dr. Collins explained. “The so-called ‘Long COVID’ may affect as many as a third of people who get this virus, and weeks or sometimes months after the illness they’re still not back to normal. They have fatigue, they have sleep disturbances, they have brain fog that makes it hard for them to focus on work or school. We don’t really understand what is causing that. It looks like the virus is no longer in their system unless it’s hiding somewhere. Maybe the immune system is out of whack and hasn’t come back to normal. We need to figure that out.”

Dr. Collins continued, “We at NIH are running a large study on this involving 20,000-30,000 people, and we aim to get those answers and to come up with ways to prevent this, and also to treat the people who are suffering from it now. It’s a really important issue, and it’s another reason to get vaccinated. You don’t want this ‘Long COVID’ thing either. Even if you think you’re somebody who is going to handle the virus just fine, some people who have thought that have ended up months later still feeling pretty puny. The vaccine prevents that, so speaking now to those 60 million Americans who still haven’t gotten started on vaccination, this would be a really good time to do that.”

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