While I personally prefer to bolster my immunity over getting a flu vaccine, COVID-19 carries higher risk, making a pro-active and informed choice feel more urgent to me as we near the beginning of a 2nd year of living with COVID. As a healthcare provider, I feel a responsibility to share what I’m learning with my patients, as well as my community.
While the statistics aren’t perfect, they’re what we have to work with. Where I feel there are limitations to the data, I’ll share what I think they are (my thoughts will be in italics), along with any resources that back me up. My goal here is to inform, not to make a case for any specific option. Feel free to post feedback or comments, but please be kind and keep in mind I’ve spent maaaany hours of my free time researching and reading, doing my best to provide only factual information.
The information that felt important to share was…well, a lot…..so I broke it down into 3 parts. Here, in part one, we’ll explore risk of infection vs. risk of vaccination based on US populations (unless otherwise indicated). In part 2, we’ll review vaccine ingredients and FAQs about vaccine safety. If you want to skip the nerdy stuff, and go straight to my recommendations should you choose to proceed with vaccination, you can find part 3 here, where we’ll look at preparing your immune system for the best outcome, as well as dealing with side effects following vaccination. (I’ll include a link to parts 2 and 3 again at the end.)
My official disclaimer: I’m not a scientist, or an infectious disease or vaccine expert. I’m a naturopath, in private practice for over 20 years, and a total research nerd when the mood strikes. So off we go…
Risks Associated with COVID-19 Infection
Groups at Increased Risk of Severe Outcome with COVID-19
In general, serious risks for different groups have changed over time, in part because our understanding of the virus and available treatment options have improved.
- Black, Indigenous and Latin Americans, respectively, are the ethnicities at highest risk in the US.
- Other factors associated with COVID-19 risk amplification are poor socio-economic status, obesity, uncontrolled diabetes, reduced kidney function, respiratory disease, immunosuppressive medications, stroke, dementia and other neurological conditions.
- There is emerging data that shows certain genetics predispose to a higher likelihood of serious adverse outcomes.
- A study done in Europe found that those with blood type A were at higher risk for respiratory failure than other blood types, while those with blood type O seemed to have the least risk.
Incidence of Fatalities Associated with COVID-19 Infection
As of this writing, Johns Hopkins puts COVID-19 fatality at 1.8% in the US*. This means of 1000 people infected, approximately 18 will die. This is improved over our initial case fatality rate, though could worsen if more virulent or deadly strains begin to dominate.
- More men than women have died of COVID-19 in 41 of 47 countries. Globally, case-fatality is noted as 2.4 times higher among men. (The US is inconsistent in reporting sex as a variable in COVID-19 mortality data, but when we do, fatalities among men are higher.)
- Of the 460,234 deaths from COVID-19 in the US between January 2020 and February 13 2021, more than 80% were 65 or older.
- There are other deaths attributed to COVID-19 that are not directly related to infection. These numbers haven’t been finalized for 2020, though the estimate of excess deaths through March 3 is 608,000.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins and Maryland University devised this COVID Mortality Risk Calculator** using data from the CDC. It has since been validated based on tens of thousands of recently observed deaths and projected risks across US cities and counties.
*Since many who are infected with COVID have no symptoms, the fatality rate is based on reported cases only, meaning our fatality rate is likely significantly lower than 1.8%.
**Remember it can’t take into account how well you’re caring for yourself, which we know factors into outcome.
Long-term Effects Following COVID-19 (often called COVID Long Haulers)
Because the disease is still relatively new, there is not yet definitive data to tell us what percentage of patients go on to develop ongoing symptoms following infection. We do know older people and those with serious medical conditions are more likely to experience lingering COVID-19 symptoms, but even young, otherwise healthy people can feel unwell for weeks to months following infection. The most common signs and symptoms that linger over time include:
- Shortness of breath
- Joint pain
- Chest pain
- Cognitive impairment (memory, concentration, brain fog)
- Muscle pain or headache
- Fast or pounding heartbeat
- Loss of smell or taste
- Disturbed sleep
- Hair loss
- COVID toes (more typical in children, teens and young adults, and can be the only symptom)
We have treated several patients with varying sequalae following COVID-19 infection with good success. A newsletter will come soon with what we’re learning.
Organ damage caused by COVID-19 Infection
Although COVID-19 is seen as a disease that primarily affects the lungs, it can damage other organs as well, increasing the chance of long-term health problems. Organs that may be affected include:
- Heart. Imaging tests taken months after recovery from COVID-19 have shown lasting damage to the heart muscle, even in people who experienced only mild COVID-19 symptoms. This may increase the risk of heart failure or other heart complications in the future.
- Lungs. The type of pneumonia often associated with COVID-19 can cause long-standing damage to the tiny air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. The resulting scar tissue can lead to long-term breathing problems.
- Brain. Even in young people, COVID-19 can cause strokes, seizures and Guillain-Barre syndrome — a condition that causes temporary paralysis. COVID-19 may also increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Blood Clots and Blood Vessel Problems
COVID-19 can make blood cells more likely to clump, forming clots. While large clots can cause heart attacks and strokes, much of the heart damage caused by COVID-19 is believed to stem from very small clots that block tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in the heart muscle.
Other parts of the body affected by blood clots include the lungs, legs, liver and kidneys. COVID-19 can also weaken blood vessels and cause them to leak, which contributes to potentially long-lasting problems with the liver and kidneys.
Risks Associated with COVID-19 Vaccines
Established in 1990, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is our nation’s early warning system for vaccine safety. Healthcare providers are required to report deaths and serious adverse events following vaccines, though there are no penalties for failure to report. However, anyone can report symptoms following vaccination, and we encourage you to do so here if you’ve experienced side effects following a COVID-19 or any other vaccine.
Fatalities Associated with COVID-19 Vaccines
According to VAERS, between 12/14/20 and 3/1/21 in the US, just over 76 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered. During this same time frame, VAERS received 1381 reports of death (0.0017%) in people who had recently received a COVID-19 vaccine. “After a review of available clinical information, death certificates, autopsy and medical records,” FDA and CDC physicians say they found “no evidence that vaccination contributed to any of the patient deaths” or “any patterns in the cause of death that indicate a safety problem.”
Most of us have heard of Dr. Gregory Michael, the 56-year-old physician in Florida who died 16 days after receiving his first Pfizer vaccination from a rare autoimmune condition called immune thrombocytopenia. This disorder has been seen in at least 15 other patients following COVID, as well as other vaccinations (particularly MMR), and has also been associated with viral infection. Hematologists, including Dr. James Bussel, a professor emeritus at Weill Cornell Medicine who has written more than 300 scientific articles on the platelet disorder, stated in an interview he feels there is an association, and urged other physicians to report cases when they observe them.
As a healthcare provider, hearing accounts of the common side effects seen, particularly following the second dose, it seems common-sensical that the vaccine could be the proverbial final straw for someone with fragile health, or who has specific genetics that interact poorly with the vaccines. With many millions of people being vaccinated, it also stands to reason that some would have died during this period of time, regardless of whether or not they were vaccinated.
If all the reported deaths following vaccination were due to the vaccine, this would equate to 1 death per 55,032 vaccinations or 0.000018%.
A 2011 report by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Inc. for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) stated that fewer than one percent of all vaccine adverse events are reported to the government. It’s possible this has improved, but I do think it highly likely that some deaths following vaccination are not reported, whether delayed or related to human error or omission.
Serious Adverse Events Associated with COVID-19 Vaccines
From mid-December to mid-January, when nearly 13.8 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines had been administered across the country, *6,994 related adverse events were reported, including 640 serious adverse events– an incidence of 1 in 21,555 vaccinations. Serious adverse events are defined as life-threatening, requiring or prolonging hospitalization or resulting in persistent disability/incapacity). The most common were:
- Anaphylaxis (usually within 15-30 minutes of vaccination)
- Acute myocardial infarction
- Cerebrovascular accident
- Shoulder injury
- Lymphadenopathy in the arm and neck region within 2-4 days, lasting approximately 10 days
- Bell’s Palsy was seen at the same frequency in clinical trials as in the unvaccinated population (1 in 10,000), though the FDA recommended surveillance for additional cases as the vaccines deploy into larger populations.
*We know that roughly 50% of those vaccinated experience moderate to severe symptoms following the second vaccination, so this highlights the need for more accurate and complete reporting of adverse events, even if not life-threatening.
Mild, More Frequently Occurring Adverse Events with COVID-19 Vaccines
As stated previously, about half of those vaccinated report not feeling well after their second dose. The table shown below is derived from VAERS data through January 18, 2021, and shows the frequency of reported side effects:
*Adverse event reporting takes time for symptoms to occur, then be reported. At this time, this is the most updated information I could find on milder, adverse symptoms.
And that’s what we know so far. I’ll do my best to do some updates if it seems important to do so. Otherwise, I will focus my energy back on my practice, and as the weather warms, on my favorite outdoor activity: gardening. Whatever choice feels best to you, be sure to support your immune system for the best outcome, and if you should choose to vaccinate, please report any side effects.
Click here to read part 2, covering commonly asked questions about COVID vaccine safety, including ingredients, side effects and more.
Click here to read part 3, covering natural treatments for addressing COVID vaccine side effects, and ways to prepare your body for the best immune response should you decide to vaccinate.