National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM) is an annual observance in August to highlight the importance of vaccination for people of all ages. Whether it’s routine childhood vaccinations, a flu shot, or the COVID-19 vaccine, it is imperative that we all do our part to keep each other healthy and safe.
Keri Hurley-Kim, a Health Sciences Assistant Clinical Professor within the UCI School of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, answers some questions about vaccines. Hurley-Kim, PhD, is also Vice-Chair for the Steering Committee of the Immunization Coalition of Los Angeles County.
Q: What role do pharmacists play when it comes to vaccines and vaccinations?
Pharmacists are involved in every step of vaccine distribution and administration. We are uniquely qualified to manage procurement, storage and dose preparation because that is a large part of what pharmacies do. Most pharmacists receive training to screen patients for immunizations to ensure safe use and effective distribution. Additionally, a major aspect of pharmacy practice, regardless of setting, is providing education about medications, including vaccines, to patients and other health professionals. While different health care providers can do each of these steps, I am not aware of any others involved in every one of these steps to the level that pharmacists are.
Q: How do people get sick with COVID-19 even though they are vaccinated?
We indeed see breakthrough infections in people who are vaccinated. There are a number of reasons for this. First, a large proportion of breakthrough infections have occurred in immunocompromised people; their immune systems do not mount a strong response to the vaccine, so they are less likely to recognize and fight the virus. One theory that explains breakthrough infections for those who have healthy immune systems is that the vaccine is injected and works essentially in the blood. While they may have a robust immune response, there may be few antibodies in the upper respiratory tract, where the virus would first enter the body. This may explain why most breakthrough infections in immunocompetent individuals result in mild symptoms or none at all. The virus could infect local tissues in the respiratory tract but would meet a much stronger defense deeper in the lungs where the most devastating complications occur.
Q: Why do I still have to wear a mask even though I’m vaccinated?
There are a couple of reasons. First, you can’t look at someone and know whether or not they are vaccinated. Requiring or recommending masks for everyone helps ensure that those who are unvaccinated (and most likely to spread the virus) are wearing a mask. We also now know that vaccinated people with a breakthrough infection can shed the virus and thus expose others. However, we also know that because vaccinated people are much less likely to be infected in the first place, they have significantly fewer opportunities as a group to transmit the virus. Additionally, people with breakthrough infections are contagious for a shorter time compared to those who are unvaccinated. This is also likely to reduce the number of others who are exposed. Widespread use of masks and vaccines together is more synergistic than additive in lowering infections at the population level.