Ask the Expert: COVID-19 in 2021

Dr. Jennifer Vanyo-Novak, D.O. | Family Physician, Medical Director

The COVID-19 pandemic has given us ups and downs over the past year and a half. We hear about the “return to normal” but what does that mean and how do we get there?

NOAH’s Medical Director and Family Physician Dr. Vanyo-Novak breaks down the facts, explains the complex, and clears up rumors and misunderstandings about COVID, vaccines, and the new normal.

Dr. Vanyo-Novak

A lot of places are opening back up. Do we really need masks again since places stopped requiring them? Isn’t COVID almost over?  

Unfortunately, no, COVID is not almost over. Though the number of cases declined for a while thanks to mask mandates, social distancing, and vaccines against COVID-19, we are now seeing the cases rise.  As of 7.27.2021 the CDC has advised that even vaccinated individuals begin to mask again indoors in high risk COVID regions which includes us here in Maricopa County. This is in part due to lower than needed vaccine rates, not enough people following guidelines, and an increase in travel and social gatherings.  Like with most viruses that go uncontained, we are seeing the virus that causes COVID-19 evolve into new variants (strains of the virus) that are smarter, more easily transmitted, and harder to defeat than the original strains of the virus.

Right now we are hearing about variants, especially the Delta variant, but what is the difference? Should we be worried about another outbreak?

Viruses are living things and they continuously change so they can evolve and survive. There are several different strains right now, Delta being the most common one in the U.S. Several new strains are labeled as “Variants of Concern” by the CDC meaning they are more transmissible, cause more serious illness, don’t respond as well to treatments, and can be more resistant to vaccines.

With a rise in cases due to the Delta variant and other “Variants of Concern” we are seeing an increase in hospitalizations in younger patients without risk factors, even young children.  The virus is not just a risk for the elderly or people with underlying conditions. 

If someone got the vaccine, are they safe from new COVID strains? Will they need to take booster shots?

Honestly, we are still learning about the virus, its’ variants, and the vaccines. In the beginning health experts and scientists weren’t sure booster shots would be needed. Now, it looks likely that boosters will be needed but we don’t know when. Originally, they did not think boosters would be needed soon, but this can change as the case numbers rise. What the experts are working on understanding is if vaccinated people are getting COVID, is it because these new strains are outsmarting the vaccines, if the vaccine effectiveness is fading, or a combination of the two. 

Currently 97% of COVID-19 hospitalizations are unvaccinated individuals. That tells us that while we will not ever be 100% protected, most vaccinated people are protected and if they do get infected it is unlikely that they will get seriously ill. That was always a big goal with the vaccine.

If someone didn’t get vaccinated and doesn’t plan to, won’t they be safe since other people got the vaccine and infections are lower than earlier in the pandemic?

It is great that as of 7.28.21 338 million Americans have been vaccinated against COVID. However, that is only 49% of the U.S., putting us well below the 70-80% needed for herd immunity.

COVID cases aren’t looking as good as they were even a month ago. Less than 50% of Maricopa County is fully vaccinated and with school starting, travel increasing, and mask mandates mostly gone, the number of infected people will continue to increase.

Most of us interact with other people: school, work, stores, travel, transportation, exercising at gyms, and more. We can’t just think about ourselves, we must consider our community – the herd – and protect that. We have a responsibility to our friends, family, neighbors, and society to take care of each other.

The virus will continue to mutate into new variants and harm people, and the vaccines are our greatest defense.  We need to achieve herd immunity before we can truly begin to feel safe.

Kids don’t get COVID, so why do they need a vaccine?

In general most children have a much more robust immune system than adults. Children have gotten COVID throughout the pandemic, but they are getting it more now, and ending up in the hospital more. With new variants this trend may continue, and more children may become seriously ill or worse, die from this virus.

Children, like the rest of us, interact with family members, friends, classmates, teammates, and many other people. We want children to be protected from this virus, but also for them to protect their community as well.

How can we possibly know if the vaccines are safe if they aren’t fully approved?

They have all been given Emergency Use Authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and here is a short video to explain it. All vaccines have trials that require at least 3,000 people. The COVID vaccine trials were done on 30,000 people before the first approvals in late 2020!

The main difference in the approval and process for the COVID vaccines is that while most vaccines go through a series of steps, finishing one step before moving the next one, with COVID vaccines, they moved to the next step once all the data showed things were looking good (as opposed to fully completed). But every step was still included, all the monitoring and review was still happening, but in a more fluid way.

At this time, every step has been fully completed and vaccine makers are beginning to apply for full FDA approval.

If the risk of getting really sick from COVID-19 is still low, why should someone take a new vaccine?

Possible side effects from the vaccine are still much less than the risk of COVID-19 and serious illness, including what we are now seeing as long-haul COVID. The vaccine side effects are mostly normal, expected, and mild. COVID is mutating and with each strain it can be more deadly, or more infectious than before.

We cannot just consider ourselves; we have to consider the effects of our choices on those around us. 

If the mRNA (vaccine technology used in some vaccines) isn’t new medical technology, why haven’t we used it in vaccines before.

t hasn’t been used in vaccines before COVID because we haven’t needed a new vaccine on this scale until now. The mRNA technology has been used successfully for decades, with a lot of research done on its benefits and any risks.

Anyone 12 and older can schedule their vaccine appointment one of NOAH’s locations. Click here to request an appointment. If you have additional questions or concerns about COVID-19 or the vaccine, make an appointment with one of our medical providers.

NEWS: NOAH to offer Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for ages 12+

PHOENIX (May 12, 2021) – Neighborhood Outreach Access to Health (NOAH), a leading community health center in Maricopa county delivering comprehensive health services to the underserved, announced today that it will offer the COVID-19 vaccine to those ages 12 and above beginning on May 21.

NOAH began rolling out COVID-19 vaccines in February, already vaccinating more than 16,000 patients, including many underserved community members. Anyone can schedule their vaccine with NOAH if they are 12 and older, regardless of whether they are a patient.

“We prioritize healthcare for every member of our community, and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, that has meant adjusting, adding, and enhancing what we are doing and remaining flexible to the realities of this virus,” said Wendy Armendariz, NOAH CEO. “We are excited to provide the Pfizer vaccine to individuals 12 and older, in addition to Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. The NOAH team is thrilled to be able to add this important layer of protection to families in our community.”

NOAH currently offers both the Moderna two-dose vaccine as well as the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine at various NOAH health centers. The nonprofit health center will begin offering the Pfizer two-dose vaccine in addition to the others, with the second dose given 21 days after the first. There is no cost for any COVID-19 vaccine.

At this time, Pfizer is the only vaccine approved for individuals under age 18. Five of NOAH’s nine locations currently offer COVID-19 vaccines, with two of those beginning to provide the Pfizer vaccine to 12 and older:

  • Desert Mission Health Center at 9201 N 5th St, Phoenix
  • Palomino Health Center at 16251 N Cave Creek Rd, Phoenix

Anyone can schedule their vaccine with NOAH, regardless of whether they are a NOAH patient or not and regardless of immigration status. No insurance is required for the vaccine. NOAH has bilingual staff and can help individuals schedule at https://noahhelps.org/covid-vaccine/ or by calling 480-882-4545.

Did You Know, Beating COVID is FREE for Patients

Sounds too good to be true? It isn’t.

We want all of our patients, and their family, friends and coworkers to safe, healthy, and have the care they need. So, whether you come to NOAH, or go to another health center, whether you have insurance or not, you won’t have to pay for:

  • Testing – both diagnostic (COVID-19 positive or negative), or antibody (showing you had COVID-19 or received the vaccine) are no cost to patients.
  • Treatment – includes office or telehealth appointments, emergency room visits, inpatient or outpatient care, skilled nursing facility or other long-term care. Also included is equipment like ventilators, and ambulance or non-emergent transportation service.
  • Vaccine – anyone 16 and older in Arizona can get the vaccine with no cost to the patient. At NOAH, we have the Moderna vaccine that has been approved for 18+ and anyone can request a vaccine appointment. Once vaccines are approved for younger ages, NOAH will administer vaccines to additional age groups at no cost to the patient.

What about health insurance?

No patient cost means no patient cost.

If you are a new or existing NOAH patient, and are uninsured, you do not need to talk with us first. NOAH works directly with HRSA and Maricopa County to ensure that none of our patients – insured or not – will have to pay for any COVID-related medical care.

If you are an uninsured or undocumented patient not coming to NOAH, talk to your health center ahead of time to see if they will agree to bill the federal government for the COVID-19 care listed above.

More information about this is on this Health and Human Services page, including English- and Spanish-language materials.

Important Details about your COVID care

The only way we get past COVID-19 is together, with everyone getting the healthcare they need and deserve. Some important details:

  1. If you are uninsured and got a bill for COVID-19 testing or treatment:
    1. If you didn’t pay it yet, ask your provider to bill the HRSA COVID-19 Uninsured Program instead of you.
    1. If you did pay the bill, you may be owed a refund. Contact the facility that billed you. If they don’t cancel the bill or give you a refund, contact the HHS Office of Inspector General Hotline at 1-800-HHS-TIPS or online to file a complaint.

If you have additional questions about COVID-19 or the vaccine, visit NOAH’s COVID-19 page. If you want to talk to a provider about COVID-19, treatment, vaccines, or something completely different, request an appointment.

NEWS: NOAH to Reopen Cholla location in North Scottsdale

Health center offers primary care and mental health services to broader community

Neighborhood Outreach Access to Health (NOAH), a leading community health center in the Valley delivering comprehensive health services to the underserved, will officially reopen it’s Cholla Health Center today, April 19, after closing due to the pandemic in 2020.

Cholla map

One of nine NOAH Health Centers in Maricopa county, the Cholla Health Center is 6,000 square-feet with six exam rooms and three medical providers. It is located at 11130 E. Cholla St., Building I in Scottsdale just north of E. Shea Blvd. at Frank Lloyd Wright Blvd.

“NOAH prioritized the safety and health of our patients and staff during the most crucial months of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Wendy Armendariz, CEO of NOAH. “Our resources were centralized, and we transitioned many healthcare appointments to telehealth whenever possible to mitigate spread while continuing to meet the needs of patients. We are excited to reopen our doors at our Cholla Health Center and serve our existing patients and welcome new patients in-person.”

Services at this location include primary care, behavioral health, psychology, and community resources. The Cholla Health Center will also provide the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to patients as well as other members of the community. NOAH accepts most insurance plans including Medicare, private insurance, AHCCCS, Kids Care, and offers a sliding scale fee for uninsured patients.

Hours of operation are from 7:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. Monday – Friday for existing and new NOAH patients. Patients can make in-person or telehealth appointments by calling 480-882-4545 or online at NOAHhelps.org.

Myth or Fact – Understanding the COVID Vaccine

Everything about COVID-19 came at us quickly in 2020. From how the virus spreads to vaccine options, we have learned so much about. But it’s also no surprise that there are questions and misunderstandings. That’s why NOAH experts are responding to some of the most common COVID vaccine myths.

Myth #1 – It’s too soon to know if the vaccine is safe and effective.

Fact – Approved vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson – did not skip any necessary step. The two initial vaccines approved in the U.S., Pfizer and Moderna, were about 95% effective in trials. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine is 66.3% effective in preventing all COVID-19. All available vaccines are highly effective at preventing infection, as well as preventing hospitalization and death from the virus.

The vaccines are safe. Other than expected side effects like headaches, chills, and arm pain, severe allergic reactions are extremely rare. All patients are monitored for 15 minutes after receiving their vaccine to monitor for any signs of these rare reactions so they can receive immediate treatment if needed.

Myth #2 – If I had COVID, I don’t need the vaccine.

Fact – People can – and have – gotten COVID-19 more than once. Plus, this virus can have serious and lasting health risks. We also don’t yet know how long natural immunity (from having COVID-19) will last. Early evidence shows that natural immunity may not last long enough to stop the spread. The evidence scientists are seeing from the vaccine tell us that the vaccine may offer better protection than natural immunity.

Myth #3 – I don’t need to wear a mask after getting the COVID vaccine.

Fact – Fully vaccinated people can still carry and spread the virus to unvaccinated people. By wearing masks and continuing to give physical distance from people that don’t live in your home, you are protecting them from infection, and from you getting the virus and carrying it to other unvaccinated people.

At this time (4/5/2021), none of the vaccines are approved for children under 16. Those trials are underway but are not fully approved yet. Wearing your mask will continue to protect children and other unvaccinated individuals.

Myth #4 – The vaccine causes infertility in women.

Fact – None of the available COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility. This myth happened because a false social media report (*read more on this at the end) was shared saying that the spike protein on the coronavirus was the same as another spike protein that is involved in placenta growth and attachment during pregnancy.

The spike protein in the coronavirus is what allows it to enter the cell and replicate. The vaccine targets this spike protein.

The false report said the COVID vaccine would target the protein in a woman’s body that helps with healthy placenta growth and harm her fertility. The COVID vaccine ONLY targets the specific spike protein of the coronavirus because it is completely different. The vaccine won’t interact with a woman’s fertility or fertility treatments. More information from Johns Hopkins Medicine on this topic is available here.

Myth #5 – The COVID vaccine gives you COVID.

Fact – The COVID vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna use mRNA technology and do not use any form of any virus. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine uses what is called a viral vector to carry the information to our body. This vector is a harmless version of a different virus. None of the vaccines can give someone the virus because none of the vaccines contain any part of the virus. What all of the vaccines will do, though, is tell our healthy cells how to respond to COVID-19.

Any side effects from getting the vaccine, like arm pain where you received the shot, a fever, body aches, chills, or a headache are actually a good thing! We know they aren’t fun, but they are temporary and show that your body is responding to the vaccine and building protection. Many people don’t experience any side effects.

Myth #6 – The mRNA technology is new and changes your DNA.

Fact — The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use mRNA technology to give instructions to our bodies on how to fight the virus that causes COVID-19. The mRNA does enter the cell, but does NOT enter the part of the cell that contains our DNA, so it cannot change our DNA.

This mRNA technology is not new to science or medicine; it has been used and studied for almost 20 years. The COVID-19 vaccine is the first time, though, mRNA is being used in a vaccine. Scientists were able to create the vaccines happened faster than if scientists were using a new technology because of past experience and studies.

NOAH’s own Dr. Bell shares a helpful and easy-to-understand information about COVID-19 and the vaccine in this brief YouTube video.

So much has happened around COVID-19 in just one year. Ensuring our patients and community understand how to stay safe and healthy is important. Your NOAH provider can answer any questions you have about COVID, the vaccine, or any other health and wellness concerns. Check out the NOAH COVID-19 page on our website for additional information.

*Social media allows us to stay connected and to share helpful, fun, and important information with people in our lives. However, the prevalence of misinformation shared across social media platforms can cause real and harmful outcomes. At NOAH, we only share our NOAH provider’s (doctors, physician assistants, nutritionists, counselors, nurse practitioners, psychiatrists, dentists, etc.) expert insight and knowledge, or trusted third-party sources of information. We will never share questionable information, rumors, or unverified medical insights in our blogs or on our social media platforms.