Johnson County vaccine FAQ: Do the vaccines work against COVID-19 variants?

Johnson County variants

Of two known COVID-19 variants, cases of the so-called U.K. variant have been documented in Johnson County. And at least one case of the South African variant have been reported in neighboring Jackson County, Mo. Health officials say getting vaccinated can help lower a person's risk of serious health complications from infections from both these variant strains. File photo.

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Each Friday, the Shawnee Mission Post publishes a Johnson County vaccine FAQ, answering some commonly asked questions about the process to get vaccinated for COVID-19 in Johnson County.

If you have a question about vaccines you’d like answered, email us at stories@shawneemissionpost.com.

This week’s FAQ focuses on issues related to the vaccines’ effectiveness against emerging variants of the novel coronavirus and the durability of vaccines — that is, how long immunity lasts — and what that means for vaccine distribution in the future.

Do the vaccines work against the known variants?

  • Yes, but to varying degrees, says Johnson County epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh.
  • The B-117 variant — first documented in the UK but now prevalent in the U.S. — appears responsive to both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the two most common vaccines being distributed in Johnson County.
  • There are two confirmed cases of the U.K. variant in Johnson County and more than 30 in the state of Kansas, but those reported numbers are likely lower than reality.
  • Holzschuh says wastewater studies from Johnson County showed evidence of the variant as early as January.

But there’s another variant, right? What about that one? 

  • Yes, there is also the B-135 variant — first documented in South Africa and often referred to as the South African variant.
  • This variant does appear to be more resistant to Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
  • Still, local health officials say vaccines are still effective at minimizing serious infections caused by this strain.
  • Johnson County doesn’t have any documented cases of the South African variant, but there has been at least one documented case in Jackson County, Mo.

Are these variants more dangerous than the original strain of COVID-19? 

  • Researchers say these two known variants are less deadly but more transmissible, which has concerned health experts for months.
  • Higher transmissibility means quicker spread which, ultimately, could lead to higher rates of serious infections and deaths than from a deadlier but less transmissible strain.
  • Local health officials say given that, you should still get vaccinated.
  • “[There is] nothing to lose and everything to gain by getting vaccinated,” said Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., Johnson County’s health director.

How long are the vaccines effective?

  • The short answer is: no one really knows yet.
  • “We’re still learning about how long our immunity lasts following the vaccine,” Holzschuh said.
  • Given the historic speed at which these vaccines were developed and tested, there isn’t good data yet about their long-term efficacy.
  • Currently, the CDC says immunity from COVID-19 is at its peak two weeks after a person receives their second dose, and studies have shown that vaccine recipients’ have retained immunity up to six months after being vaccinated.

So, after six months will I need to get a COVID-19 booster shot?

  • That’s not known yet, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, Areola and Holzschuh both said this week.
  • Again, there still isn’t enough data available to understand the durability of the COVID-19 vaccines.
  • There’s also no way to know how the current vaccine formulas will hold up to future variants that could emerge as COVID-19 continues to spread, Holzschuh said.
  • It’s not out of the question that the COVID-19 vaccine could become part of an annual vaccine rotation, Holzschuh said, in the same way that getting an annual flu shot is recommended.

How long will vaccines be available?

  • The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment says it could vaccinate all adults in the county who want a vaccine within the next month.
  • As demand decreases and supply becomes more available, the county’s approach to vaccinations could change, Areola said. Mass vaccination sites could become less of the norm and instead, appointments would remain open and people could book slots as needed.
  • “This [current] vaccine effort will continue for quite a while,” Holzschuh said. “COVID-19 vaccine is something that will become available for the future.”
  • If you have yet to fill out the vaccine interest survey form, click here.
  • As of Thursday, everyone who had filled out the form had been offered a vaccine appointment, according to JCDHE. If you filled out the form, but didn’t receive anything in your inbox, be sure to check your spam folder.

Our previous FAQs: