CNHSA Associates COVID-19 VaccinesChoctaw Nation Photo

Being vaccinated is still the best way to protect yourself, friends and family

By Chris Jennings
December 1, 2023

Looking back, 2020 doesn’t seem very long ago. When it comes to talking about COVID-19 and vaccines, it can seem like a lifetime. 2023 will be only the third year with both COVID-19 and the flu actively circulating at the same time.

When it comes to COVID-19, the trend is promising, with a slight decrease or no change in positivity rates and emergency department visits for the week of October 22 to October 28, According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, the number of deaths shows that the virus is still out there and needs to be taken seriously. According to the CDC, there have been 176 provisional deaths in Oklahoma due to COVID-19 in the last three months.

Regarding the flu, the CDC reports that activity remains low but continues to increase slightly. The percentage of positive Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) rates is also rising.

RSV is a potentially dangerous, highly contagious virus that can cause respiratory disease. Symptoms can appear like the common cold. Anyone can get RSV, but it can be more serious for adults 60 and older, including those with underlying medical conditions, as well as babies.

The time of year with colder weather and holidays means more people will congregate indoors, where these viruses can spread more easily, potentially creating a “tripledemic” with all three viruses circulating simultaneously.

Andrea Winters, a resident pharmacist at the Choctaw Nation Health Center, says you should be particularly concerned if you’re not vaccinated, “That is a concern with RSV, flu and COVID-19. However, we do have all three vaccines here at Choctaw Nation.”

Brandi Burris, a Registered Nurse with the Choctaw Nation, echoes Winters, saying, “Vaccines are always the best defense that a person can use to protect themselves and others.”

2023 is the first year vaccines have been available for all three of these major respiratory viruses. Monoclonal antibody injection (Nirsevimab) helps protect our infants from severe RSV illness. However, currently, it is in limited supply.

The Choctaw Nation has all three COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use: Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax. The Novavax vaccine is new and is different from the mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna in that it is more like the flu vaccine and already contains the spiked protein. In contrast, the mRNA vaccines teach the body to grow the spiked protein.

“Unlike mRNA vaccines, the spike protein is already pre-made in the Novavax vaccine; it’s a shortcut. All this is happening outside of the body; we just give the end product, the spike protein,” said Winters.

It will vary which vaccine is available at the outlying clinics due to the storage requirements.

When it comes to who is eligible for the vaccines, Burris says, “Everyone ages six months and up can have a flu and COVID vaccine. There are two RSV vaccines available on the market for people aged 60 and older: Arexvy and Abrysvo. Abrysvo is also recommended during the RSV season for use during 32 through 36 weeks of pregnancy.”

COVID-19, flu and RSV are all spread in similar ways:

  • COVID-19 is spread through inhaling airborne particles, or droplets, when people breathe, speak, sing, yell, cough, or sneeze. Particles containing COVID-19 can sometimes circulate in the air for several hours. It is the most contagious of the three, as it can be airborne much longer than flu or RSV.
  • Flu is also spread through inhaling airborne particles or droplets. In addition, you can catch the flu from touching something with the virus on it, like a doorknob or a handle, and then touching your eyes, mouth, or nose. According to the CDC, the flu virus can live on certain surfaces for up to 48 hours.
  • RSV is also spread through inhaling airborne particles or droplets or touching an infected surface. Additionally, you may contract RSV through direct contact with someone who has it, such as shaking hands.

Burris says that besides injections, there are healthy habits that you can use in your daily life that can help prevent these illnesses. “Hand hygiene, cover your cough and sneezes, stay home when you’re sick. When it’s impossible to stay home, try to keep your distance from others, clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces in your home and work areas, and wearing a mask if you’re ill or at high risk for infections,” she said.

As you gather with friends and family for the holiday season, Winters says that preemptively testing yourself for COVID-19 may be a good idea.

“I think that’s always just a very thoughtful, cautious thing to do. Especially if you feel sick or you may have been exposed, and you’re going to be around a lot of people, especially your elderly family members,” said Winters.

COVID-19 test kits are still available to tribal members on the Chahta Achvffa portal.

Winters says that if you’re going to get vaccinated, the time is now. “It takes 14 days for the flu shot to get into the body and start creating those memory cells and start working. So, you’re still exposed for 14 days to the Flu.” COVID-19 and RSV both take time to start working as well.

You can get all three of these vaccines simultaneously, and Both Burris and Winters encourage you to get the vaccines you’re eligible for.

When it comes to choosing or picking one vaccine over another, Burris says that is a difficult question.

“I’m often asked by a parent requesting an alternative vaccine schedule, which one should I get today. I feel as if I am choosing which disease you would like to risk getting,” said Burris.

Often, this question of picking vaccines comes from some common misconceptions about vaccines in general. Winters says one of the big ones she hears is that they’re not safe in pregnancy.

“That’s what people always ask me, or they tell me as more of a statement. These [vaccines] are absolutely safe in pregnancy,” Winters said.

Some of the other misconceptions or myths that Winters and Burris have heard are:

Myth: I don’t need vaccines. My natural immunity is better than a vaccination.

Fact: Many preventable diseases are dangerous and can cause lasting side effects. It’s much safer — and easier — to get vaccines, instead. Plus, being vaccinated helps keep you from spreading the disease to unvaccinated people around you.

Myth: Vaccines cause autism spectrum disorder.

Fact: There is proof that vaccines do not cause autism. A study published more than 20 years ago first suggested that vaccines cause the disability known as autism spectrum disorder, but it has been disproved.

Myth: Vaccines don’t work

Fact: Vaccines prevent many diseases that used to make people very sick. Now that people are vaccinated for those diseases, they’re no longer common. One example is measles. It used to be a serious respiratory illness that affected children. But once the vaccine was developed and people were immunized, it has almost been eliminated.

Myth: Vaccines give you the disease you are vaccinating against.

Fact: None of these vaccines contain any live virus. Therefore, they cannot give you the disease.

Myth: I get sick every time I take the vaccine.

Fact: Vaccines can cause mild side effects such as pain at the injection site, fatigue, muscle pain, chills, headache, fever, and sometimes nausea. These symptoms resolve in a couple of days. Vaccines rarely cause serious reactions.

“You can schedule an appointment by contacting your primary care clinic or through the CNHSA app. If you are just curious about what immunizations you may need or have questions about the vaccines, call your clinic’s Community Health Nurse. You can also get these vaccines while at your doctor’s appointment,” Burris said.

If you don’t live on the reservation, Winters says you should make an appointment with your primary care provider and inquire about your current vaccines.

“Your provider has many avenues to ensure you are up to date and make necessary recommendations,” she said.