Government program tracks any reactions people have after getting COVID-19 vaccine

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Some mild symptoms are common following a COVID-19 vaccine but go online and you may find reports of more severe reactions even death.

The Centers for Disease Control and (CDC) reports no one has died because of a COVID-19 vaccine yet claims of sudden deaths are floating around social media.

One might be quick to believe these claims by looking at reports entered in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) that links 32 deaths with the COVID-19 vaccine in North Carolina. However, health experts said these reports are misleading.

The CDC and FDA have operated VAERS for years, allowing a way for providers and patients to submit any extreme reactions to vaccines from the flu to Hepatitis B.

Most of the time the reports are submitted voluntarily, which could make the information incomplete, unverified or inaccurate.

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Despite North Carolinians of all ages soon being able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in April, some adults are still on the fence about receiving their shot.

"VAERS is there as a big net to catch any event around the vaccination but not necessarily related to the vaccination, so if a patient came in with a heart attack and had the vaccine a day or two ago, we'll go ahead and report that," explained Dr. David Kirk, the associate system chief medical officer at WakeMed.

Kirk said he can count on one hand how many adverse events WakeMed has recorded of the more than 100,000 vaccines administered.

"Just because two things happened near to each other doesn't mean they are directly related," Kirk said.

More than 800 adverse events from the COVID-19 vaccine in North Carolina were recorded in VAERS. On Thursday, the state reported administering nearly 4 million shots.

Kirk said though the vaccine may not cause some of the outcomes that follow, providers want to be sure to document the symptoms in case a larger trend does emerge.

"The reason that reporting is there is for us to collect as much data as possible and the more and more data that we get, then we can run statistics on it to see if this is really true and related," Kirk said.

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The ABC11 I-Team's review of North Carolina VAERS reports found patients 65 and older accounted for 28% of events. A third of events were linked to vaccines given at senior-living facilities. Many of the death reports listed a history of health complications.

"The key thing to remember is that with any clinical trial, you are going to be reporting an adverse event," said Dr. Jason Wittes, Wake County's pharmacy director. "We are still in this ongoing trial, still tracking, so yes, there is information that we need to track, look into, dig deeper but the vaccine itself is not causing these at this point and time."

The CDC and FDA thoroughly investigate reports in VAERS by reviewing death certificates, autopsy, and medical records.

"And it's important to realize that as we start going into larger and larger populations and more and more people, there will be higher numbers, but the percentages are what we need to look at, and we need to let the systems in place that we have been using and trusting for years, let it, let it run its course let the science speak for itself," Wittes said.

Wittes said it is important that the system is transparent, but people can't take the reports out of context. He reminded everyone to make sure they are only reviewing trusted sources such as official government health websites.

The CDC does report anaphylaxis, or severe allergic reactions are rare but possible in about 2-5 people out of a million.

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Wittes explained that vaccine providers have safety measures in place in case that event occurs. Patients are asked about their medical histories beforehand and monitored 15-30 minutes after injection.

"It can be dangerous, and that's why we have staff here who are monitoring you to make sure that do we need to administer an EpiPen, do we need to call 911, all those things, and that's happening across the country, even at our PNC site. If you're just driving there, we don't want you just driving away we want to make sure that you're safe," Wittes said.

He said usually reactions occur in less than five minutes after the shot is administered.

Health experts said common symptoms are arm soreness, headache, chills and a fever.

If any symptoms last longer than 72 hours, patients should reach out to their primary care doctors.

Click here to report an adverse reaction.
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