How reporting adverse reactions to vaccines works

A look at the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System
A COVID-19 vaccine being administered.
A COVID-19 vaccine being administered.
Updated: Sep. 18, 2021 at 8:30 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - It’s been more than nine months since the COVID-19 vaccine has been made available during the pandemic. Eighteen months since COVID-19 changed everything, there’s still much debate and misinformation about the side effects of the vaccine spreading along with the virus.

The way the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration track the side effects and reactions to any vaccine starts with the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System, or VAERS. It’s been in use since the ‘90s, according to local hospitals.

Health care providers have an obligation to use the system when patients are showing signs of a reaction to a vaccine. However, anyone can use it — which, according to Providence Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Bernstein, is kind of the point.

“The purpose of VAERS was to have as big a funnel as possible to collect what people believe to be reactions or side effects of vaccines so that we didn’t miss anything important,” Bernstein said.

Kristine Pinckney, director for infection control at Alaska Native Medical Center, showed that it’s a relatively easy system for the public to report any reactions they have to a vaccine.

“Anyone can access it,” she said. “There are no special passwords needed to access and report into this system.”

There’s also an app people can use to track their vaccine and any reports they make, called V-Safe.

Alaska Department of Health and Social Servicers spokespeople explained in an email that the state receives an non-redacted VAERS excel spreadsheet every Friday and the report is always one week behind. The state reviews the report, and data is pulled and sent to the chief medical officer and chief of epidemiology on that day.

While it is easy to use, it can be difficult for non-health care professionals to make sense of the data presented.

For example, the state health department said that on Friday, data from the reporting system show 26 deaths following COVID-19 vaccines. Of those, 18 were reported to the system to be from Pfizer, six from Moderna, one from Johnson & Johnson, and one unknown.

The health department went on further to explain that submitting a report to VAERS does not mean that health care personnel or the vaccine actually caused or contributed to the adverse event.

“All you are seeing is what people reported to the system,” Bernstein clarified.

The CDC and FDA then investigate reports of adverse reactions made into the system.

Bernstein said VAERS is like a starting point for investigating adverse reactions to vaccines. It does not mean that what reactions are listed there are fact, or necessarily caused by a vaccine.

Bernstein provided an example. If an entire nursing home was vaccinated for COVID-19, and a resident were to pass away shortly thereafter, there’s a good chance that death would be reported in VAERS as an adverse reaction to the vaccine.

“It doesn’t have any conclusive power because it only reflects reports,” Bernstein said. “Not what’s been investigated.”

While it is available to the public, Bernstein said he thinks “it has very little value to the public,” but it’s still an invaluable tool to infectious disease experts.

Both the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Providence Alaska Medical Center pointed out that COVID-19 sends unvaccinated and, in rarer times, vaccinated people to the hospital. Neither have had patients who required hospitalization due to an adverse effect of any of the three COVID-19 vaccines.

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