RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Some vaccine-hesitant demonstrators outside the General Assembly on Tuesday voiced health-related concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Those concerns ranged from the risks connected to the vaccines to the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization to whether Merriam-Webster changed its definition of a “vaccine.”

In checking those facts, CBS 17 News found a significant amount of misinformation.


THE CLAIM: Does getting the vaccine present more health risks than rejecting it?

THE FACTS: The consensus among health experts is clear — your risk of developing serious illness from, or even dying of, COVID-19 without a vaccine is significantly higher than any serious complications from getting the shot.

“The risk of taking the vaccine is extremely low,” said Dr. Pia MacDonald, an epidemiologist at RTI International. “Your risk as a 55-year-old and above person of dying of COVID-19 is many, many, many, many times higher than any risk associated with the vaccine COVID-19. Severe COVID-19 and deaths associated with COVID-19 is a preventable disease and a preventable death. We have a functioning vaccine that works to save a life. That is the most important point.”


THE CLAIM: The vaccines are only authorized for emergency use and do not have full FDA approval.

THE FACTS: It’s true that no COVID-19 vaccines have been fully approved or licensed by the FDA. 

But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been rigorously tested, with the FDA saying tens of thousands of people took part in studies that determined their efficacy and safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the process “the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.”

The vaccines received emergency use authorization after data from large clinical trials showed them to be both safe and effective, according to Johns Hopkins.

Health experts point to the temporary pause in administering the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine as proof the process works.

“The emergency use authorization has gone through rigorous, bipartisan, giant consortiums of experts to vet that this vaccine is a safe vaccine,” MacDonald said. “It is not in an experimental phase at this point. It is now in the population. And we are carefully monitoring for adverse events associated with it.”


THE CLAIM: Merriam-Webster changed the definition of “vaccine” to include the messenger RNA vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer.

THE FACTS: It’s true that the dictionary publisher’s definition of a vaccine today is not the same as it was a year ago.

The current definition includes “a preparation of genetic material (such as a strand of synthesized messenger RNA) that is used by the cells of the body to produce an antigenic substance (such as a fragment of virus spike protein).” 

The previous definition referred to organisms “administered to produce or artificially increase immunity to a particular disease.”

But definitions change frequently, and the new one better describes how the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines work. Unlike other vaccines — like ones for influenza or measles — they don’t include copies of the specific virus itself. And the change has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the vaccines themselves.


THE CLAIM: There’s no evidence the vaccines prevent transmission or infection.

THE FACTS: A study from the United Kingdom found a single dose of the vaccines from Pfizer or AstraZeneca — which is not yet authorized for emergency use in the U.S. — can reduce transmission within a household by nearly 50 percent at around 14 days after vaccination.

“We know that at least one of the main vaccines does reduce the chance of transmission between vaccinated people or from a vaccinated person to a non vaccinated person,” MacDonald said.

What we don’t know yet is how much a high vaccination rate can affect transmission in communities. Here in North Carolina, our full vaccination rate isn’t nearly high enough — just over 40 percent — to fully evaluate that.

“That’s still not a big enough number to really understand the population-level reduction in transmission,” MacDonald said.


THE CLAIM: The vaccines can cause deaths or other illnesses.

THE FACTS: Some side effects are relatively common — from fatigue to muscle pain. But those typically only last a matter of days.

The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System says it has received 4,178 reports of death from people who have received more than 245 million doses of vaccines so far. But the system says after reviewing all available information including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, there is “no evidence that vaccination contributed to patient deaths.”

“Once people are vaccinated, their risk of getting severely sick from COVID-19 diminishes extremely to a low level,” MacDonald said. “And there are some side effects with a vaccine that can make a person feel a bit unwell for one or two or three days. But it’s not a significant illness, it does not lead to people go their doctor going to the hospital, being admitted to a hospital or other severe adverse events.”

CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.