Experts: COVID-19 vaccine is safe for elderly

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The first COVID-19 vaccines administered at Tartu University Hospital and University Family Doctors' Center. Source: Jassu Hertsmann / Ministry of Social Affairs.

Estonian experts have said the COVID-19 vaccine is generally safe for elderly people and they should get vaccinated after the Norwegian Medicines Agency announced last week that 23 elderly people who received a dose had died.

Norway has started administering vaccinations to people living in care or nursing homes and so far approximately 30,000 people have received a dose of the vaccine. However, a survey released by the Norwegian Medicines Agency showed 23 people who had been vaccinated had later died. 

The agency did not rule out the possibility that common side effects of vaccination, such as fever or nausea, may have played a role in the deaths of elderly people who were already seriously ill.

Adviser at the Estonian Agency of Medicines (Raiviamet) Alar Irs said approximately 400 people a week die in Norwegian care homes and 23 of several days after receiving the vaccine.

Irs said those that died were already in very fragile conditions and were in risk categories eight or nine. "This means that they needed help with all activities on a daily basis, and were approaching the end of their lives. They had a very low chance of recovering from any mild illness," he said.

Irs said the Norwegian Institute of Public Health has recommended doctors carefully considered whether it makes sense for people in this condition to receive the vaccine at all. This is because the benefits are small and even mild vaccination reactions may worsen their already fragile conditions.

"This is a standard medical intervention. A healthcare professional who does this [adminsters vaccinations] in Norway or Estonia, a nurse or a doctor, must always consider the patient who is going to be vaccinated and whether the benefits outweigh the harm," said Irs.

He said the coronavirus vaccine is safe for elderly people who have underlying health conditions. 

Infectiologist at East Tallinn Central Hospital Aino Rõõm said the elderly should definitely be vaccinated. "If they get COVID they will have more severe symptoms than younger people and vaccination is very necessary to prevent this disease," Rõõm said.

So far, more than 1,600 people have been vaccinated at East Tallinn Central Hospital and skin irritation has occurred in three cases.

"We have also done additional research with an immunologist to see if it is related to the vaccine or not, fortunately, the answers have been negative. All of them can have a second dose," said Rõõm.

More than 18,000 COVID-19 vaccinations have been administered in Estonia and on Sunday giving out second doses was started. Medical professionals were the first group to receive the vaccine and vaccinations will now start in nursing homes. Family doctors are expected to start performing vaccinations for risk-groups in February.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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