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Here's all you need to know about COVID-19 vaccines, according to the CEO of Hayat Pharmacy

Nineteen months into what the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that we are eager to have a sense of normality. Normality is something that we are trying to get back to here at the station, where we wear masks and are socially distant. We clean our mics and equipment and incorporate added safety measures into our routine. Seeing familiar faces daily, even if it’s half of their face, brings back some of that regularity of everyday life. One thing I’ve done to get back to our habitual day-to-day routine was getting vaccinated. I did it because I was itching to get back out there. I am a natural homebody, but you avidly long to start socializing again when stuck in a tiny apartment for a few months.

I spoke to Dr. Hashim Zaibak, pharmacist and owner of Hayat Pharmacy, to learn more about COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Zaibak graduated from pharmacy school 23 years ago and, in 2011, opened the first Hayat pharmacy to assist underserved communities in Milwaukee. There are over 20 locations throughout the city, which makes sense because “Hayat” is the native Arabic term for life.

Salam: How do COVID vaccines work? 

Dr. Zaibak: Just like the other vaccines, the COVID vaccine works by stimulating your immune system to create antibodies. So, when you are exposed to a real virus, let's say two weeks or three weeks after you get vaccinated, your body would be like, “Oh, I know this. I can fight it.” It's not a surprise for your immune system. Maybe you're in a room with somebody who has COVID and sneezes or coughs, there's a better chance of you not getting the disease versus somebody else by building those antibodies. 

Salam: We hear a lot about side effects, like a sore arm and fatigue, but can you speak a little bit more about the benefits that come with COVID vaccines?

Dr. Zaibak: Vaccines are just like any medication. Every medication has side effects and benefits. If a drug is approved in the United States, the FDA has to look at it and say, “The benefits outweigh the risks.” There are people who get very mild side effects and some people who get severe side effects from the vaccines, but overall, the benefits are a lot more significant than any risk.

Salam: Can you recall an interaction where someone was fearful about the side effect?

Dr. Zaibak: We get questions sometimes from pregnant ladies that say, “I'm in my first, second, or third trimester and should I get vaccinated or not?” I let them know, “This is what you should think of if you get COVID today because you're not vaccinated and you get dehydrated and you end up in the hospital and you increase your risk of miscarriage.” Those are really significant risks versus getting the vaccine.

Salam: That’s a fair point. Let's just say you got your vaccination, is there a chance that you can still get COVID? Do you have to test for COVID if you’re vaccinated? If so, how often? 

Dr. Zaibak: We test anywhere from a hundred to 200 patients a day, and we do see people who actually get what we call a breakthrough infection. They got vaccinated a few months ago and they still are testing positive. Most of these people who end up getting COVID after the vaccination end up with very mild cases. My suggestion is you really don't need to test unless you have symptoms or if you're traveling, a lot of destinations do require proof of the person being negative before traveling to them.

Salam: That's good to know. That’s something that often confuses me because I didn’t know if I should be regularly testing. I think a lot of our listeners would benefit from that clarification. 

Dr. Zaibak: Many companies now require you to prove that you are negative on a weekly basis. A lot of companies say if you decide not to get vaccinated, you can still work with us. You just need to show us a negative PCR result every week.

Salam: What’s the difference between the PCR test and, let’s just say, testing kits you can do at home? 

Dr. Zaibak: That technology is different. The vaccination tests that you do at home are called antigen tests. So they're quick, they're rapid and they get you an accurate result. Sometimes we get false negatives with those where it doesn't catch certain strains of the virus versus the PCR. The PCR is a gold standard. If it is positive, the person is truly positive. If you want more accuracy, then avoid the stay at home and go to a clinic. The challenge with the PCR test is that it takes longer. 

Salam: Yeah, I think that’s something folks have to factor in and treat it as a case-to-case basis. Wow, 200 people a day, that’s a lot of interactions! Have you dealt with anyone that has some hesitancy around vaccines? 

Dr. Zaibak: A lot of people are concerned about their children and being infertile after the vaccine. Vaccine hesitancy is a lot more significant amongst minorities, whether you're talking about the Black community, the Hispanic community, the Arabic community, the new immigrants, and the Russian community. For us as healthcare providers, we just have to be respectful of their opinion. Some people are on the extreme, where they say, “No matter what you tell me, I'm not going to get vaccinated.” Then there are other people on the other extreme. They’re like, “As soon as the booster is available, sign me up.” And there are people in the middle and those are usually are the ones that you can work with and try to convince them to get vaccinated. I would be lying to you if I told you it hadn’t been a challenge.

Salam: With those hesitant folks, have you heard their reasoning on why they got vaccinated? 

Dr. Zaibak: People, for example, say I want to travel overseas to see my family in India, and  I just want to make sure that I'm protected and they're protected. We have people who say my wife just got pregnant and I just want to make sure I don't pass the disease to her. My mother just got diagnosed with cancer and I just want to make sure that I'm not passing any disease to her. Sometimes it's like, “My job made me get vaccinated and I really don't want to get vaccinated, but I'm going to lose my job next week if I don't get vaccinated.” Different people have different reasons and different incentives. 

Salam: Yeah, I know a guy that honestly did it because of the risk of losing your job and I have a friend who believes in these conspiracy theories but didn’t want to miss out on Summerfest concerts. FOMO (fear of missing out) can be a great motivator.

Dr. Zaibak: For a lot of people, the only reason they didn't get vaccinated is that they're busy. Seriously! I hear this all the time. Another reason they did not get vaccinated is that the system was too complicated. They don't know how to register for an appointment. Sometimes we forget about those people. For some people, it's mobility. So we have a lot of home-bound patients and the only reason they didn't get vaccinated is that they can't leave their homes. Work with an organization or a pharmacy that actually sends a pharmacist to the patient's house to get vaccinated or a nurse.

Salam: We spoke a lot about fear with vaccines and challenges around hesitancy but let’s talk about positive interactions.

Dr. Zaibak: Lots of positives! You know, “Thank you for allowing me to give my grandchildren a hug.” We had a beautiful card from a lady and she said, thank you for allowing me to just walk in without having an appointment because I don't own a computer and a smartphone. I'm 70- years old and this changed my life. Those are why we come to work every morning.

Salam: That was very beautiful. The one about hugging your grandparents struck a nerve because it's sometimes a simple thing that we forget. I wanted to ask a question that I frequently hear: if you’re already vaccinated, why do you need to wear a mask? 

Dr. Zaibak: When you wear a mask, you're protecting the others. You're just really making sure that if for some reason you get the virus, you're not transmitting it to somebody else. A vaccinated person can be a carrier and can carry the virus from person A to B.

Salam: The last thing I wanted to talk about is boosters. What are they? Does Hyatt pharmacy offer them? 

Dr. Zaibak: The immunity that we get from the COVID vaccine drops gradually over time. With Pfizer, six months after the second dose, their immunity drops to a level where we need a booster. And the booster is the same volume, the same concentration of the vaccine. It’s not any different from the first and the second dose. It’s a booster to boost the immune system. That's different from a third dose that immunocompromised patients need. So it's, it's different. Everybody's going to need to get a booster in the future. Science is self-correcting and what we know today about the COVID vaccine is significantly more than what we knew six months or 12 months ago.

Hayat Pharmacy has multiple locations where they are providing COVID testing and vaccinations. These federal resources are free and available to everyone regardless if you are insured or your immigration status.

Audio Storyteller / 88Nine On-Air Talent | Radio Milwaukee