Why are COVID-19 vaccines life-saving for people over the age of 60?


On 17 May 2021, South Africa entered phase 2 of the national vaccine rollout. This meant that everyone over the age of 60 could access their COVID-19 vaccine from May this year. Why is vaccinating people over the age of 60 (with the oldest adults first in line) so important? How do we know that COVID-19 vaccines save lives in this age group?

Dr Fikile Mabena is a paediatrician and specialist in infectious disease who works at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. In 2015, she received a Discovery Foundation sub-specialist award to further her studies into high-quality patient care in the management of infectious diseases in children.

Dr Mabena says, "I believe that we cannot get our COVID-19 vaccines soon enough. And, that the elderly need to access theirs as priority so that they have the opportunity to avoid contracting COVID-19 and experiencing severe disease, hospitalisation and possibly dying. If we can prevent the worst effect of the COVID-19 virus, which is to cause death, we will have achieved the most."

How do we know that COVID-19 vaccines are effective in protecting older adults?

"Every person over 60 has been eligible for vaccination in the national rollout since May this year. If you haven't already, we encourage you to register and book for your COVID-19 vaccine. All you need to do to ensure that you can get your COVID-19 vaccine is to register on the national EVDS and on Discovery's COVID-19 Vaccination Navigator. By registering on Discovery's COVID-19 Vaccination Navigator you can book for your COVID-19 vaccination.

"I am in complete agreement with Dr Mabena," says Dr Nematswerani. "Discovery Health's clinical data shows clearly that, compared to younger people, those over the age of 60 are more likely to experience severe COVID-19 illness and mortality. Where older people have a one or more chronic illnesses, this increases their risk of serious outcomes if they contract COVID-19."

  • People over the age of 60 (from 60 to 69 in particular) account for almost 60% of all reported COVID-19-related deaths in South Africa (data from daily hospital surveillance reports of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases).
  • In a recent presentation, Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize said that it is estimated that 40 000 deaths will be prevented by vaccinating 5.5 million people over the age of 60.
  • Millions of COVID-19 doses have been administered across the world and the research shows that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in reducing severe illness.
  • Since vaccination began (in December 2020), COVID-19 infection and death rates have fallen dramatically among residents of nursing homes and people aged 85 and over. This is according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC).
  • After the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the number of new COVID-19 cases among nursing-home staff had fallen by 83% (from 28 802 at end December 2020 to 4764 by end February 2021). In addition, new COVID-19 infections among residents fell by 89% over the same period. This is according to data released by the US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and Johns Hopkins University.

"More recently, research is beginning to show that COVID-19 vaccines are effective in preventing transmission of COVID-19 from one person to another. This means vaccinated people are not only protected from serious COVID-19 illness, but they are also less likely to pass on the virus," explains Dr Nematswerani.

Might your elderly loved one experience vaccine side-effects?

"Yes, anyone who gets a vaccine (whether a COVID-19 vaccine, flu vaccine, or any other vaccine) can experience side-effects. That's because vaccines are a medicine, and as in the case of all medicines, some people experience side-effects when taking them," explains Dr Nematswerani. "Keep in mind that some people experience no side-effects at all."

According to the US CDC, common side-effects that all people might experience following the COVID-19 vaccine include:

  • Pain, redness or swelling on the body part where you get your shot
  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Nausea

You can learn more about potential side effects of the different COVID-19 vaccines approved for use here.

"These symptoms simply indicate that the body is responding as it should to the vaccine and is mounting an immune response. This is so that if the person who has been vaccinated ever encounters the COVID-19 virus, their body is prepared to fight it off very quickly," adds Dr Nematswerani.

"Please stay in touch with your elderly loved one after their COVID-19 vaccine. You can reassure them if they experience common side-effects. And, if you are at all concerned about how they feel, you can reach out to your loved one's healthcare provider for advice on tackling the symptoms."

Can your elderly loved one have both a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine?

"According to NICD guidelines, we can all have both vaccines, but not on the same day," says Dr Nematswerani. "The vaccines should be administered at least 14 days apart. Ideally, they shouldn't be given in the same arm so that any reaction in the arm can be monitored and linked to the right vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccine should take priority if possible."

Tech-savvy? Get involved and help your elderly loved one to register on the Discovery COVID-19 Vaccination Navigator

"I urge the tech-savvy among us to please assist their elderly loved ones to register on the Discovery COVID-19 Vaccination Navigator. Please also assist the elderly to access their vaccine on the allocated day if necessary. Get involved sooner rather than later: find out if your elderly loved one has managed to navigate the digital process and if they understand the way forward. If they live in a care facility, speak to those in charge to see if they are assisting the residents to register."

Here's how you can register on the Discovery COVID-19 Vaccination Navigator

Step 1: (Compulsory) Register on the national Electronic Vaccination Data System. This is required by the National Department of Health for all South Africans. Once you have registered on the EVDS, you will get a vaccination code to use on the day of your scheduled vaccination. The National Department of Health manages this process.

Step 2: Discovery clients can then register and book for their vaccination on the Discovery COVID-19 Vaccination Navigator.. Discovery clients will get a personalised invitation to register on this portal for added benefits tailored to their COVID-19 vaccination journey. This includes a host of support, such as:

  • A view of where you fit into the national prioritisation framework.
  • Access to information on what to expect when being vaccinated and how to prepare for this.
  • Information on accredited vaccination sites nationwide, where vaccinations will be given (including pharmacies, GP practices and hospitals, and dedicated vaccination sites), and the location of Discovery's dedicated vaccination sites.
  • Reminders of your upcoming second dose, if you get a two-dose vaccine.
  • Access to a digital version of your paper vaccination card for safe keeping.

Once you're registered and have secured your booking, we will support you with all the information you need at every step of your vaccination journey.

Find out all you need to know about registering for the Discovery COVID-19 Vaccination Navigator today.

Remember to visit the Discover COVID-19 Vaccination Navigator or access our WhatsApp service to get instant answers to any questions about the COVID-19 vaccine.

All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for education and information objectives only. Discovery publishes content to help to promote a better understand of COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccinations. The content covered is an overview of key concepts and is not exhaustive in nature. We encourage further reading from other credible sources where necessary.

South African organisations:

  • National Department of Health's dedicated COVID-19 portal: https://sacoronavirus.co.za/
  • National Institute for Communicable Diseases' (part of the National Health Laboratory Service) dedicated COVID-19 hub
  • South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAPRHA - part of the National Department of Health).
  • South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC)
  • South African Medical Journal (SAMJ)

International Organisations:

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