By Lily H-A
From PHN Issue 45, Winter 2021
There are two COVID-19 vaccines currently being used in the US as of late January. One is made by Pfizer-BioNTech and the other by Moderna. People understandably have a lot of questions about the vaccines and we will try to answer some of them here.
How do the COVID-19 vaccines work?
The two currently approved vaccines are mRNA vaccines. They contain instructions (also known as mRNA) that teach our body to produce harmless proteins (a type of biological material) that are very similar to the ones on the outside of the COVID-19 virus. Once our body makes those proteins, our immune system recognizes they are not supposed to be there, and attacks them. Our immune system then “remembers” these proteins. If COVID-19 enters our body, our immune system recognizes it and attacks, which can keep us from getting sick. The vaccines do not contain the COVID-19 virus, so you cannot get COVID-19 from them.
What was the process for these vaccines getting approved?
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used under an “Emergency Use Authorization” (EUA). This means that the need for the vaccine was urgent enough that the vaccine manufacturers went through a shorter approval process than usual. For an EUA, the FDA has to determine that the “known and potential benefits outweigh the known and potential risks of the vaccine.” The vaccines were tested in clinical trials on tens of thousands of people over several months to test their safety and effectiveness. The FDA then reviewed that data before making their decision to use these vaccines. The FDA is still collecting safety reports as people get the vaccine in the community. However, people who get the vaccine now (including people in jails and prisons) are not part of an experiment or clinical trial; they are receiving the vaccine as part of their regular medical care.
How effective are the vaccines at preventing COVID-19?
In the Pfizer and Moderna clinical trials, the vaccines were more than 95% effective in preventing people from getting sick with COVID-19 after two doses. Once more people have been fully vaccinated, we’ll know even more about the effectiveness of these vaccines. There are several additional vaccines being developed that may be approved soon. So far, the vaccines we have seem effective against new strains of COVID-19 that are emerging, but researchers are also working on ways to make the vaccines more effective against new strains of COVID-19 that may emerge in the future.
You need two doses of the vaccine, three weeks apart for the Pfizer vaccine and four weeks apart for the Moderna vaccine. About a week after the second dose is when you’ll likely have full protection. It’s very important to get both doses, and the second dose should be the same type as the first one you got (Pfizer or Moderna). It isn’t known yet how long immunity from the vaccine will last. It’s possible people might need “booster” doses of vaccine in the future to stay immune and protected.
Are the vaccines safe? Are there any side effects?
So far, data from clinical trials and experience from millions of people getting them suggest the vaccines are very safe. However, it is important to note that we don’t have long term data yet, since people haven’t been getting the vaccines for very long. Scientists are carefully watching for any problems and will keep the public informed. A lot of people do have mild side effects from getting the vaccine, such as pain where they got the shot, fatigue, headache, chills, fever, and joint and muscle pain. These side effects usually only last a few days. They may be worse after your second dose than your first. These side effects are caused by your immune system learning to fight the virus. Some people have also had allergic reactions, but severe reactions are very rare so far. Typically, you will be observed for at least 15 minutes after getting your vaccine to make sure you aren’t having an allergic reaction.
When will people get the vaccine? Who’s getting it first?
More than 29 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been given out in the US, as of January 31. Not enough vaccines have been manufactured yet for everyone to get them, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put out recommendations for prioritizing who should get it first. Health care workers have been the first in line in all states, and some states have now expanded to other highrisk people, like frontline workers, nursing home residents, older adults, and people with certain chronic illnesses. The position of incarcerated people on the vaccine priority list varies from state to state. In some states staff are getting vaccinated before those incarcerated, even though the CDC recommended they should get vaccinated at the same time.
The goal is for enough people to get vaccinated that we reach “herd immunity,” which means enough people are immune to the virus that it stops spreading. The percentage of people that will need to be vaccinated for that to happen with COVID-19 is not known yet, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease doctor in the US government, has estimated it may be about 75% of the population. It will likely take at least several months before there is enough vaccine available to reach that figure of 75% in the US. If many people choose not to get the vaccine, it is also possible that we won’t reach herd immunity through vaccination. People refusing the vaccine could significantly weaken our chances to fight against the spread and impact of COVID-19.
Who should not take the vaccine?
Anybody who has had a severe allergic reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine or any of its ingredients should not take the vaccine. People with a history of allergic reactions to other vaccines should talk to their doctor and may need to take extra precautions. The vaccine hasn’t been approved for people under 18 yet. The CDC says that people who are pregnant can choose to take the vaccine—it has not been tested on pregnant people yet, but there isn’t reason to think it is unsafe for pregnant people or their fetuses.
Can I take the vaccine if I already had COVID-19?
Yes. There is evidence that people can get COVID-19 again several months later, although scientists think that may be rare. People who have contracted the virus have antibodies for at least six months that likely help protect them. But a vaccine will offer additional protection that may last longer. If you currently have COVID19, you should wait to get the vaccine until it has been at least two weeks after your first symptoms and at least 24 hours since you have had any symptoms.
Once I get the vaccine, can I stop taking precautions like wearing a mask and social distancing?
Not yet. Since the vaccine doesn’t offer 100% protection, scientists are recommending that we keep taking these precautions for now until more people are vaccinated. Scientists also aren’t completely sure how immunity from the vaccine works yet—it is possible that the vaccine could keep you from getting sick, but you could still have the virus in your body and pass it on to others. We’ll hopefully know more soon, but for now, to protect yourself and others, you (and correctional staff) should keep taking the same precautions even after being vaccinated.
Why should people get the vaccine?
Getting the vaccine is an individual choice. It is your right to choose to get the vaccine or not. However, doctors, public health professionals, and community activists are strongly recommending everyone get the vaccine. Choosing to get the vaccine greatly reduces your own risk of getting seriously ill or dying from COVID19 and provides the added benefit of protecting others.
Dr. Jubril Oyeyemi, a Black primary care doctor in Camden, New Jersey, wrote an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer about why he is getting the vaccine and encouraging his patients to. He wrote: “While our skepticism and distrust of the establishment is understandable, the COVID-19 vaccine is different. We are not being experimented on, and we are neither the first nor the only ones to receive it. Of the 40,000 people in the Pfizer vaccine trial, there were 16,775 people of color (of whom 3,492 were Black) in the study already done. The 95% efficacy of the vaccine was seen in us, too. More importantly, the vaccine was just as safe for those 16,775 people of color as it was for white study participants.”
Dr. Ala Stanford, founder of the Black Doctors’ COVID-19 Consortium, said to MSNBC: “The experience that African Americans have had with the healthcare system being untrustworthy … I know the history, but we cannot allow that to impede us from receiving the help that is on the way.” The National Medical Association, the nation’s largest organization for Black doctors, convened a task force to evaluate the safety of the vaccines. They released a statement on Dec. 21 fully supporting the FDA’s approval of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Additional COVID-19 Information
- Rapid COVID-19 tests often give a false positive result, so the test should be done twice to confirm the results.
- People in prison who have not received their stimulus checks must file a 2020 tax return by April 15.