By Dr. Eva Wilson
As COVID vaccinations become available for more and more of us, Americans begin to celebrate the light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve faced nearly a year of a deadly global pandemic that has disrupted our lives. An effective vaccine would mean that we are nearing the end of the lock downs and lay-offs, and one step closer to seeing our friends and loved ones. Many Americans are skeptical, though, of a vaccine that has been developed so quickly. We hope that the information provided below can answer the questions that you have regarding COVID-19 vaccination.
Immune System 101
It’s important to understand a little bit about how our immune system works in order to understand how a COVID-19 vaccine could protect us from the virus. The following are white blood cells that act as the warriors in our body to fight a virus like COVID-19.
Macrophages: Identify and envelope foreign cells, such as viruses. They digest and destroy these cells and leave parts behind for our immune system to identify and recognize.
B-lymphocytes: Recognize the parts of viruses that the macrophages left behind and create antibodies that will attack the virus.
T-lymphocytes: Attack cells in our body that have already been infected by a virus. T-lymphocytes will hang around for the next time we are infected by the same virus, allowing our body to mount a quicker response to a virus it already recognizes.
The COVID-19 vaccine triggers the body to start creating these B- and T-lymphocytes, which will be primed to fight the virus should we be exposed. This means the vaccine will help your body mount a quicker and more effective immune response if you were to be exposed to the COVID virus in the future. (9)
Development of COVID-19 Vaccines
There are three types of COVID-19 vaccines that have reached Phase 3 clinical trials, which are aimed at determining any short-term side effects or long-term adverse reactions to the vaccine. The first vaccine, formulated by Pfizer, was approved by the Federal Drug Administration on December 11th under an emergency use authorization (EUA). (4) Since then, millions of doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been shipped around the country to begin vaccination of the most high-risk people. Both are mRNA vaccines, which contain isolated material from the COVID-19 virus. mRNA vaccines have been studied before for other viral illnesses including flu, zika, rabies, and cytomegalovirus. (11) “Although the COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech are the first mRNA vaccines to complete all clinical trial stages and be licensed for use, the technology has been around for a while.” (12) The viral material does not last long in the body, that is in part why it is a 2 shot injection series.
Common Side Effects of the COVID-19 Vaccine
In the clinical trials that have been completed on the Pfizer mRNA COVID-19 vaccine, the most commonly reported side effects are similar to those side effects of the flu vaccine. They include fever, headache, chills, fatigue, or muscle aches and soreness at the site of injection. (6) The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses spaced 21 days apart, and most of these side effects were reported after the second dose. The Moderna vaccine requires two doses as well, spaced 28 days apart. It’s important to remember that you cannot get COVID-19 from these vaccinations, and that these possible side effects are a sign that your immune system is doing its job.
Efficacy of the COVID-19 Vaccine
A phase 3 clinical trial included 44,000 participants and has found Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to be 95% effective, measured 28 days after the first dose. (5, 7) In the high-risk population of 65 years and older, the COVID-19 vaccine also has this level of effectiveness. For comparison, the annual influenza (flu) vaccine is generally 40 to 60% effective, depending on the year. (13) Pfizer will continue monitoring the 44,000 study participants for 2 years. We will know more as more people receive the vaccine.
Who will be vaccinated first?
The first Americans to be vaccinated (as determined by a Center for Disease Control advisory committee) have been the high-exposure and high-risk people, including frontline healthcare workers and long-term care (i.e. nursing home) residents. The next groups to be eligible for vaccination nationwide will likely include essential, non-health care workers and people aged 65 and over. States do not have to follow these CDC guidelines, so access to vaccines may stray from these guidelines state to state.
So, Should I get vaccinated?
First of all, we at NCNM think it important that everyone has a choice in this matter. This is a decision that everyone must make for themselves. We see it as our role as your healthcare providers to provide you with accurate and up-to-date information regarding the vaccine and to offer up what we can discern as the important facts to consider.
Herd immunity occurs when a significant portion of a population receives immunity to a contagious disease, slowing or halting the spreading of that disease. Researchers estimate that 300 million Americans will need to be immune to the COVID-19 virus before we achieve herd immunity. It’s probable that our current COVID reality will not begin to shift toward pre-COVID norms until we reach higher levels of immunity. Our economy continues to suffer and low socio-economic populations continue to be those most affected. If this is something you’d be interested in learning more about, we invite you to read more from Dr. Paul Herscu. (3) He is an informed and passionate Naturopathic Physician who writes about the impacts – in both economics and lives lost – if we do not achieve herd immunity quickly. Those of us who choose to get the vaccine series play an active role in establishing this herd immunity.
We also recognize that many Americans have justified reservations around conventional medical systems and recommendations. Not only do we at NCNM understand this, but we also share some of those concerns. We will support you no matter what choice you make. Most of us at the clinic will be getting the vaccine series. We see this as an opportunity to protect ourselves, our families, and all of those who seek care at our clinic. We think the current societal, economic, health, and social risks associated with this pandemic are causing this vaccine to carry higher stakes than other vaccines. As Dr. Herscu warns, there is a risk of missing our chance at herd immunity if enough of us choose not to get vaccinated. The science shows that herd immunity is a simple numbers game - getting enough people vaccinated to protect the larger population.
When Can I Get My Vaccine?
Washington state has released a tiered plan for vaccination with a timeline through April. The timing of the following table is subject to change, based on availability and efficiency of distribution of the vaccine. The table is current at the time of the posting of this article.
To find out whether you are currently eligible, and where to go get vaccinated, check the Washington Department of Health website here.
We are still months away from having enough vaccinations available for everyone who wants one. We are possibly still facing months of physical-distancing, masks, and economic hardship. In the meantime, whether you are vaccinated or not, it will be important to continue wearing a mask and limiting physical interaction with people outside of your household.
In the months to come, we can continue to support our immune health by getting adequate sleep, maintaining a nutritious diet, and staying physically active. Please reach out to us at NCNM if you have any questions about your health, or further questions regarding COVID-19 or the vaccination. We are here for you! We’re all in this together.
1. 8 Things to Know about the U.S. COVID-19 Vaccination Program. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/8-things.html. Published December 13, 2020. Accessed December 15, 2020.
2. Guy AB. How Can We Be Sure the New COVID-19 Vaccines Are Safe? UC San Francisco. https://www.ucsf.edu/magazine/covid-vaccine-safety. Published December 10, 2020. Accessed December 15, 2020.
3. Herscu P. Get the First Series of Shots! http://paulherscuepidemics.blogspot.com/2020/12/get-first-series-of-shots.html#more. Published December 29, 2020. Accessed January 1, 2021.
4. Inslee Sets Goal of 45,000 COVID Vaccinations a Day in Washington; Everyone 65 and Older Eligible Now. Seattle Times. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/health/inslee-accelerates-covid-19-vaccinations-and-makes-everyone-65-and-older-eligible-now/. Published January 18, 2021. Accessed January 20, 2021.
5. Pfizer and BioNTech Conclude Phase 3 Study of COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate, Meeting All Primary Efficacy Endpoints. Pfizer. https://www.pfizer.com/news/press-release/press-release-detail/pfizer-and-biontech-conclude-phase-3-study-covid-19-vaccine. Published November 18, 2020. Accessed December 15, 2020.
6. Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19/pfizer-biontech-covid-19-vaccine. Published December 14, 2020. Accessed December 15, 2020.
7. Thomas K, Lafraniere S, Weiland N, Goodnough A, Haberman M. F.D.A. Clears Pfizer Vaccine, and Millions of Doses Will Be Shipped Right Away. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/11/health/pfizer-vaccine-authorized.html?action=click. Published December 12, 2020. Accessed December 15, 2020.
8. Thomas K, Zimmer C. Pfizer's Covid Vaccine: 11 Things You Need to Know. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/live/2020/pfizer-covid-19-vaccine. Published December 8, 2020. Accessed December 15, 2020.
9. Understanding How COVID-19 Vaccines Work. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/how-they-work.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fvaccines%2Fabout-vaccines%2Fhow-they-work.html. Published 2020. Accessed December 15, 2020.
10. Washington state releases COVID-19 vaccination tiers, timelines through April. The Seattle Times. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/health/washington-state-releases-new-covid-19-vaccination-tiers-timeline-through-april/. Published January 6, 2021. Accessed January 10, 2021.
11. Understanding mRNA COVID Vaccines. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mrna.html. Published December 18, 2020. Accessed January 20, 2021.
12. Five Things You Need to Know about: MRNA Vaccine Safety. horizon-magazine.eu/article/five-things-you-need-know-about-mrna-vaccine-safety.htmlPublished Dec 11, 2020. Accessed Jan 22, 2021.
13. Vaccine Effectiveness: How Well Do the Flu Vaccines Work? Centers for Disease Control. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/vaccines-work/vaccineeffect.htm. Accessed January 22, 2021.