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The Enigma of a Vaccine

As of January 20th, 2021, there have been more than 24.3 million cases of COVID-19, with over 400,000 lives lost. This pandemic has stolen many valuable things from us. From the lost lives and the hardworking healthcare workers experiencing them, to the constant, dull beam of a Zoom call substituting social interaction, we’ve endured it all. And then the news that seemed so far away had finally arrived: we have vaccines!

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have awakened a new sense of hope during this dark time. Yet many still have their questions and doubts. Was it too soon to release a vaccine to the public? What do we need to know before getting vaccinated?

My sister, holding a “Undercover Hero, #vaccinated” sticker!

This is my sister, Divya Alley. She’s an amazing healthcare worker, an emergency medical scribe working at Maple Grove Hospital and North Memorial Health Hospital, a level I trauma center, in Robbinsdale, Minnesota. As a result, she was one of the first to get the Pfizer  COVID vaccine! I’m proud of my sister for making history, and I was more than honored to sit her down to ask some questions related to the vaccine (Responses have been edited for clarity.)

Q: What’s the difference between the two vaccines?

D: The main similarity between them is that they are both mRNA vaccines. That means that they use the mRNA of the COVID-19 virus instead of the live virus to help us develop an immune response. They essentially have the “blueprint” of the virus that is used to “trick” our bodies into thinking COVID has invaded. When your body feels the invasion, it develops antibodies which are the main “defenders” of our immune system. Thus, if you are exposed to COVID-19 later, your body will already have built up antibodies and will be able to effectively protect you from getting sick. Both are also administered in two doses.  They also have pretty similar success rates at preventing sickness from COVID: Moderna has a 94.1% success rate and Pfizer has a 95%. Otherwise, they’re not very different! It’s pretty amazing if you think about how they work!

The main differences are 1) the age ranges they are approved for, 2) the number of days in between their two doses, and 3) their storage requirements. Pfizer-BioNTech has been approved for individuals 16 years and older whereas Moderna is approved for 18 years and older. Additionally, the two Pfizer doses are administered three weeks apart whereas Moderna doses are administered 4 weeks apart.  Moderna requires freezing at 20°C, while Pfizer has to be frozen in storage between -80°C and -60°C

Q: Why do we need to get two doses?

D: Some vaccines have enough material to trigger a sufficient-enough immune response within one vaccination. But both of these vaccines were engineered in a way that required the creation of two doses. Many other vaccines are administered in multiple doses, a prime example being the HPV vaccine which requires three doses and the Shingles vaccine which requires two!

Q: So when you got the vaccine, how did it feel? Did you get any side effects from it?

D:  For me, I didn’t have any significant side effects. I had a sore arm for a few days, similar to any vaccination, and minor swelling in my arm. Other than that, I didn’t have any side effects. It was pretty easy for me!

Other side effects that are common are having COVID-like symptoms. Those may include:

  • Malaise (a general feeling of fatigue)
  • Body aches
  • Muscle and joint swelling
  • Fever 

Uncommon side effects are shortness of breath, sore throat, and other respiratory symptoms. The side effects generally go away in a few days.

Q: I’ve heard that many people were concerned that the vaccine “came out too quickly” and wondered if it was safe. Were you nervous about getting it?

D: I’ve heard those concerns too, and I understand them. This is an unprecedented time, which is why the vaccines came out so quickly. But, that doesn’t mean research wasn’t meticulously done, they’ve been through many clinical trials and have been tested in different countries and populations to make sure they’re safe. If you are interested, the CDC has posted all of this information online! They would never create vaccines and distribute them if they were even the slightest bit concerned that they were unsafe as this would create an even bigger problem. 

“They would never create vaccines and distribute them if they were even the slightest bit concerned that they were unsafe.”

As for me, I was a little nervous first getting the vaccine. When I got vaccinated, there weren’t a lot of civilians getting the vaccine. But, the pros outweighed the cons (which for me, were the side effects) of the vaccine, so I made my decision.

Q: Once everyone gets vaccinated, is that it? Is the pandemic officially over? What about all of those COVID variants?

D: Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Diseases can be eradicated from the world (for example, smallpox). What’s challenging about these vaccines is the research is unsure of how long the immunity lasts. So, it is still important to wear your masks, even if you’re vaccinated.

There are COVID-19 variants out there (in the UK, Japan, etc.), and according to Johns Hopkins, there is no reason or evidence that we know of to think the vaccines would not work against the variants.

Q: As someone who is a current medical scribe and in the Pre-Health field, what do you hope the vaccine will do for the current COVID-19 crisis? What about our future understanding of COVID-19 and pandemics in general?

D: I hope the vaccine will currently provide protection for people, especially healthcare workers that are doing their most taking care of COVID patients. In general, I hope the vaccine will slow down the spread. 

The reason COVID has persisted for so long and has gotten so hard to get under control is that we have not been able to fully stop its transmission.

For pandemics in general, vaccines have been used for years, such as the vaccine for the H1N1 epidemic. I hope this will promote the importance of vaccines to the public and debunk anti-vax myths. Vaccines are helpful, and you shouldn’t be afraid of them!

“Wear your masks, even if you’re vaccinated!”

Q: What do you think the general public should do about COVID-19, whether people decide to get vaccinated or not?

D: Listen to all healthcare professionals. COVID is not politics, it is a disease spreading and taking lives in the US and all over the world. Wear a mask, social distance, try not to gather with your friends! I know it’s hard not to, it is isolating to distance yourself away from loved ones, and that does impact mental health. But we can find ways to address mental health issues without endangering lives. It is not simple. It is not easy, but it is something we can try to do to protect our neighbors.

” We can find ways to address mental health concerns without endangering lives. It is not simple. It is not easy, but it is something we can try to do to protect our neighbors.”

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