I’m Matt Percy, a Family Doctor and part of the Chief Medical Team at Mountain Family Health Centers. I was recently privileged to receive my first dose of the new coronavirus vaccine and would like to take this opportunity to answer some common questions about the vaccine. This is a real chance to end a deadly pandemic and I hope you all receive the vaccine as soon as it is available to you.
How does the vaccine work?
Both vaccines currently available in the United States are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. mRNA is a genetic “recipe” that is used by your cells as instructions for building proteins. These vaccines introduce into your cells mRNA that codes for a specific protein, called the spike protein, which is found on the surface of the novel coronavirus. Your body then produces some of this spike protein, which, by itself, is harmless. After the mRNA is read by your cells, it is broken down and does not remain in your body long-term. Soon, the spike protein is recognized as “other” by your immune system which mounts its typical response to neutralize foreign pathogens and also forms a memory of the spike protein in case of future exposure. If you are exposed to coronavirus after receiving the vaccine, your immune system is primed to recognize it, respond, and protect you from infection. After 2 doses, both vaccines are about 95% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19, making them among the most effective vaccines ever developed against any pathogen.
I heard mRNA vaccines are new, and were developed at a record pace, do we know if the vaccine is safe?
The available vaccines are very safe. These are the first mRNA vaccines to reach mass production, but mRNA has been used for years in various medical treatments and is known to be safe. One reason these vaccines were developed so quickly was thanks to groundwork done years ago to research mRNA vaccine options for prior coronaviruses that cause conditions like SARS and MERS. While it is true that these vaccines were developed more quickly than previous vaccines, this is mainly due to these previous advancements in medical knowledge and technology. No shortcuts were taken in the usual safety studies or approval process and the phase 3 trials were large enough to demonstrate that these vaccines are very safe and very effective for general use in adults. Severe vaccine reactions will be exceedingly rare (1 in 100,000 or less) and the risk of having COVID-19 is much, much higher than the risk of getting the vaccine.
When can I get the vaccine?
Vaccine availability is initially going to be limited. Each state has developed prioritization phases to get the vaccine first to individuals who are either high risk of exposure or high risk of complications if they contract COVID-19. Colorado is currently working through our prioritization at phase 1B which includes most healthcare workers, frontline workers and people aged 70 and older. Phase 2 is expected to come in the spring and Phase 3, where vaccine will be available to all adults, in the summer. Children are not currently approved to receive the coronavirus vaccine, but I expect eventually they will. It is typical that vaccines are initially studied in adults before they are studied in children. Full details on current Colorado vaccine schedule here: https://covid19.colorado.gov/for-coloradans/vaccine/vaccine-for-coloradans
Where can I get the vaccine?
Initial vaccine distribution in our local area has been mainly to hospitals. We appreciate our local hospitals’ assistance in vaccinating many of our staff members as well as other community members who fall into phases 1A and 1B. Mountain Family has informed the state we would like to be a vaccine delivery site and are awaiting updates on when we can expect to receive the vaccine.
When can things go back to “normal”?
While the vaccine significantly decreases your risk of contracting COVID-19, it does not reduce it to zero. Until we have a high enough percentage of the population vaccinated to make the odds of sustained transmission low, we cannot back off on our preventative measures. This includes masking in public, maintaining social distancing, and avoiding non-essential travel and social interactions. The exact timing of relaxing these protocols depends on the speed of vaccine distribution and vaccine acceptance by the public, but I am hopeful that if things go as planned it could possibly happen this summer. Until then, please continue to follow public health recommendations to keep our communities safe.