By Sean Leonard
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 130 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered in the U.S. as of March 25. As time passes and more people become eligible to receive their shot, many individuals in the campus community will be vaccinated as well.
On March 24, Alpha Phi Alpha hosted an event called “Let’s Talk About the Vaccine,” which had guest speaker Holly Heller, a family nurse practitioner at Student Health Services, discuss how the vaccines work, popular myths and common questions.
Since the U.S. now has three available vaccines for the public, Heller first addressed the main differences between the two mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Although they utilize similar technology, the main difference is the storage conditions, with Pfizer’s vaccine requiring much colder temperatures reaching well below zero degrees.
Heller said a common misconception is that since mRNA technology for vaccines is not traditional, many believe it is unsafe. However, Heller said using mRNA for vaccinations has been in the works for about 30 years.
“What mRNA vaccines do is they provide instructions to the immune system to tell the immune system what to do to prevent and fight disease,” Heller said.
The third vaccine is from Johnson & Johnson, which is a “viral vector” vaccine, unlike the ones from Pfizer and Moderna. According to the New York Times, this means that researchers inserted DNA into an inactivated adenovirus, which usually causes common colds, but which cannot infect people or replicate since it is inactivated. The DNA contains genetic information about the Covid-19 virus spike protein which instructs the body to make mRNA and ultimately spike proteins in the vaccinated cells, so our immune system can recognize them and develop a response to offer future protection.
Heller said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is commendable because it only requires one dose, whereas the mRNA vaccines require two doses spaced about a month apart.
One common concern is the efficacy percentages from these vaccines, or whether or not one of them is truly the most effective. Based on their clinical trials and according to the CDC, the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were 95, 94.1 and 66.3 percent effective, respectively, at preventing lab-confirmed Covid-19. However, all three vaccines were 100 percent effective at preventing Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths, the latter having amounted to over 542,000 in the U.S. according to the CDC.
“If you do get exposed to Covid, all of the vaccines will reduce your risk of developing severe disease or being hospitalized. So, whatever vaccine you’re offered when it’s your turn, you should take it,” Heller said. “Just like any vaccine, no vaccine is 100 percent protective … Some people will get sick with these vaccines, but it should be a much milder illness.”
Another concern is the general safety of these vaccines. Although these vaccines have not been officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency has given all three Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs). EUAs simply permit the use of unapproved medical devices or treatments when no approved option is available. For example, the rapid antigen tests used at the Decker Social Space, known as Quidel’s Sofia 2 SARS Antigen FIA, were issued an EUA last May because of the urgent need to test people for the virus, according to the FDA.
“Instead of being tied up in the bureaucratic paperwork of the FDA for two or three years, EUAs allow emergency approval of things when there’s a pandemic or another massive reason,” Heller said.
Once students receive a shot, Heller said it is completely normal, if not expected, to experience some mild side effects. She said most side effects occur about 12 hours after the second dose and can include chills, fever, fatigue and tenderness at the injection site. Heller said these symptoms last at most about 48 hours and can be treated with Tylenol or Advil.
“During those 48 hours, some people can feel pretty awful, but I always tell them, ‘that’s probably a good thing.’ It means your immune system is doing its job,” Heller said. “If you don’t get side effects, it doesn’t mean it didn’t work. The younger and healthier you are, the less side effects you seem to get. We know older people’s immune systems are not as strong.”
Many students have already had Covid-19 infections, but Heller said everyone should still be vaccinated because it is unknown how long antibodies can last. According to the College’s spring 2021 Covid-19 dashboard, 183 students have tested positive since Feb. 1.
Heller said the only individuals exempt from vaccination are those who had adverse reactions to their first dose, have a history of adverse reactions or are allergic to polyethylene glycol (PEG), an ingredient that helps stabilize the vaccine.
For those who are tired of quarantine and are wondering if getting Covid-19 is an easier option for immunity, Heller said vaccination is definitely the safer way to provide protection and prevent community spread.
“The vaccine and disease is new to us. What we do know is that Covid-19 causes serious illnesses in people, and we know that it’s caused a lot of death. It’s caused deaths in young people as well as old people,” Heller said. “We also know that the disease can cause some long term side effects in people who are now being dubbed as ‘long haulers.’”
Besides the obvious benefits of protection that come with vaccination, Heller said vaccinated students are exempt for 90 days from being classified as close contacts. This means that if a person was with someone who tested positive, the exposed individual would not have to quarantine. Heller also said the length of the exemption will most likely increase in the near future. Students should update their vaccination reports in the Online Wellness Link to notify the College.
Despite the quarantine exemption, Heller said that vaccinated students still have to be tested on campus, and people should remain cautious, especially right after the shot.
“When you get a Covid vaccine, you have to wait a full 14 days to have full protection. If you get exposed during those 14 days, you can develop Covid and you can end up in isolation. So, being really careful after that second dose is important,” Heller said.
Since vaccine scheduling has been difficult for many people at pharmacies and mass vaccination sites, Heller said the College is eligible to administer Covid-19 vaccinations. She said it will run a mass vaccination clinic on campus for all students, staff, faculty and Sodexo employees, but is unsure when the College will receive vaccine doses.
Although it will be available to the campus community, Heller said she was unsure if the vaccine would be required in the fall for all students at the College. She said she doubted it would be a requirement as long as the vaccines are still under EUA. However, Rutgers University recently announced that all of its students are required to be vaccinated to attend classes in the fall, according to NPR.
For more information, Heller said students should use reputable sources like the CDC or New Jersey Department of Health. Covid19.nj.gov also has information on eligibility and state-wide updates. For those both on or off campus, Heller encouraged students to utilize the services offered by Student Health Services, which still provides well visits, screenings and telemedicine appointments.
In terms of general advice, Heller said it is important that people continue to wear masks, practice social distancing and wash their hands frequently until more people are vaccinated and restrictions can ease.
“Overall, it’s important to know that each one of you can make a huge difference in this pandemic, and the best way you can make a difference and help us stop it is by getting vaccinated,” Heller said. “The more people we vaccinate, the less likely we will have variant strains develop, which will allow us to get ahead of this.”