Vaccines against COVID-19 are now available, and while the continuous supply is limited to 37,000 first doses per week, Mississippians who qualify should keep an eye out for vaccine availability. This and the following graphics were made by Kristin Brenemen.

How to Survive the Coronavirus: COVID-19 Vaccines Explained

Versión en español aquí.

With the COVID-19 vaccine now available to many Mississippians, the state now has the opportunity to make the winter spike the last mass outbreak of the disease. The Mississippi Free Press has compiled information from expert sources on the contents, effects and value of the COVID-19 vaccines available to the public. 

Yes, you should take the vaccine when it is available to you. This is the most important question, and one that is up to every Mississippian to decide individually. The information below may help you make an informed decision. In the simplest possible terms, medical experts agree that the vaccine is safe, effective and ultimately is the only way to finish off COVID-19 for good. 

Natural immunity is limited. It tends to last for a matter of months, making it impossible to safely develop herd immunity through infection.

Vaccine immunity, on the other hand, is remarkably effective at preventing infections, and in preventing infections from becoming serious. Of 43,661 participants in Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, 162 subjects in the unvaccinated placebo group developed COVID-19. In the vaccinated group, that number was eight. Moderna, which created a similar vaccine, had a testing population of roughly 30,400. In that trial, 185 unvaccinated participants came down with COVID-19, compared to 11 in the vaccine group.

Just as importantly, in the Pfizer trial, only one of the 10 severe cases of COVID-19 occurred in the vaccinated group. In the Moderna trial, researchers found 30 severe cases of COVID-19, and every one of them was in the placebo group. 

Researchers are astounded at the consistent effectiveness of these two mRNA vaccines, with the results showing 95% effectiveness at reducing infection and severe disease. On a personal level, medical experts are unanimous that there is no better protection from the virus. On a public-health level, they see widespread usage of these vaccines, with their remarkably high effectiveness, as the silver bullet that can end the pandemic for good.

The contents of the COVID-19 vaccines are simple and widely publicized. Far from the complicated list of ingredients found in even an everyday item in the grocery store, the COVID-19 vaccine contains three primary ingredients, each serving a purpose in immunizing the recipient.

mRNA: With a name meaning “messenger ribonucleic acid,” this is, essentially, the vaccine. mRNA is the active ingredient in both available vaccines, containing instructions on how to manufacture the “spike” portion of the coronavirus that allows it to enter human cells. The human body is capable of detecting intruders—once the spike is manufactured, an immune response is triggered. 

This is why medical experts say you may feel under the weather the day after taking the shot: Your body is gearing up to kill the virus, even though all that is present inside you is the tool it uses to gain entry. After your body processes, analyzes, and destroys the mRNA across both shots, it will be ready the next time it encounters SARS-CoV-2—the specific coronavirus that caused the pandemic. The reaction is swift and brutal for the virus, as the human body exterminates it before it can spread and cause damage to organs or a painful immune response.

Lipids: Lipids are “greasy” cells much like fats or oils, which are primarily used to package the mRNA so that it can enter cells. The lipid nanoparticles encase the vaccine’s active ingredient, which allows it to arrive in the cells after injection.

Stabilizers: The final ingredients in the vaccine are various salts, acids, and sugars meant to maintain the pH level of the vaccine and keep it from clumping together, so that the vaccine is safely delivered through freezing and injection into the human body.

And that’s it. There are no more ingredients: simply mRNA, contained in greasy, microscopic bubbles, and washed in stabilizers to keep it safe. The vaccine contains no preservatives, like thimerosal. The vaccine contains no “dead virus,” as with the polio vaccine, which could even hypothetically infect the recipient. The vaccine contains no “mysterious” research chemicals, such as luciferin, the bioluminescent substance in fireflies. Microchips, or nanochips, or any form of mechanical product are not found in the vaccine: what you see is what you get. 

After extensive testing, and with more than 16.5 million doses in arms across the U.S. so far, medical agencies say there is conclusive evidence that the vaccine is extremely safe.

The safety of the vaccine is a paramount concern to all parties involved. If the vaccine proved dangerous at even an incredibly small percentage, the effects would be devastating and immediately apparent. With more than 16,500,000 doses administered in the U.S. alone, even a .1% incidence rate of any complications would lead to at least 16,500 cases, visible in public settings across the entire country.

The side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are well publicized and understood. There are two elements to consider—allergic reaction and immune response.

Allergic reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine are uncommon, but possible. For the vast majority of individuals, allergic reactions to the vaccine are mild, including itchiness and rashes that disappear quickly. For an extremely small group, serious allergic reactions are possible—especially those who have a history of allergic reactions to injected medications. 

Every COVID-19 vaccination site is equipped for these possibilities. Medical intervention, including with anti-anaphylactic injectors like Epi-Pens, is readily available at every location with access to vaccines.

The immune response to the vaccine follows successful injection, and appears similar to other immune reactions. Expect a day or two of headaches, chills and body aches. But as the body realizes that there is no actual virus to fight, the transient feeling of sickness will vanish quickly afterward, experts say.

As of Jan. 21, a broad range of individuals are currently eligible for the vaccine. These candidates are separated into three groups, and as vaccine availability increases, Mississippians can expect the categories to grow as well.

18-64 with underlying conditions: Mississippians aged 18 and older with cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), down syndrome, heart conditions (such as heart failure, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathy), an immunocompromised state (such as from a solid organ transplant), obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, smoking, diabetes or “any other medical conditions as determined by your medical provider” currently qualify.

Health-care workers: All workers in health-care settings, from clinics to hospitals, qualify for the vaccine. Workers do not have to be in acute care settings—all employees including food service, researchers, contract staff, technicians and others qualify.

Aged 65+: All Mississippians aged 65 and older automatically qualify for the vaccine. No underlying conditions are required to schedule a vaccination appointment with MSDH.

State health leadership has explicitly stated that these conditions are judged based on the honor system. Mississippians who fall under any of these categories, or who have received medical advice to pursue vaccination due to any other underlying conditions, should feel entirely comfortable scheduling an appointment for vaccination.

 Importantly, vaccination sites do not ask for identification or proof of eligibility, merely that appointments be scheduled online or over the phone ahead of time. Non-U.S. citizens who reside or work in Mississippi are encouraged to schedule and complete their vaccinations. 

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs explicitly stated on Jan. 21 that no proof of identity or residence will be required at vaccination sites. All at-risk individuals, including undocumented workers and residents, will be given equal access to the vaccine with no questions asked.

There are four methods to receiving the vaccine when you qualify for it. The process of delivering the vaccine has proved to be relatively informal—if you are having trouble finding a vaccination appointment, you are encouraged to try multiple avenues to secure an appointment. As time goes on, more vaccine will become available through all of these sources, and the process will be easier.

MSDH drive-through: The easiest way to schedule a vaccination is at a Mississippi State Department of Health drive-through location. Mississippians may make appointments online at https://covidvaccine.umc.edu/ or over the phone at 877-978-6453 or 601-965-4071.

Private clinics: Call your local health-care clinic to ask for availability of the vaccine. Many have requested allocations and can perform vaccinations. MSDH intends to release a list of participating clinics soon: check back to find an active list of private vaccination locations. While the vaccine itself is free to everyone, private clinic vaccinations may charge a small fee for administering the shot.

Hospitals: Some hospitals have begun to offer vaccinations to the public, but there is no centralized plan for delivering doses to hospitals for this purpose. MSDH recommends that individuals seeking vaccination first try scheduling an appointment at nearby drive-through locations and private clinics first. If no appointments are available, calling nearby hospitals is the next step.

Long-term care facilities: Currently, Walgreens and CVS are under a federal contract to vaccinate long-term care facility residents. Though unacceptably long delays have limited the penetration of vaccine in these facilities, public-health leadership has assured the state that the entire at-risk population will be vaccinated soon. If you or someone you care for is in an LTC, you can contact them directly to ask about timelines on vaccinations for their specific institution. 

The vaccination timeline is relatively simple. Both of the currently available vaccines require two shots for maximum effectiveness. For Pfizer, after the first shot, a second shot should be scheduled for exactly three weeks later. For Moderna, after the first shot, a second shot should be scheduled exactly four weeks later.

Both second doses allow for some wiggle room. Shots taken within four days of the ideal second-dose window are perfectly fine. If you miss your second shot window of four days, you should still schedule an immediate second dose. Getting a second shot weeks after the ideal window shows only a minor reduction in vaccine effectiveness.

If you miss your second shot by a matter of months, speak to a representative from MSDH, using the hotline provided above. You may be asked to start the vaccination schedule over again.

A fully completed vaccination takes effect up to two weeks after the second shot. At that point, the vaccination is at maximum effectiveness. That protection is estimated to last for a full year, which is hugely significant. The natural immunity provided by catching COVID-19 and recovering is estimated to last an average of only three months. 

Simply put, clinical trials show that everything you do is safer after getting the vaccine. The question of normalcy is a difficult one to answer, especially for medical experts who are dependent upon research science to concretely answer questions, and a population that is still mostly unvaccinated.

 The vaccine trials that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna pursued in 2020 were extremely streamlined, and were meant to answer two very specific questions. One, are their vaccines safe? Two, are their vaccines effective at preventing detectable COVID-19 infections? The answer to both of these questions is yes, clinical trials show, but medical experts are enormously cautious to say anything further.

When someone asks the question “is it safe to go back to normal after getting the vaccine,” what they are asking is “can I still spread the infection to someone who is unvaccinated after I’m vaccinated, even if I don’t get sick myself?”

The answer to that question is almost certainly not. “If there is an example of a vaccine in widespread clinical use that has this selective effect—prevents disease but not infection—I can’t think of one!” Harvard Professor of Medicine Dr. Paul Sax wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine, which the New York Times first reported.)

Still, some scientists are hesitant to shout this from the rooftops, because they prefer to have clinical data about the COVID-19 vaccines specifically studying this question first. A perfect example of this effect lies in the recommended ages for each vaccine. Pfizer is approved for use in 16- and 17-year-olds, whereas Moderna is only approved for 18-year-olds and up. But that does not follow from evidence to suggest Moderna is unsafe for teens: the pharmaceutical company simply had trouble finding enough teenage participants for its clinical trials.  

One week after your second shot of COVID-19 vaccine, you are as protected from the virus as is presently possible. You should enjoy that protection. If you have to work in public, you should work with the knowledge that you are 20 times less likely to be infected, and that it is 20 times less likely for that infection to become serious as before. If you have friends or family you want to see after a long year of isolation, getting both parties vaccinated should encourage you to see them more.

But public health is a communal effort. Mask wearing and social distancing in public will continue to be a useful tool for protecting the vulnerable and the hospital system until enough people are vaccinated to develop herd immunity. Those of us fortunate enough to have quick vaccinations should still participate in public-health measures as we finish off the virus.

Ultimately, vaccination is—at long last—a real beginning to the return to normalcy.  

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