Yes, the timeline seemed fast to me. I didn’t know if I would be called at all. By the time I signed up, there had already been a huge demand to participate in the Pfizer trial. I knew the study windows were almost full.
With the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine starting in the United States, here are the answers to some questions you might be wondering:
- If I live in the United States, when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccines may vary by state, most will likely prioritize medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities. If you want to understand how this decision is made, this article will help you.
- When can I resume a normal life after being vaccinated? Life will only return to normal when society as a whole is sufficiently protected against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they will only be able to immunize a few percent of their citizens within the first two months. The unvaccinated majority will always remain vulnerable to infection. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines show strong protection against the disease. But it is also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they are infected, as they show only mild symptoms, if any. Scientists do not yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for now, even vaccinated people will have to wear masks, avoid crowds inside, etc. Once enough people are vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we, as a society, reach this goal, life may start to move closer to something normal by fall 2021.
- If I have been vaccinated, do I still have to wear a mask? Yes, but not forever. Here’s why. Vaccines against the coronavirus are injected deep into muscles and stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies. This appears to be sufficient protection to prevent the vaccinated person from getting sick. But what’s unclear is whether it’s possible for the virus to bloom in the nose – and be sneezed or exhaled to infect other people – even though antibodies elsewhere in the body have mobilized to prevent the vaccinated person to get sick. Clinical vaccine trials have been designed to find out whether people vaccinated are protected from the disease – not whether they might still spread the coronavirus. Based on studies of the flu vaccine and even of patients infected with Covid-19, researchers have reason to hope that those vaccinated will not spread the virus, but more research is needed. In the meantime, everyone – even those who have been vaccinated – will have to think of themselves as possible silent spreaders and continue to wear a mask. Learn more here.
- Will it hurt? What are the side effects? The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is given by injection into the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection into your arm won’t be different from any other vaccine, but the rate of short-lived side effects seems higher than a flu shot. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines and none of them reported serious health problems. Side effects, which may resemble symptoms of Covid-19, last for about a day and appear more likely after the second dose. Initial reports of vaccine trials suggest that some people may need to take time off work because they feel unwell after receiving the second dose. In the Pfizer study, about half developed fatigue. Other side effects occurred in at least 25-33% of patients, sometimes more, including headache, chills and muscle pain. Although these experiences are not pleasant, they are a good sign that your own immune system is preparing a powerful response to the vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a genetic molecule to stimulate the immune system. This molecule, known as mRNA, is ultimately destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse with a cell, allowing the molecule to slip inside. The cell uses mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any given time, each of our cells can contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce to make their own proteins. Once these proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules made by our cells can only survive for a few minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is designed to resist the enzymes in the cell for a bit longer, so that the cells can make additional viral proteins and elicit a stronger immune response. But mRNA can only last a few days at most before being destroyed.
[Track coronavirus cases and hospitalizations across the state.]
What was it like for you, the researcher, to participate in a randomized trial?
The feeling of being randomized took me by surprise. I must note that the study staff were absolutely wonderful to me. They answered all my questions and treated me with the utmost kindness, dignity and respect. But even so, the randomization was troubling. Although knowing full well what I signed up for, it even felt unfair for a while. As a practicing nurse, I had previously had a number of potential exposures to coronaviruses, although luckily I never actually contracted the virus. It would have meant a lot to me to get the active vaccine and I really, really didn’t want to be in the placebo group.
A month later you got a second injection but it was a very different experience. You had injection site pain, nausea, chills, dizziness and a fever that reached 104.9 degrees the next day. Although you later found out that these side effects are common, do you think this will be a barrier for some people to get the vaccine? And are the side effects you have suffered from to be feared?
I have had many vaccines in my life and have never had a strong reaction like I did with this injection, so in fact I received the active vaccine. Side effects can be a barrier if people are not prepared to deal with them. As healthcare providers, it is essential that we explain the potential side effects that patients might experience so that they come back for the second dose and do not worry that the side effects are dangerous. In almost all cases, the side effects are transient and minor. My experience of multiple side effects is very rare.
The side effects you experienced are also similar to the symptoms associated with Covid-19. How can healthcare providers reassure people that it is safe?
First, I urge all healthcare workers to get vaccinated if and when it is available. It can be very difficult for patients to say, “I have enough confidence in this vaccine to have received it myself.” Second, I urge health care providers to allow sufficient time to have a constructive conversation with patients about their questions and concerns regarding these vaccines. It must be very clear that it is impossible for mRNA vaccines to cause Covid-19 and that these vaccines do not contain coronavirus. Finally, I think health care providers should be sure to explain Why side effects occur. Vaccines work by activating the body’s immune system, and it is this activation that both teaches the body to protect itself from the virus and causes side effects like fever, chills, muscle pain, etc. Health care providers should explain that side effects are, in some way, a positive sign that the vaccine is working.