Coronavirus Health

The arrival of the first doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine was met with cheers around the Ohio Valley as the first doses were administered to front-line health workers. The Pfizer —  and, soon, Moderna — vaccines bring the promise of relief after months of pandemic-driven closures and a deadly surge in cases. 

But the vaccines’ arrival also brings a lot of questions. The Ohio Valley ReSource asked you, our listeners and readers, what you need to know about the vaccine, and you responded with dozens of questions. People want to know about how safe and effective the vaccines are, how they work, and who will get vaccinated when. 

We took some of the questions to Dr. Vince Venditto, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s College of Pharmacy. Venditto did his postdoctoral training in vaccine design, which he said makes this moment one that “overlaps nicely with my training, so it’s an exciting time of history.” 

Our partners in the public media collaboration America Amplified are also answering questions with the help of medical experts in their parts of the country.

Here are answers to some of your questions about the vaccines.

Still Infectious?

One concern we heard from a lot of listeners was whether the vaccine will block transmission as well as prevent illness: 

Will the vaccine provide immunity from being a carrier of the virus (i.e., will you be immune from transmitting the virus once vaccinated)? 

Once you have the vaccine, can you still transmit the virus to others even if it does not affect you?

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration has found the vaccines developed by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna effective in preventing COVID-19 disease in a vaccinated individual. But Dr. Venditto said we don’t yet know if the vaccines will also reduce infectious transmission.

“They did not test whether or not you can transmit,” he said. “But what it’s going to do, it’s going to keep them out of the hospital. That’s what we know right now. It’s going to prevent them from progressing to being in the ICU and on a ventilator. The data we have right now is that the vaccine prevents disease progression. It doesn’t necessarily prevent you from getting infected, it doesn’t necessarily prevent you from transmitting.” 

Venditto said further research will tell us more about whether the vaccines will limit infectiousness, but masks and social distancing will still be with us for a while. 

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say “it will be important for everyone to continue using all the tools available to us to help stop this pandemic, like covering your mouth and nose with a mask, washing hands often, and staying at least 6 feet away from others.”

Safety

Several people had questions about the vaccine’s safety, especially for those with other medical conditions. 

Is it okay for people who take immunosuppressive drugs?

How do we expect the vaccines to affect those who have had COVID-19?

Both the Moderna and Pfizer trial data look good, Venditto said, and the reported side-effects appear mild.

“You know, you’re immunizing 40,000 people. So what we can tell from 40,000 people is that in general, you see some soreness, some fatigue, you see, maybe a fever, chills, those types of things,” he said. 

As with any vaccine, the FDA and pharmaceutical companies continuously monitor every negative effect that may occur. 

Venditto said we don’t yet have enough data to answer all the questions about effects on someone taking immunosuppressant drugs.   

“We have some evidence, but we don’t have enough evidence, I would say, at this point, to have a definitive answer,” he said.

Dr. William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center, echoed that.

“We’re going to have to look very carefully at data on both the safety and efficacy because that too can be impaired in immunocompromised individuals,” Moss said. But, he added, the method of production for these vaccines might make it less likely that the vaccine would cause problems with compromised immune systems.

“The vaccines that are typically not recommended routinely for severely immunocompromised individuals are what we call attenuated viral vaccines, where we take the natural virus and make it weaker. And this is a very old way of making vaccines,” he said.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines work in a different way. Both use genetic material from the virus, called messenger RNA, to stimulate protein growth in our bodies, triggering an immune response. 

“So I don’t anticipate problems with safety,” Moss said, “but that will need to be studied going forward.”

Availability

Several of our listener questions had to do with who will get the vaccine, and when. 

I am 75 and in good health. At what phase will I be able to receive the vaccine?

My husband is in his mid 70s with underlying health conditions that I believe would make him eligible for the early vaccine inoculation. As a healthy 70 year old married and living with him, where would I stand in the inoculation distribution? 

Answers to many of these questions hinge on decisions that are still being made about scheduling early use of the vaccines.

The CDC worked with state and tribal governments to develop a “playbook” for local vaccination plans. The priorities for vaccination are largely up to state officials. In the Ohio Valley, the first recipients have been front-line health workers and long-term care providers. Soon, people in medically vulnerable populations will receive vaccinations. 

Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said age will be a major determining factor. For people over 65, he said, “you’ll be in the second or third group to receive a vaccine, likely by sometime this spring.”

Residents of long-term care facilities will be high-priority, he said, but beyond that, “We are waiting on advice from the CDC Advisory committee on who should go next — essential workers, or people who are 65 or older.”

Venditto said that’s why it will be important to continue with development of more vaccines by other drug makers still in the research and approval pipeline.

“Because of those supply chain problems and the need for all of the reagents to make these vaccines,” he said. “When you think about vaccinating the entire world, we have to have all these things in place.” 

Cost and Access

Other listeners had questions about the cost of receiving the vaccine, or whether immigration status would affect access.  

“My mom, 73, is a green card holder living in Louisville with me. She does not have Medicare or Medicaid or any other health insurance. Is there a way or place to get her the COVID-19 vaccine?”

Visa status should not affect access to the vaccine. 

“There are no restrictions on vaccine provisions to anyone on a visa,” said Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, Dean of University of Missouri-Kansas City Medical School and a member of the National Vaccine Advisory Committee. 

As for cost, according to the CDC, the vaccine doses “will be given to the American people at no cost.” 

However, vaccination providers will be able to charge an “administration fee” for delivering the shots and get reimbursement from the federal government. 

The day the vaccines arrived in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear committed to making the vaccines free for those in need. 

“We’re going to make sure that here in Kentucky we do whatever it takes to make sure that those that are uninsured or underinsured and if there is any charge, can’t afford the vaccine, can still get it.” 

 Officials in West Virginia and Ohio made similar commitments. 

The Shot

Some listeners had questions about the vaccination experience.

I wonder what it feels like to get a vaccine that comes out of a -81° freezer?

I wonder whether people will have a chance to choose a specific vaccine? If I prefer to get Moderna’s vaccine, is that a choice I can make?

The Pfizer vaccine is shipped at -94 degrees Fahrenheit, and once it reaches a hospital, it can be stored between 17.6 and 28 degrees. Venditto said the vaccine is not injected at those temperatures. 

“Somebody would take it out of the fridge or the freezer, let it warm up to room temperature and then and then inject it,” he said. “So you shouldn’t have any cold feelings or anything.” 

Venditto said at least at first, no one gets to choose which vaccine they’ll get. 

“The short answer in the short term is no, because of how the vaccine is going to be distributed around the country and around the world.”

The Ohio Valley ReSource gets support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and our partner stations.

Jeff Young | Ohio Valley ReSource

This story was produced as part of America Amplified, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Corinne Boyer covers health issues from partner station WEKU in Richmond, KY. Previously, she covered western Kansas for the Kansas News Service at High Plains Public Radio, where she received two Kansas Association of Broadcasters awards for her reporting on immigrant communities. Before living on the High Plains, Corinne was a newspaper reporter in Oregon. She earned her master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and interned at KLCC, Eugene’s NPR affiliate. Corinne grew up near the South Carolina coast and is a graduate of the College of Charleston. She has also lived in New York City and South Korea.