EVANSTON — The first coronavirus vaccine shipments to Uinta County were received last week, and the first vaccinations were given to Evanston Regional Hospital staff on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 26, when 20 staff members rolled up their sleeves to get their first of two doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
Various groups of healthcare workers fall into the 1A tier of those to be vaccinated first, including hospital and emergency room staff, emergency medical services personnel, long-term care and assisted living facility providers, public health staff who will be involved in vaccine administration, technicians performing COVID-19 testing, behavioral health facility staff, urgent care and other medical clinic professionals, law enforcement, home health providers, school nurses, lab technicians, pharmacy staff and other healthcare facility staff, including ancillary support staff who have regular exposure to potentially positive patients or infectious material. Tier 1A also includes residents of long-term care facilities.
Uinta County Public Health Nurse Manager Kim Proffit said that, so far, the county has received 500 doses to go toward vaccinating those in the 1A tier, with public health offices in Evanston and the Bridger Valley working this week on vaccinating first responders, long-term care facility staff and healthcare professionals outside of the hospital setting who are regularly involved in conducting COVID-19 testing.
Based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, tier 1B includes people with underlying conditions that put them at significantly higher risk of severe infection. Tier 2 includes childcare workers; K-12 teachers and staff; people who live or work in homeless shelters, group homes, prisons, jails or detention centers; essential workers involved with the food supply or public transit and people with health conditions that put them at moderately higher risk.
With the first doses being administered, Proffit said the public health office is receiving lots of phone calls from people with questions about the vaccine and those in second tier priority groups asking to be put on some type of list to receive the vaccine. She said the county public health office is not currently keeping a list, but they do plan on utilizing the Code Red emergency notification system to let people know about vaccine availability, locations, dates and times, along with utilizing all forms of media to get the word out. Citizens should make sure they have signed up for Code Red notifications by visiting uintacounty.com and clicking the Code Red tab on the lower right side of the main page.
Proffit said that, although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted emergency use authorization for two vaccines — the Moderna vaccine and one from Pfizer — Uinta County has only received the Moderna vaccine because it does not require the super cold storage the Pfizer vaccine requires.
Both vaccines that have received emergency use authorization are mRNA vaccines, or messenger RNA vaccines. According to the CDC, mRNA vaccines utilize the same process that cells naturally use to make proteins to trigger an immune response and build immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This is a completely different process than most vaccines, which use inactivated or weakened versions of pathogens to trigger a similar immune response.
What this means is that there is no SARS-CoV-2 in the vaccines and it’s therefore impossible to get COVID-19 from the vaccine.
The mRNA vaccines contain strands of messenger RNA inside a coating that protects the mRNA from enzymes that would otherwise break it down, which enables the mRNA to enter muscle cells near the vaccination site. The messenger RNA basically instructs a person’s body to make a piece of the “spike protein” that is characteristic of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This spike protein plays an integral role in how the coronavirus enters human cells and wreaks havoc. However, since the mRNA in the vaccine only triggers the development of part of the spike protein there is no risk of actual infection, but it will still spur on the development of antibodies to the foreign material.
The mRNA never actually enters the nuclei of a person’s cells and doesn’t interact with or impact DNA, and it’s broken down after the creation of the spike protein. The important thing is that the generation of the spike protein means a body’s immune system then recognizes that same spike protein and is prepared to fend it off and protect against any future infection from the coronavirus.
While the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are the first to be widely utilized in the U.S., scientists have been studying them for decades for use against influenza, Zika, rabies and more. Numerous clinical studies have also used mRNA in the fight against some cancers, stimulating immune responses targeted at malignant tumors.
The mRNA vaccines have several benefits over the more commonly used vaccines, among which is the fact that they are able to be manufactured more quickly and with more readily available components, greatly speeding up manufacturing times, which will be critical to help control the spread of COVID-19.
Although the pandemic resulted in a significantly faster time period between the first trials and the emergency use authorization, this was in large part due to the vast resources and funds allocated to allow for faster development. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were tested on tens of thousands of enrollees in clinical trials. Although there have been documented cases of severe allergic reactions in some individuals who have received the vaccine, according to the CDC there have been no serious long-term safety concerns or side effects reported. Possible side effects include a sore arm, headache, fever or body aches, similar to those experienced with other vaccinations.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require a follow-up dose either three or four weeks, respectively, after the first dose for the most effective protection. Vaccination is recommended for everyone, including those with underlying medical conditions like heart or lung disease, diabetes or obesity — conditions that put people at increased risk of severe complications from COVID-19. Vaccination is also recommended for people who have already had COVID-19 since there are cases of people becoming infected more than once and it is unknown how long antibody protection following infection may last.
While some may argue in favor of natural immunity, the CDC recommends vaccination over simply allowing people to become infected with COVID-19 because of the risk of severe illness and because of the uncertainty surrounding how long natural immunity may last.
While the launch of the vaccine is welcome news, there are some important caveats. First, both vaccines are only authorized for use in adults — the Moderna for those 18 and over and the Pfizer for those over 16. Clinical trials did not include children, although such trials are now underway.
Second, those receiving vaccines should be monitored for about 30 minutes after receiving the shot for any type of allergic reaction. This is even more important after the second dose when severe allergic reactions are more likely.
Third, even after being vaccinated, people will need to continue to practice physical distancing, avoid indoor gatherings and wear masks until the pandemic is brought under control. It is as yet unknown if people who have been vaccinated can potentially continue to unknowingly spread the virus even though they themselves are immune. The tools that have been utilized to this point in the pandemic, including distancing, masking, hygiene and widespread testing, isolation and quarantine will continue to be the best tools available as it will take many months for vaccination efforts to reach a point that it is considered safe to resume “normal” activities.
It is also unknown as yet how long immunity created by the vaccine lasts and whether booster shots will be required on a regular basis.
Proffit said, “The vaccine is really great news and has us feeling optimistic and feeling like we’ve got a powerful tool. But getting those first shots into arms doesn’t signal the end of the pandemic. It won’t solve the whole pandemic right off. Introducing a vaccine into a population where the coronavirus is raging makes it less effective at preventing illness and death. A vaccine is like a fire hose — the size of the fire is still a bigger determinant of how much destruction occurs.” To continue with that analogy, at the present time in the United States, the state of the pandemic is a massive fire raging out of control, Proffit said.