In light of the increasing number of vaccinations available in Ohio, The Academy Life sat down with US biology teacher, Dr. Lester, and our school nurses, Ms. Fireman and Ms. Hoagland, to learn more about the science and effectiveness of the three vaccines: Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer.
Pulling from both research and experience, our experts on Covid-19 are in agreement: it is safe to get your vaccine.
Dr. Lester, who joined our community in 2016, serves as the science department chair and has a B.S. in biology from The Ohio State University, as well as a M.S. and a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from the University of Toledo. Ms. Fireman began working in 2012 and holds a B.S.N. from The University of Charleston and a Licensed School Nurse Certificate from Wright State University. Ms. Hoagland has served at Columbus Academy since 2002 and holds a B.S.N. from The Ohio State University and a School Nurse License from Wright State University.
How do the COVID-19 vaccines work?
Dr. Lester: Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines. mRNA stands for ‘messenger ribonucleic acid,’ and it encodes for the instructions for your body to make a specific protein (Spike protein) on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
When your body makes this viral protein, it is recognized as not human, and your body develops antibodies to it. These antibodies protect you if you are later exposed to the virus. Some vaccines inject the protein itself, but mRNA vaccines inject the instructions needed for your body to make the protein. After making the protein, your body will destroy the mRNA. The mRNA does not stay in your body. It is temporary and does not mix into your genetic code. The mRNA vaccines are not alive and cannot give you or anyone else COVID-19. The vaccine does not make you contagious.
The COVID-19 vaccines are not the first mRNA vaccines; mRNA vaccines have been made for flu, rabies, CMV (cytomegalovirus), and Zika viruses. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is an adenovaccine. An adenovaccine virus is a virus that has been altered so that it cannot make you sick, it cannot replicate, it cannot incorporate into your DNA – so many crucial components of the virus’ genome have been removed. However, a specific part of the SARS-CoV-2 viral genome is included – the portion that encodes for the Spike protein on the virus. The adenovaccine that delivers this information to make the Spike protein into our bodies functions like a Trojan horse. Once the Spike protein is generated, our bodies produce antibodies against it and protect you should you later be exposed to the virus. Production and availability of the J&J vaccine adds a large supply of vaccine.”
What are the differences between the types of COVID-19 vaccines available?
Dr. Lester: Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are two-doses. This means that you must receive both doses to achieve the 94-95% protection that was seen in the trials. The endpoint studies of the vaccine trials were the severity of symptomatic COVID. Pfizer is approved for ages 16+, Moderna for 18+.
16-55 yo: 96% efficacy
18-<65 yo: 96% efficacy
>55 yo: 94% efficacy
65+: 86% efficacy
Two doses given 21 days apart
Two doses given 28 days apart
Stable at refrigerator temp for 5 days; requires storage at very cold temps (-112F)
Stable at refrigerator temp for 30 days
The J&J vaccine is a single dose vaccine and has shown 72% protection against the development of symptomatic COVID. The J&J vaccine is also more stable in refrigerated conditions for a longer period of time than the mRNA vaccines. This vaccine is available for those aged 18+.
Nurse Fireman: Sometimes with differences in efficacy of the vaccines, it can be that all these new strains and variants coming out. Those were not initially tested because they weren’t around. All these vaccines were developed on the initial COVID infection–not any of the new strains. So, I think the variants do play a part in the efficacy of these vaccines. But still, I would say if a vaccine says it is 70% effective, I still think that’s better than nothing.
Nurse Hoagland: It is better than nothing, because what they’re saying is that it is 100% effective against death and severe hospitalization.
Nurse Fireman: Yes, and that is really most of the problem why I think, we had the shut down because so many people were dying and so many people were being hospitalized. Hospitals were overwhelmed, and when you can’t have people in your hospital for heart attacks, surgeries or something, and the hospital is full of COVID patients, then it can’t sustain itself.
Are the vaccines safe?
Dr. Lester: Though the vaccines seemed to be developed quickly, no steps were skipped. All the vaccines going for approval must meet the high U.S. standards of safety for making vaccines. All of the COVID-19 vaccines that could be used in the U.S. were supported by funds from the government, large companies, or both. These funds enabled things to speed up:
Trial enrollment: If you can increase the number of staff that are recruiting patients, you can enroll a lot of people into a trial in a shorter period of time. The aforementioned funds helped trials quickly enroll tens of thousands of participants.
Manufacturing: Funds help increase manufacturing buildings, warehouses and employees. In addition, mRNA vaccines can be made quickly and easily because they do not involve growing the virus to make the virus protein for a vaccine. These vaccines do NOT involve any live virus stem.
Distribution: Funds enable produced vaccines to be shipped rapidly around the U.S. and around the world on a regular basis.
Additionally, this is not the first coronavirus that has been researched. In recent years, SARS (2002) and MERS (2012) outbreaks have impacted global populations and thus research on these coronaviruses has been ongoing. The process of vaccine development for COVID-19 did not start from scratch. The global shift of the scientific community has contributed to allowing this process to occur more quickly than we have seen in the past.
Nurse Fireman: The vaccine is very safe. I’ve heard people say, “Oh people have died from the vaccine.” No one has died from getting the vaccine. I have not read any articles, not seen anything on the news about people dying from the COVID vaccine. The vaccine is so safe. Pretty much every vaccine is down to such a science that these new vaccines have the mRNA with the targeted proteins which get to your immune system faster.
There is all this new bioscience, and it is such a smarter vaccine than any vaccine we’ve ever had. I mean, honestly, I didn’t even think twice about it. I had no concerns about it at all. . . . The great thing about this vaccine is that most people who have any side effects, it is 24 hours and that’s it. Some people do have interactions and allergies to it and things like that, but that’s pretty rare.
What information should people know before getting vaccinated?
Nurse Fireman: Currently, Becky [Nurse Hoagland] and I just sent out links for some places in Chillicothe and Zanesville, one from Mount Carmel health services, that do have available vaccines for 16 and over.
If you’re 18 and over, you can get Johnson & Johnson which is one dose, which would be really nice for high school kids because I know with their schedules, sports, and other extracurriculars, you don’t want to wait either 3 weeks or a month for the second dose. You do not need parental consent.
Moderna is also 18 and over, and you do not need parent consent. You can schedule that, but you need another shot after 4 weeks.
If you’re 16 and over, you can get Pfizer, but you do need a parent to go with you, so that’s another thing to think about. The next shot is in three weeks. Things you want to keep in mind is you don’t want to have any other vaccines 2 weeks prior. So, you shouldn’t get your meningococcal shot or a booster for your Tdap or anything like that. You shouldn’t have any other vaccines, so if they’re thinking about getting their meningococcal, you should wait, the COVID vaccine is more important right now.
The other thing to think about is, when you go, obviously wear short sleeves because they’ll put it in your arm, right in your deltoid muscle. People have had varying degrees of symptoms afterwards. For some people, just their arms are really sore, so you don’t want to take an Advil or Tylenol before you go get your vaccine, but you can definitely treat your symptoms afterwards. There have been people who have had high fevers after their vaccine. They feel achy, they feel tired. That is more after the second vaccine.
Keep in mind, there have been kids that have gotten their first dose and have still gotten Covid. Getting your first dose does not mean you can go crazy without your mask on. You have to be fully vaccinated, which is two weeks after your second dose of either Pfizer or Moderna or two weeks after your J&J shot.
Dr. Lester: On the day of your vaccine, remember to dress in layers, and have a short sleeved shirt on for ease of receiving the vaccine in your upper arm/shoulder. So far, vaccine trials have shown that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines are highly protective and generate a strong immune response. Sometimes when vaccines produce an immune response, there may be side effects that feel like the flu, but this does not mean that you are infected or contagious. Instead, these symptoms are simply a sign that your body is successfully generating an immune response to provide you protection. Symptoms that individuals experience will vary from person to person. Expect some symptoms after vaccination. Both mRNA COVID-19 vaccines commonly cause mild-to-moderate non-infectious “flu-like” symptoms.
Pfizer mRNA vaccine
Percent of people with any symptoms: 59% after 1st dose, 70% after 2nd dose
Types of symptoms: fatigue (63%), headache (55%), muscle aches (38%), chills (32%), joint pain (24%), fever (14%)
Pain, redness and sore arm at site of injection
Moderna mRNA vaccine
Percent of people with any symptoms: 55% after 1st dose, 79% after 2nd dose
Types of symptoms: fatigue (69%), headache (63%), muscle aches (60%), joint pain (45%), chills (43%)
Pain, redness and sore arm at site of injection
Johnson & Johnson vaccine symptoms may also include: fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, chills, fever, nausea. Also pain, redness and sore arm at site of injection.
It is worth mentioning that it seems that the second dose induces more of a symptomatic immune response than the first dose. You’re likely to feel worse after #2 than you do after #1, particularly if you have not had COVID before.
Why should students get vaccinated?
Nurse Fireman: A lot of people say, “Well, why am I going to get vaccinated if I can still get COVID?” That’s a great question. The problem is, anyone can get COVID after getting vaccinated, but the chances are less likely and the most important thing is that you will not get sick.
For your age group, the kids have not been getting that sick. Your symptoms are very minimal. You may not even know that you have it if you’ve been vaccinated. But, for somebody like your parents or grandparents, that is going to keep them so much safer with everyone being vaccinated. So I guess the takeaway is that you can still possibly get it, but you’re not going to get very sick, and your loved ones are definitely not going to get sick or hospitalized hopefully. You’re helping so many people by getting the vaccine.
For more information:
Search vaccine locations: https://vaccinefinder.org/