As frontline healthcare workers are being vaccinated with new COVID-19 vaccines and plans are underway for widespread vaccination for people throughout Utah and the nation, Dr. Todd Vento, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, joined ABC 4 News, to answer some questions about the vaccine and what people should know.

How do COVID-19 vaccines work?

Vaccines help the body develop immunity by training the immune system to recognize and remember how to respond to the disease-causing part of a virus. Vaccines traditionally contain either weakened or inactivated (killed) viruses or purified, signature proteins of viruses, according to Dr. Vento.

In the COVID-19 response, some manufacturers are making vaccines in new ways, using messenger RNA (mRNA). mRNA vaccines “teach our cells to make a protein, or a piece of a protein, that triggers an immune response inside our bodies,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.”

mRNA vaccine does not include live virus and cannot give someone COVID-19. Nor do these vaccines interact with our own DNA in any way. Instead, our cells break down and get rid of the mRNA after it receives the “instructions.”

Why do we need vaccines for protection?

The way out of the pandemic is to build herd immunity. Herd immunity happens when a large portion of a community (the “herd”) becomes immune to a disease, making person-to-person spread of illness unlikely. This helps protect the whole community.

With COVID-19, we’re seeing that people who are infected lose their immunity three to nine months after having the virus, making herd immunity without a vaccine almost impossible. If COVID-19 vaccines are found to be safe, effective, and long-lasting, vaccines could be our way to successfully achieve herd immunity.

Are COVID-19 vaccines effective?

A vaccine must be at least 50 percent effective (reduces the risk of infection by one half) for it to be granted FDA authorization for emergency use.

Another way to say this is: you are half as likely to become infected compared to those who are not vaccinated. Any level of effectiveness can help slow the spread. Early data indicates that some COVID-19 vaccines being developed may be around 95 percent effective.

Because we don’t yet know how effective the vaccines are and for how long, individuals will need to continue all other prevention methods including masking, social distancing, and hand hygiene.

Are COVID-19 vaccines safe?

Several vaccines are currently being developed, with the first up for authorization from the FDA within days. The FDA will only approve vaccines if they meet strict safety and effectiveness standards, said Dr. Vento.

The FDA, CDC, and Intermountain Healthcare are committed to being fully transparent about any approved vaccine(s), include effectiveness and any risks or side effects.

The FDA and CDC have not indicated any potential side effects from vaccines under exploration at this time. Just as with any vaccination, there could be mild side effects like mild pain, swelling, or redness at the site of injection; mild fever; chills; feeling tired; headache; and muscle and joint aches. These are all signs that the immune system has been activated to create immune cells that protect against the virus.

Who will get a COVID-19 vaccine first? When can I expect to get it?

Supplies will be limited for a while after the FDA first authorizes vaccines.

The Utah Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that healthcare professionals most likely to come in contact with COVID-19 and long-term care facility residents should be vaccinated first; followed by remaining healthcare workers, emergency responders, people at risk of serious illness, and people age 65+; and then the general public.

According to the departments of health, all people who want to be vaccinated in Utah, Idaho, and Nevada should be able to access vaccines by summer 2021.

For more information you can visit the Intermountain Healthcare’s website.

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