SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Last week, Utahns began receiving the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. But many questions still remain about the shot, such as how long it will provide protection and what the long-term side effects could be. Health and state leaders are also grappling with building public trust, with hopes that more Utahns will opt to take the vaccine once it becomes available to them.

Personal experience of the first Utahn to receive the FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine

For Christy Mulder, who is a Registered Nurse for the MICU at University of Utah Health, receiving both rounds of the COVID-19 vaccine last week provided a level of relief. She is a part of the thousands of Utah healthcare workers who’ve been battling the virus firsthand. She joined ABC4 News on the CW30 at 7 p.m. for an In Focus discussion Friday to talk about her experience.

“It’s been a hard 10 months. It’s been emotionally draining just to have these long days of work and see patients suffering and dying when you’re physically exhausted too,” said Mulder.

She added, “Some of the best days are when we see our patients get better, moving on, and leaving the ICU in better condition that they came in. But some of the worst days in the last year has been watching family members say goodbye to their loved ones over FaceTime or Zoom. No one should ever have to say goodbye to their loved ones over a screen.”

Three weeks ago, she was the very first person in Utah to receive the FDA-approved vaccine. Mulder said she did not experience any side effects from the first dose of the vaccine. However, a day after she received the second dose, she said she had fatigue and a headache.

“It was expected though. I was told about this. My colleagues felt it so I wasn’t surprised when I felt these symptoms,” she said. “This means that there is an end that’s coming to all of this and we’re starting to move forward. That’s really excited.”

FAQs about the COVID-19 vaccine

According to Dr. Stephen Goldstein, who is a Post-Doctorate Researcher of Human Genetics for the University of Utah Health, vaccines for illnesses such as smallpox, measles, and chickenpox typically use a live, weakened version of the virus for protection. However, the vaccine for COVID-19 is different because it uses mRNA.

“It seems to work great. The way this works is, instead of giving you a little bit of the virus, inactive or dead, it actually just gives your body the instructions to make the part of the virus we want our immune system to see and that’s the spike protein of the virus. Tons of antibodies, it seems like, especially after that second dose,” said Dr. Goldstein.

A common concern raised by the public is how much faster the vaccine for COVID-19 was developed and approved than other vaccines in the past. Dr. Goldstein explained that while this is the first time medical experts are using this type of technology on a vaccine, the research has been taking place for 20 to 25 years.

“The timing was right to use this technology to get a vaccine to market. The other part of it is that because the mRNA just relies on genetic code to make that spike protein, we actually don’t need the virus to do it. So we were able to start developing this vaccine before we even knew the virus was coming to the United States, just based on the genetic code being posted online,” said Dr. Goldstein.

As far as how long a person will be protected from COVID-19 once they’ve received both doses of the vaccination, experts said we still have to wait and see before they’ll know definitely.

“The longest anyone has been vaccinated up until this point was six months ago during the trials. But it does look like these vaccines produce as good as, if not a better immune response to infection itself,” said Dr. Goldstein. “Research shows immune response to people who have been infected with this virus, the vast majority of people, probably lasts a year, if not longer. It’s possible we’ll need further boosters. But I don’t expect that to be in a matter of months or within a year.”

He said as far as transmission, researchers are still waiting for more information before they can fully know how well the shot protects against carrying and transmitting the virus.

“Our expectation is that it probably does have an effect on transmission. Whether it completely blocks transmission in every person or not, I think is a bit more uncertain, which is why especially for now, people are continuing to be asked to be careful about gathering and continue to wear masks even after they’ve been vaccinated,” said Dr. Goldstein.

According to the World Health Organization, a variant of COVID-19 was detected in the United Kingdom on December 14th and just two weeks later, that variant was detected in the U.S. with Colorado being the first state. Pfizer said their research shows that their vaccine protects against two variants of the virus.

“I think there’s a pretty reasonable chance that we will have to update the vaccines. But I don’t think that’s going to happen in the immediate future. The new variant still seems to be susceptible. These new mRNA platforms are really amenable to rapidly updated and newly produced batches of vaccines. So I don’t think that’s something that has to happen every year like the influenza vaccine,” said Dr. Goldstein.

Dr. Goldstein said the latest data shows that 65 to 80 percent of the population needs to have immunity, either through vaccination or recovery from COVID-19 natural infection, in order to get the virus under control.

Challenges of COVID-19 vaccine messaging and getting the majority of the population to take the shot

While the vaccine rollout in the U.S. has been slower than anticipated, the other challenge state and health leaders are dealing with is getting the majority of the population to take the shot once it’s made available to them.

“It’s fair to be skeptical. But I would encourage people to look at the facts and weigh the risks and the benefits of getting the vaccine. If you’re healthy, then looking at the facts, you will see that this vaccine is safe and effective,” said Mulder.

Dr. Julie Kiefer, Associate Director of Science Communications at University of Utah Health said that the process of science itself can make the communication about science difficult. 

“There’s a misconception that science is truth and that every time you hear about some scientific study on the news, that it’s the answer. But what the real truth is that science is a very long process and COVID-19 is a great example of that because we’re living through it right now,” she said. “Our state of knowledge now is way farther along than it was 10 months ago. Science is incremental, it takes a long time.”

With the vaccine, one of the challenges health leaders face is the evolution in the messaging about masks has created confusion, misinformation, and frustration among the public.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO and CDC were not recommending masks, based on a number of reasons. Experts thought there was a low number of COVID-19 in the community and they were not aware about asymptomatic transmission at the time.

“What we know now is that masks are instrumental in preventing us from getting sick with COVID-19. The science around that now is very clear. But back in March, it was not so clear. Things were confusing,” said Dr. Kiefer.

She added, “Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s hard to know what they could’ve done differently. Yes, you have to have this top message at the time whether it’s wearing masks or not. But you also have to explain why because it was the best information they had at the time. While not everyone remembers those fine details, at the very least, it builds a cushion so when the messaging does change down the line, you can point back to that record.”

Communities of colors will be one of the demographics state and health leaders aim to build more trust and improve education with when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine. This is partly due to a history of them experiencing challenges and barriers in the medical setting due to a number of factors such as language barriers and discrimination.

“That’s something that will take a long time. I think part of it is understanding there are facts. But there’s also trust, emotions, and relationships that are important in getting messages across. Some of this communication about COVID-19 and the vaccine needs to come from trusted people within these different communities so that they can trust the messenger as well as the message themselves,” said Dr. Kiefer.

To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Mulder, Dr. Goldstein, and Dr. Kiefer, click on the video at the top of the article.

Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.