Similarly to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Covid-19 vaccine has become a source of heated discussions, questions and concerns. State and local health officials are encouraging Alaskans to continue approaching their health decisions critically — and inviting people to talk about these concerns to medical professionals they trust.
“We have seen the pandemic — and the vaccines especially — make a real divide in our country,” said Dr. Mishelle Nace, a pediatrician at Tanana Valley Clinic and Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. “I think this is the time to pause and listen to people talk, get curious about why they might be saying or feeling the things they are and making the decisions they are, and try to understand and listen; not just preach.”
To analyze how many more residents will get vaccinated, the Department of Health and Social Services surveyed more than 1,000 Alaskans. Nearly half of responders said they hadn’t gotten vaccinated or booked an appointment; of them, half said they aren’t planning to and around 22% were unsure. Around 65% of the unvaccinated respondents to the DHSS’ survey were open to learning more about vaccines.
We invited Dr. Nace to answer some of the most common questions people in Fairbanks ask about Covid-19 vaccines.
Is Covid-19 a serious problem? How is it different from the flu?
“Viruses can act in different ways and be a burden on the community in more than one way,” Nace said. “For example, a flu is not a severe virus; it doesn’t kill people as much as Covid does. But what it does do is move around quite easily and spreads from person to person. Then you have viruses like Ebola. It doesn’t spread very easily, but if you get it, it’s pretty severe, and it kills most of the people who get it.”
“The thing about Covid is that it latches a little bit to both: it’s both like the flu in that it’s spread easily, but it also has an element of ‘it can kill you.’”
In the U.S. alone, around 580,000 people have died of Covid-19 between January 2020 and May 10, 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as Johns Hopkins University. The World Health Organization estimates that in a year, 290,000 to 650,000 people die of flu-related causes worldwide.
Should healthy people get the vaccine?
Nace said that many Alaskans who think they are healthy enough and won’t get seriously ill from the virus “are probably right. But a lot of people aren’t, and it’s a risk. There are a lot of people who are young and healthy who’ve gotten Covid, and, one, it’s taken their life; two, they accidentally have given it to someone they love; or three, they’ve gotten something like long Covid where it doesn’t just affect them in the moment, in that day or in that week — it goes on for months and months that it affects their ability to think clearly, to breathe comfortably, to do athletic participation.”
What is in the vaccine?
• Moderna, Pfizer mRNA vaccines: “The mRNA vaccines consist of four ingredients: mRNA — which is something you have in every cell of your body —, salts, sugars and a lipid shell — a fat bubble — surrounding the mRNA cell and keeping it stable,” State Public Health Physician Elizabeth Ohlsen explained back in December.
“The beauty of mRNA vaccines is how simple their ingredient list is,” Nace said. “I can tell you that there are no preservatives there, there is no mercury, there are no aborted fetal cells, there is no virus that can pass it on.”
• The Johnson & Johnson vaccine: “They are taking a little virus that they modified — it’s like a virus that can give you a cold but they’ve modified it so it can’t give you a cold. They use that little virus to train your cells how to make the virus spike proteins so that our immune system can recognize them. Similarly, you don’t have the aborted fetal cells in them, and you don’t have the mercury.”
What are the short-term effects of the vaccines?
In the first three days after getting the vaccine, some people feel soreness in their arms, fatigue, fever, headache and low energy levels, Nace said.
“Those are the effects of your immune system working and doing just what it needs to be able to do to prepare your body to fight off this virus should the real virus come along.”
What are then long-term side effects of the vaccines?
“As the studies go on, we are not seeing a lot of adverse effects,” Nace said.
In the United States, the FDA and CDC continue to monitor vaccine safety to make sure even long-term side effects are identified. Globally, many countries are also monitoring vaccine safety.
How does the vaccine affect fertility?
“There is this false claim that vaccines threaten a woman’s ability for her future ability to have children by attacking her placenta. There is some false information that the placenta has a type of protein similar to the spike in the immune system targeted by the vaccine, and that the vaccine was going to attack placenta. That was not based on any kind of medical information or experimentation; there is no scientific basis on that.
“In the original studies, pregnant women were not included in the initial phases, but life happens, and people from the original studies did get pregnant and didn’t see any adverse effects.”
Was the vaccine rushed?
In the emergency use authorization of the vaccines, there were no steps that were skipped; they did the same kind of trials that they would do in other studies, but, because this was given high priority, the difference was that the time between the phases and the time that they waited for the FDA to say “Do you approve this or not? — that was adjusted,” Nace said.
And then normally, a pharmaceutical company would need to wait until they are all done with studies, wait on the FDA, start manufacturing, and then start the distribution. What the companies were allowed to do was work on manufacturing and figure out distribution problems before it the vaccines were approved. They were able to cut down what might take years and get it done in months.
Why are other people and officials trying to “convince” others to vaccinate?
“We feel very strongly — based on the science, based on time, based on the studies, based on our current working with patients who got Covid — that getting the Covid vaccine saves lives,” Nace said.
“We are not going to hold people down and put the needle in their arm, but we will offer the information and be there to answer questions, and that’s our goal because we want to save their lives, we want to save the lives of the people they love, we want to get our community back working like it was before, and we want to improve the mental health of all people who are going through the same pandemic that you and I are.”
Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.