COVID-19 Vaccine

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Seventy years ago, my father had polio. In those days, polio outbreaks often caused quarantines, restricted travel, interrupted commerce, and kept children indoors much of the summer. Fortunately, my father emerged unscathed, but Franklin D. Roosevelt and some other 15,000 people every year did not. Thanks to vaccines and aggressive immunization programs, the U.S. has been polio-free since 1979, and charity organizations like Rotary (I am a past president of the West County Rotary Club) continue to work to eliminate it worldwide.

Happily, for us, vaccines for COVID-19 may become available any day now. In October, Governor Larry Hogan released a two-phase draft plan for distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, which can be viewed on the governor's website at www.governor.maryland.gov. The plan is to distribute the vaccine first to those most at risk: frontline first responders and health care workers evaluating and caring for COVID-19 patients; staff and residents of nursing homes, long-term care facilities, and assisted living facilities; and essential workers, including public safety, education, and staff in congregate living facilities.

When the vaccine will be distributed in Phase Two depends on a number of factors, mostly the availability of the vaccine and how many Phase One individuals remain to be vaccinated, but it appears likely that vaccines will not be administered to everyone desirous of one until sometime in 2021.

Immunization protects an individual by prompting their immune system to fight a disease. Essentially, the immune system remembers the trigger - whether infection or vaccine - and launches a quick and effective response. Perhaps more importantly, vaccines protect the population at large by making it harder for the disease to spread. COVID-19, like many infectious diseases, is often spread by infected persons before they show symptoms.

If a vaccinated person can't catch the disease, they can't unwittingly pass it on. At some point, enough of a population is immune to a disease (whether by vaccine or infection) to make it unlikely for a disease to spread; this is called herd immunity. The threshold percentage for herd immunity varies from disease to disease based largely on how contagious it is. For highly contagious measles, it is 94 percent. In 2000, measles was considered eradicated in the U.S. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control, thanks largely to a spike in unvaccinated children in the U.S., herd immunity to that disease has been reduced. In 2019 alone, outbreaks in 31 states resulted in almost 1,300 cases of measles.

Even vaccine experts often acknowledge that vaccines aren't perfect, but they are the best defense we have. Some have side effects, most commonly fever and swelling. According to some reports, this is especially true of the coronavirus vaccines. Earlier reports that vaccines cause autism have been discredited, but public pressure over vaccine risks has led to safer vaccines. In fact, coronavirus vaccines are made not with weakened germs, like the measles vaccine, or dead germs like the polio shot, but from messenger RNA, a first in the vaccine industry. According to the CDC, mRNA vaccines “teach our cells how to make a protein — or even just a piece of a protein — that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies." The coronavirus vaccine instructs our bodies to "make a harmless piece of what is called the 'spike protein.' The spike protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19.” The CDC further points out that such vaccines cannot give someone coronavirus, nor do they interact with our DNA.

There will be those who cannot take the coronavirus vaccine due to medical concerns, and those who refuse it due to religious conviction, personal beliefs, or concerns about vaccine safety. To achieve herd immunity and hopefully eradicate this disease or at least this pandemic, most of the population will need to be immunized. I am no doctor - I encourage you all to discuss the vaccine with your health care provider. In the meantime, in the words of Governor Hogan, "wear the damn mask."

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