Updated: Feb 4, 2021
Jarita Hagans, M.D.-February 3, 2021
I was skeptical about the vaccine at first. I didn’t really know how it worked and I was concerned about Operation Warp Speed and how quickly the vaccine was being made. I now know that the mRNA vaccine technology is not new, and has actually been worked on for years. I was happy to learn that a black woman, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, is the lead scientist for coronavirus research at the National Institutes of Health and was integral in the development of the vaccine.
Then something else happened that made me change my mind. The COVID-19 cases exploded. We had a handful of COVID patients at my Urgent Care before the holidays. But after Thanksgiving, it seemed like every other patient was there for COVID testing. The clinic was packed every day, with patients waiting in line before the door opened and waiting in their cars because there wasn’t enough room for them in the socially distanced waiting room. In the exam room, patients receiving a rapid test were shocked by their positive results. The lab review list was full of COVID positive patients to call and tell to quarantine and stay away from their family members. I would go into an exam room and see three to five members of one family were exposed because they decided to have a seemingly harmless, small family get together. The exposures were endless: a COVID positive family member, co-worker or friend, a night out at a bar, a trip to another state. Some patients swore they hadn’t been anywhere, but the people they live with brought it home to them. I started seeing lungs covered with white patches on chest x-rays. I had follow-up appointments with patients who were supposedly post-COVID who were still having symptoms. They wanted to know when their cough or shortness of breath would stop, when they would get their energy back or when their sense of smell or taste would return. I truly didn’t know. No one does. I go into the room with an N-95 mask and face shield for everyone with any type of respiratory or cold symptoms and I wash and hand sanitize so much my hands are starting to peel. But I knew I needed to do something more to protect myself. I started seriously looking into getting the vaccine.
Many people have messaged me asking which vaccine is better. That’s hard to say. Everyone responds to medications differently. But the efficacy, or how well the vaccine works, is pretty similar. The Pfizer vaccine efficacy is 95 percent. The number is 94.1 percent for Moderna. You can read more about each vaccine on the CDC website here Information about the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine | CDC and here Information about the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine | CDC .
There has also been some skepticism on what the vaccine is actually doing in your body. There have been conspiracy theories on it changing your DNA. This is not possible, because it doesn’t enter the nucleus, or command center, of the cell. But here is how it really works. Both vaccines are based on mRNA, or messenger RNA. This is a particle that takes information inside the cells of your body. In this case, the information is instructions on how to make a spike protein. The spike protein is something found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. It is like hair from a dog. It isn’t the whole dog, but you can recognize it when you see it. Some people can have an allergic response to the dog hair, even though the dog isn’t around. In the same way, the spike protein can cause your body to have an immune response, even if the whole coronavirus isn’t around. The mRNA doesn’t incorporate itself into your DNA. It’s like an Amazon delivery driver. It drops off the package and disappears.
Messenger RNA doesn’t last long once inside the cell. It breaks down shortly after delivering its message. This is one of the reasons for the strict storage, refrigeration and transportation standards and why the vaccine has to be given in a certain amount of time once the doses are mixed. Once the immune response happens, your body basically puts up a wanted poster for the COVID virus. If it ever enters your body again, your immune system will call the police. The police are various immune cells that will come and destroy the criminal, COVID-19.
Everyone is concerned about side effects. It is impossible to know who will have which one. Some of the expected side effects include fever, chills, body aches, fatigue, headache or pain and redness at the site of the injection. Thankfully, I only had minor side effects. I received the Pfizer vaccine. About two hours after the vaccine, I became really sleepy and needed to lie down. This happened with both doses. The first time, my arm was really sore. I took some Tylenol and went to sleep. The next day, I finally read the vaccine information sheet which recommended moving or exercising your vaccine arm to get rid of the soreness. I did this with the second vaccine and the soreness was much less.
Who is eligible? The Pfizer vaccine has been approved for ages 16 and up. Moderna is meant for those 18 years or older. People who have had COVID 19 can get the vaccine, but they need to wait 90 days if they were treated with monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma (blood products from a person recovered from COVID). Who should not get the vaccine? Anyone who has had an allergic reaction to polysorbate or polyethylene glycol (an ingredient in Miralax) should not receive the vaccine. People who had a severe or allergic reaction to their first dose of COVID-19 should not receive a second dose. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has detailed information on special populations, but in general breastfeeding women, immunocompromised patients and patients on chemotherapy can be vaccinated. They will need to be counseled by their healthcare provider on what to expect. For example, immunocompromised persons may not develop a full response to the vaccine.
The rollout of the vaccines has been state-dependent. So far it has included health care workers, first responders, those in the school system and people over 65 and other vulnerable populations. There has been a lot of confusion on where to go for the vaccine, registration sites have been crashing and some people who are not tech savvy have been having trouble even getting registered. I’m hoping for a new federal plan so that the nationwide rollout can run more smoothly.
The first time I had my vaccine, I showed up at my appointment time and basically walked straight in after a brief check-in process. For my second dose, I waited outside in the cold for about 1.5 hours in a line that was two miles long and snaked around the hospital grounds. The long lines and wait times mean that more people are getting vaccinated, but it also means that we need a better system of delivery on the state and national levels.
Jarita Hagans, M.D. is a board-certified family physician, foodie, gardener and author. She attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. for undergraduate and medical school. Afterwards, she completed a surgery internship at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital in Roanoke, Virginia. Eastern Virginia Medical School at Portsmouth Family Medicine is where she received her Family Medicine training.
After residency, she practiced medicine at a community clinic in post hurricane Katrina New Orleans and developed a love for cooking, gardening and natural remedies. She is rolling those passions into an online meal prep business for busy professional women and a soon-coming brick and mortar Family Practice office in Washington, DC.