What D.C. residents should know about the COVID-19 vaccine and what to expect

This content is provided by DC Health.
The past year has been a learning experience for all of us, most notably in our knowledge and expertise as it relates to the COVID-19 virus. But with the development of new vaccines to combat this virus and communication from the White House that the entire U.S. population are currently eligible, new questions begin to emerge around the vaccine itself and what to expect.

Carmen Wilkes-Ball is a retired D.C. area resident who recently received the second dose of her COVID-19 vaccine. Wilkes-Ball decided to get the vaccine, among many reasons, to show others the importance of being protected against COVID-19.

“Hopefully by me doing what I’m doing, it inspires other family members along with friends and just individuals in general knowing that it’s not the Boogeyman, it’s about prevention,” said Wilkes-Ball.

Her advice to other folks like herself who are eligible to get the vaccine is simple.

“We’re responsible for our own health and well-being, so if prevention is available, it is better to participate than not participate.”

And Wilkes-Ball wasn’t alone in her sentiments; in fact Dr. Ankoor Shah, Principal Senior Deputy Director and the COVID-19 Vaccine Director at the D.C. Department of Health, shared similar thoughts about the vaccine when speaking to WTOP.

We spoke with Dr. Shah to get a better idea of the science behind the COVID-19 vaccine, how it works, and why there are multiple versions of it.

What exactly is the COVID vaccine and why are there multiple versions of it?

Dr. Shah explained that the three different COVID-19 vaccines currently in production and distribution aim to mimic the way your body might react if infected with the real virus.

“I think the best way to think about it is to think about a ball with the virus inside of it, and these little spikes outside of that ball,” said Dr. Shah. “When that goes into our body, what our body does is look at the spikes and say ‘something is wrong’ and builds up antibodies to help fight it.” But the virus inside that ball still makes you really sick.

In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, the vaccine just makes the “spikes” without the actual virus, thus tricking your body into mimicking its response to the real virus. So you create antibodies that are then stored inside your body waiting to attack if you do become infected with the real virus.

Each version of the COVID-19 vaccine currently available works in a similar fashion, some just in slightly different ways.

How do we know it’s safe? And what are the side effects?

Even though each of these vaccines was created in a relatively short amount of time, it’s important to know that not a single step was skipped in vetting them for wide distribution.

“I always like to say, the reason why they were made so quickly is because the people in business suits were able to move faster, but the people in lab coats (the white coats) actually did everything by the book,” said Dr. Shah.

Both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control independently reviewed the data of the clinical trials with 30,000 to 50,000 people involved. Ultimately, their determination was that all three vaccines are safe and effective.

But when it comes to safety, people are also concerned about side effects they might experience after receiving the vaccine.

According to Dr. Shah, the most common short-term side effects include soreness of the arm, feeling a bit unwell, and experiencing a slight fever or maybe some body aches. Typically, this lasts about a day or two and is actually a good sign that the vaccine is working, since the person’s immune system is responding. As for long-term effects, doctors studied these over the course of two months and found very few adverse effects.

“What we know about vaccines in general is that over 90 to 95 percent of adverse effects occur within the first two months. So if things don’t happen within those first two months, you have a pretty good bet that they won’t happen in the long-term. But we also have these surveillance systems in place, so we are always monitoring,” said Dr. Shah.

Why is it important for people to get it?

Dr. Shah explained the reason the vaccine is so critical is not just for our own protection, but that of family members, friends and the surrounding community that we live, work and interact with every day.

“When I think about why I would get the vaccine, why I would want someone else to get the vaccine, it’s really to protect yourself, protect your loved ones, your family and your community,” said Dr. Shah.

There are a few ways we can all do our part, he adds. First when it’s our turn to get the vaccine, it’s important we get it and second, by talking to our friends, neighbors and families about the vaccine and sharing our own experience and why we feel it’s so important to get vaccinated. By taking these steps, we build confidence in the vaccine for everyone in our communities.

Who’s eligible to get it right now, and when will other groups become eligible? Who is ineligible?

There’s been a lot of uncertainty around who is actually eligible to get the vaccine and who isn’t. Dr. Shah says that when it comes to eligibility, there are “two big buckets” healthcare folks are thinking about when it comes to prioritization.

The first is a medical term “morbidity and mortality,” or more simply put, the people at higher risk who are more likely to get seriously ill or die from the virus. This bucket typically includes nursing home residents, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. The second bucket is “preserving societal function,” which refers to essential workers, such as healthcare workers, teachers and childcare workers, grocery store workers, and emergency personnel.

If you’re a DC resident and are unsure what category you fall under or if you are eligible, Dr. Shah says the best way to stay up-to-date with the current requirements is to visit vaccinate.dc.gov and sign up for email alerts on when DC is moving to the next vaccination phase.

On Monday, April 19, all District Residents 16 years and older will be eligible to receive the vaccine.

How effective is the vaccine? How long will my immunity to COVID-19 last?

We’ve heard a lot about different variants of the virus more recently in media coverage. Fortunately, all three of the current COVID-19 vaccines are extremely safe and effective when it comes to protecting against the virus in all its current forms.

“The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines tell a fantastic story, with one of the highest effective rates I’ve seen of protecting against symptomatic COVID-19. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine showed 100% effectiveness against death from COVID-19, so all three vaccines are incredibly effective and safe to take even in this environment of variants,” said Dr. Shah.

But even once vaccinated, Dr. Shah cautions people not to let their guard down. It’s still incredibly important to maintain safe behaviors of wearing masks, social distancing, and doing our part to keep ourselves and others safe.

What we do know is that it’s highly unlikely within the first 90 days of getting the vaccine that you would get infected with COVID-19, based on guidance from the CDC and DC Health. Although, both organizations may continue to adjust their public health guidance for those individuals who have been vaccinated, such as quarantining after exposure.

What is likely is that these vaccines won’t be the only ones we get. We may be looking at another booster shot in the summer or the fall.

“I think for all of us, it would be important just to be prepared; these two shots or one shot we got may not be the only ones we get in the next six to twelve months,” said Dr. Shah. “We may need to get a booster here and there, which is totally fine.”

Where can I find reliable information about COVID-19 and vaccines?

Visit vaccinate.dc.gov or call (855) 363-0333 for information on vaccine coverage and how vaccinations are progressing across the District of Columbia.

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