Fact from Fiction: Coronavirus vaccines discussed by local health experts

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — East Tennessee State University hosted its second webinar Coronavirus: Separating Fact from Fiction on Tuesday as the nation hurdles through the vaccination phases of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Moving through the phases

One speaker included Dr. Michelle D. Fiscus, who broke down the most recent phases of the vaccination process, including the reasoning behind the decision making process in regard to whom was covered by each phase.

“Phase 1B focuses on teachers and child care workers not so much because of their risk of exposure or that they’re dying, but because of the importance of schools in so many aspects of our lives in Tennessee,” Fiscus said. “We know that we’ve had significant learning loss, that when schools close it’s usually because teachers are absent, and schools can’t operate on safely when that happens.”

Fiscus went on to address what many education leaders call “the COVID crash,” a plummet in test scores and grades as a result of different learning environments and even lack of access to learning material in rural areas.

Another concern within the schooling aspect of the pandemic were the resources included within education systems: food, socialization and supervision while parents work to provide the essentials.

“So, when we vaccinate our teachers, yes, we can lower their risk, but we can also help prevent them from needing to be quarantined and kept out of the classroom, and we can help keep the schools open,” Fiscus said. “When we keep schools open, parents can go to work; children have meals and supervision during the day.”

The final phases include those who are considered high-risk due to health conditions and also those living in congregate settings. This includes college dormitories and correctional facilities.

“Moving into Phase 1C, which is individuals with high-risk health conditions that place them at higher risk for having severe complications or death from COVID-19,” Fiscus said. “Then the last of these phases are people who are living in congregate living situations, so those are college dorms and people who are in the correction system or in group homes where they could otherwise live by themselves but for whatever circumstance are living in group homes, and most recently we just acquitted the staff of overnight camps in that bucket as well.”

While the above includes the final qualifications for an earlier vaccination, Fiscus reveal millions of Americans don’t fall into any phases and still await the opportunity to be vaccinated.

“That’s not to say that the third phase is the least important or the last groups to get vaccines; there’s actually still millions of people behind this third phase,” Fiscus said “It’s just that we wanted to make sure that we were taking care of those health care workers — people who we need to keep the state functioning, that critical infrastructure folks and those that were at highest risk for transmitting disease.”

And then the age factor stepped into play.

“It wasn’t very long before we realized that this framework wasn’t really addressing what was driving morbidity and mortality, our hospitalizations and deaths in Tennessee and that we also really needed to have some age-based criteria,” Fiscus said. “Throughout this pandemic, it’s really individuals over the age of 65 who have been driving hospitalizations and deaths in the state.”

Distribution and progressing forward

The race to vaccinate Americans continues, and within a couple of months, Tennessee health workers have administered over a million doses.

“In just barely over two months, we’ve had almost 1.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines arrive in Tennessee and we’ve put about 1.1 million of those into arms of Tennesseans,” Fiscus said.

This means 81% of vaccines within the state have been administered. That’s roughly 19% that didn’t make it into the arms of Tennesseans out of caution.

“We will always have some un-administered doses because vaccines land in the state four days a week, and it takes some time to get those PODs operational,” Fiscus said.

The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored in extreme cold temperatures to upkeep its effectiveness against the novel coronavirus, while the Moderna vaccine has a short shelf life. The upcoming Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which awaits approval, can be stored in the refrigerator for a longer amount of time without losing its efficacy.

“This vaccine can be kept in a refrigerator, and the Pfizer vaccine has to be kept under ultra-cold, -70 degrees Celsius conditions, it’s pretty fragile and fussy to deal with,” Fiscus. “The Moderna vaccine likewise has a short shelf-life in the refrigerator, but the J&J vaccines can be kept in the refrigerator for a month, and it only takes one dose instead of two, so we’re very excited to start getting this vaccine as early as next week and being able to deploy it across the state.”

Dr. Jonathan Moorman, vice chair of research and scholarship, professor and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine was also part of the Tuesday night panel discussing coronavirus vaccines.

“Here we are, a year later, and we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the diagnosis, about the treatment, and now about the prevention of this particular coronavirus, but there’s still a lot of things that we don’t know and I think it’s going to take many years for us to really understand this the way we really need to,” Moorman said

Three types of vaccines are being developed – Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.

“But every form we’re talking about is really just a vehicle, it can be, you might think of it as like a plane, a train, a car or whatever – they’re all doing the same thing, they’re bringing it over to the host’s immune response so that you can respond to it,” he added.

People should not fear the COVID-19 vaccines, Moorman said.

“As an immunologist, I want to remind people that our bodies were made for this. We’re made to react to foreign proteins to protect us, it’s just the way we’re made from the moment we come out to the moment we die, our body is trying to protect itself against foreign invaders and all we’re doing with vaccines is imitating the virus in terms of being a foreign invader. I don’t think people should be that fearful of something that our body does every day all day long. If we can’t do it, we see those patients, I see those patients who cannot develop those immune responses, they get very very sick, they are in the hospital. You need that host-immune response, it’s normal. So, I don’t think people should be afraid of getting it in that they’re taking something foreign into their body. If you go to any fast food place in Johnson City, you’re going to be putting something foreign into your body, I can guarantee,” he added.

Dr. David Kirschke, medical director at Northeast Regional Health Office, Tennessee Department of Health said in the webinar that NERO has administered a little over 42,000 doses of the vaccine over the seven-county region, not including Sullivan County.

“We’re still trying to determine what the difference is between vaccine-induced immunity and natural immunity. If you have coronavirus disease, we think you do have some immunity afterwards, unfortunately getting coronavirus disease is not a great way to get immunity because it can cause serious illness and you have the risk of giving it to other people who can have serious illness, so vaccine is the safer choice.”

He said it’s unclear how long someone would need to wait to get a booster dose after either natural immunity or taking the vaccine.

“The J&J vaccine in studies was slightly less effective, which the manufacturer is saying is because it’s been tested later, while there’s more variant strains circulating, and in places where variant strains have been circulating,” Kirschke said. “All of the vaccines are essentially 100% effective at preventing hospitalization and death.”

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