Monday, March 1, 2021

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COVID-19: To vaccinate or not to vaccinate

My daughters and I climbed Hinhan Kaga, or Black Elk Peak, a few years back, when the pine beetles were killing many of the trees. We saw a lot of little holes in the bark of dead and dying trees. Some holes had sap running down, some were dry. Sometimes there was a little bug caught in the sap.

We passed a park ranger coming down the mountain. He said that the sap was the trees’ defense. Normally when beetles bore into the bark the trees expel them, push them out with their sticky sap, which traps and kills the beetles. But if there are a large number of beetles and no water in the ground because of drought, then the tree can’t make enough sap to push all the beetles out. The tree is overwhelmed. 

A vaccine is to your body as a deep, ground-soaking rain is to those trees. It strengthens your defenses. The vaccine trains your body to withstand exposure to much higher levels of virus without becoming infected. 

Before vaccination, exposure to a very small number of viral particles can infect you. After vaccination, it would take astronomical numbers of viral particles to overwhelm your defenses. After vaccination, our bodies can repel the invader. 

Below we answer several common questions about COVID-19 vaccines:

Can you get COVID-19 from the vaccine? 

No. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines being administered at IHS and the Mobridge Regional Hospital, respectively, are both mRNA vaccines. This type of vaccine can’t infect you because it doesn’t actually contain the virus. 

COVID-19 infection happens when the virus’s “key” – the spike on the outside of the virus – opens one of your cells. Then the virus can enter the cell and take it over. If the key (the spike protein) doesn’t work, then cell doesn’t open and the virus can’t infect you.

mRNA vaccines don’t contain any virus. The vaccine simply tells your body how to make a spike protein like the one on the outside of the virus. Once your body learns to defend against the spike, you are protected. 

Does it work?

Yes. Unlike a natural infection response where your body develops defenses to all of the various parts of the virus, because an mRNA vaccine only teaches your body how to fight off the one critical part of the virus that’s needed to infect you, your antibody response is stronger, unified around defeating that one foe. 

Thus, both the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are about 95% effective. By contrast, seasonal flu vaccines are about 40-60% effective, pneumonia vaccines are about 50-60% effective, and tetanus shots are about 75% effective.

Is it safe?

Yes. Both mRNA vaccines are like a computer program, they are a set of instructions for your cells. They do not contain the virus, they do not interact with your own DNA, and they leave your system within hours. 

But weren’t these pushed through too fast?

It is accelerated, but still trustworthy, for two reasons. First, this is the second coronavirus pandemic in this century. The first was SARS, in 2003. Since that time, companies have been working on vaccine technology specifically for coronaviruses. When COVID-19 emerged, they simply needed to adapt existing vaccine mechanisms to this new version of coronavirus. 

The second reason has to do with the fast spread of COVID-19. Vaccine studies are normally slow because to find out if a vaccine is effective, you have to vaccinate people then wait to see if they get sick. This could take years. But COVID-19 it so widespread and highly infectious that it only takes months to tell if vaccinated people get sick, so vaccine effectiveness can be determined a lot faster. 

What about people with weakened immune systems?

A vaccine works by causing your immune system to defend against an invader. People whose immune systems are suppressed or weakened may have a hard time fighting off the invader. They still won’t be able to get COVID-19 from the vaccine, because there’s no COVID-19 in the vaccine, but the vaccine could be less effective. 

However, the CDC and other professional organizations such as the American College of Rheumatology recommend that people with autoimmune conditions or taking immunosuppressants get vaccinated as the benefit of even a smaller antibody response outweighs the health risks of getting COVID-19. However, if you have a concern, check with your doctor. 

What about allergic reactions?

The only known side effect of getting either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine is an immediate allergic reaction to the ingredients in the solution that carries the spike protein. Before giving the vaccine, the nurse will ask you questions about your history of allergies, and will ask most people to stay for 15 minutes after the shot to make sure you don’t have any reaction. If you have a history of severe allergic reactions they may ask you to stay for 30 minutes, just to be safe. The current rate of severe allergic reactions is 1 per 100,000 people. Almost all such reactions recover with a dose of epinephrine. 

What about soreness, fever, etc.?

The vast majority of people who get the vaccine experience an ache at the vaccine site and other mild symptoms, but this is not a side effect, this is the effect you want. These symptoms show that your immune system is actively learning to resist the spike protein. Ache and/or a slight fever show that your body is building its defenses and the vaccine is working.  

What if I don’t want to get the vaccine? 

You don’t have to. It’s totally up to you.

Are the vaccines okay for children?

Pfizer’s vaccine is currently authorized for ages 16 and up; Moderna’s vaccine is authorized for ages 18 and up.

What if I’ve already had COVID-19?

It is recommended to get vaccinated even if you’ve recovered from COVID-19, because natural immunity is inconsistent. The vaccine will give you a more consistent dose of immunity. 

What if I currently have COVID-19?

If you currently have COVID-19 symptoms, wait until you are recovered before getting vaccinated.

Have you been vaccinated for COVID-19? What was it like?

Yes. I received the Moderna vaccine at Mobridge Regional Hospital. My arm ached later that day and the next day but that was it. 

What if I want a vaccine but am not eligible under the current categories? 

Missouri Breaks is coordinating a research study on the Novavax COVID-19 vaccine. This vaccine is a protein-based vaccine, not an mRNA vaccine, however, just as with mRNA vaccines, the vaccine cannot infect you. If you want to participate in the research study, contact Missouri Breaks for details.

However, as of today, the Cheyenne River IHS hospital is providing vaccinations to all Reservation residents, with priority given to certain categories. Call (605) 964-7724 to check your eligibility and to schedule a vaccination.

If you have any questions or comments regarding this article, the CRST Public Health Task Force can be reached at (605) 200-0670, or by email to

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