Healthcare workers will most likely be among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. Image via Shutterstock; Graphic by Rebecca Russ/COURIER.
Healthcare workers will most likely be among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. Image via Shutterstock; Graphic by Rebecca Russ/COURIER.

Tackling some frequently asked questions about vaccines.

As 2021 begins, COVID-19 continues to spread in Wisconsin and beyond. More than 30,000 Wisconsinites were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the first two weeks of the new year, and more than 350 people in the state have died from the virus. Nationally, the new year has already brought 2.4 million new infections and 28,000 deaths as cases soar in places like California and Arizona.  

There have now been more than about 510,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in Wisconsin since the pandemic arrived last March and 5,200 deaths; nationally, there are 22.6 million cases and 376,000 deaths.

But there is hope, a light at the end of the tunnel: a vaccine. While America’s response to the pandemic has been nothing short of a disaster, the scientific and medical community has worked tirelessly and already managed to deliver two vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, each with over 90% efficacy.

How many COVID vaccines are there, and how many will there be?

While much has been said about the first vaccines to be approved, there are actually dozens of other vaccines in various stages of development. Researchers are currently testing 64 vaccines in clinical trials on humans, and at least 85 preclinical vaccines are under active investigation in animals, according to a New York Times database.

Americans in priority groups such as healthcare workers and nursing home residents began receiving the Pfizer vaccine in mid-December after it was first to receive approval from the federal Food and Drug Administration for an Emergency Use Authorization. Pfizer partnered with the German company BioNTech on its vaccine.

Moderna’s vaccine started rollout about a week later. It was developed in partnership with the National Institutes of Health.

Clinical trials found better than 90% efficacy in both vaccines, which are delivered in two shots.

How many people have gotten vaccinated?

Wisconsin’s vaccine rollout has been plagued with issues, not the least of which is a low supply of doses sent by the federal government, according to the state Department of Health Services and Gov. Tony Evers.

Nonetheless, more than 160,000 doses had been administered in Wisconsin as of Jan. 12, according to DHS. The state has received another 210,000 doses waiting to be administered at sites around Wisconsin, with almost that many more doses allocated by the federal government but not yet here.

About 9 million Americans have received their first dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 25 million doses have been sent around the country.

Who is getting vaccines right now?

Wisconsin’s vaccine rollout is currently focusing on a group, designated as 1A that includes frontline workers such as healthcare providers and the residents and staff of skilled nursing facilities. Firefighters, police and EMTs are scheduled to be added to that vaccination group during the week of Jan. 18.

Evers says he doesn’t expect the general public to have access to a vaccine until June.

Is the vaccine safe?

The vaccine development process is a rigorous, comprehensive process that begins with testing new vaccines on animals, such as mice or monkeys, to see if it produces an immune response. Scientists then give the vaccine to humans in three separate phases, beginning with a small number of people in phase one in order to test safety and dosage and determine if it triggers the immune system. In phase two, scientists give the vaccine to hundreds of people across different age ranges and at different levels of health, in order to see how the vaccine behaves among different populations. In the third and final phase, tens of thousands of people receive the vaccine, and scientists compare their health outcomes with test subjects who received a placebo. This effectively shows whether the vaccine protects against COVID-19 and whether the vaccines produce any rare or dangerous side effects.

The process is thorough and the bar to clear for FDA approval is high, incentivizing companies to take a safe, conservative approach. Multiple companies, including AstraZeneca—which conducted its trials in partnership with Oxford University—and Johnson & Johnson temporarily paused their COVID vaccine trials to investigate potentially adverse side effects in one person in each trial, before ultimately resuming them after the unexpected illnesses could not be linked to the vaccines.

As part of their applications to the FDA, both Moderna and Pfizer included two months of follow-up safety data from their Phase 3 human clinical trials that were conducted by independent bodies, such as universities. By September, Pfizer had enrolled 44,000 participants in its trial without a single serious safety issue being reported. 

Some trial participants and vaccine recipients have experienced side effects, including fever, muscle aches, headaches, and fatigue after receiving the shots, but those symptoms generally did not last more than a day. Such reactions are usually a sign that the body’s immune response is being activated as intended.

A handful of vaccine recipients, including a frontline worker in Oshkosh, have experienced severe side effects stemming from allergic reactions. The CDC estimates about one in 90,000 people will experience a severe allergic reaction. 

When will other Americans get a vaccine?

While each state will determine its own process, first responders and essential workers are likely to be next in line for vaccines. This group includes the tens of millions of Americans working in food and agriculture, education, and transportation who are more at risk of contracting the virus because they often cannot work from home. 

After those workers, vulnerable adults with pre-existing medical conditions such as obesity or heart disease that put them at high risk of infection, as well as seniors, are most likely to be next in line. 

These groups of individuals are likely to receive vaccines in January, February, and March, with all other adults falling in line after. Children are likely to be last in line, as the vaccines’ impact on kids has not yet been conclusively studied.

Federal health officials hope that all Americans will be able to access a vaccine by June, but that timeline could change depending on how many vaccines are ultimately authorized.

What will the vaccine cost?

Nothing. The federal government has promised that vaccines will be free to all Americans and states like Wisconsin have also taken steps to ensure health insurance plans keep it that way.

Where can I get the vaccine?

State and local governments are distributing vaccines to hospitals, doctors’ offices, health centers, pharmacies, clinics, and long-term care facilities. Short-term immunization hubs, such as the one recently created at the Wisconsin Center in downtown Milwaukee, will become a regular fixture around the country this year.  

Do MMR vaccines really protect you against COVID?

While there is research that has shown that the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine may offer some protection against being infected by the coronavirus, doctors still say that there’s not enough evidence to recommend adults get booster shots. Instead, they recommend that everyone get the COVID-19 vaccine rather than relying on the possibility that the MMR vaccine may offer some protection. 

Have Russia and China already vaccinated their citizens?

China and Russia have approved vaccines without waiting for the results of their Phase 3 trials and begun vaccinating some residents. Both countries are attempting to use their vaccines as an international bargaining chip with which to increase their economic and political standing in the world, but health experts say rushing the process poses serious risks. 

The US is unlikely to rely on unproven Russian or Chinese vaccines, as those countries are primarily directing their stockpiles to countries with less robust medical infrastructures across Africa and the Middle East. 

Will the vaccine be mandatory in the US?

It is unclear whether the federal government will attempt to mandate vaccinations. During the presidential campaign, President-elect Joe Biden said he was open to making a safe vaccine mandatory, depending on its effectiveness, the vaccine distribution process, and how rampant the virus was in the country. But he also admitted that it would be nearly impossible to actually implement a mandate. 

“You can’t say, ‘Everyone has to do this,’” he said during an October town hall event.

The New York Times reported that President-elect Biden’s transition team is still discussing whether to try to institute a requirement, and state governments could also seek to pass vaccine mandates, though those would likely trigger legal battles.

Employers also have the right to require their workers to be vaccinated, but workers can request exemptions based on medical reasons or religious beliefs.