We all recognize that COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on our region. People have been infected and recovered with no residual problems, people have recovered but with continued health issues, and people have died. Personal financial effects have varied from none to devastation. Some businesses have thrived, some have struggled and sadly, some have failed.

Dr. Peter Rutherford

Dr. Peter Rutherford

We all want COVID-19 behind us and a return to some sense of normalcy. To achieve this, we need COVID-19 immunity for a significant part of our region’s population. There are only two ways this can be accomplished, (1) get infected and recover (with or without residual complications) or (2) get vaccinated. No one knows how many people need to be immune to reduce disease spread in our region, but based on other viral infections like chickenpox, measles, and polio, it is probably at minimum 70% and perhaps 85%.

As of Dec. 28, based on confirmed and modeled cases in the area, 13% of our population have contracted COVID-19 in the last 10 months. To wait for 70% of our community to be infected in the false hope of attaining herd immunity from natural infection with COVID-19 infections is a very risky course that will result in millions of potentially avoidable deaths in the U.S. and our community, to say nothing of the profound impact that prolonged periods of recovery after mild or moderate infection would have on a large number of us. Waiting for six times the number of infections to date would take years and necessitate further and prolonged restrictions which are a known stress to our community, however necessary, to avoid catastrophic living conditions. Achieving vaccine-derived herd immunity over the next 3-6 months is critically important.

The two vaccines currently available under FDA Emergency Use Authorization contains messenger RNA. The injected mRNA is taken up by some of your body’s cells and goes to the endoplasmic reticulum, which you can think of as the protein-making factory of the cell. The mRNA never goes into the nucleus (the “control center”) of the cell and can never combine with your own genetic material (DNA). The protein made in your body’s cells from the MRNA template is a non-infectious COVID spike protein. It is released from your cells and the new protein is quickly recognized as foreign. This triggers an immune response to the protein that includes protective neutralizing antibodies, as well as “turning on” different types of white blood cells including memory B cells, memory T cells, and cytotoxic T cells. The body then breaks down the spike proteins quickly.

Over the last six months, about 80,000 people around the world of different ages (greater than 16), sexes, nationalities, ethnicities, and health and economic statuses have volunteered for clinical trials to test the vaccine for effectiveness and safety. The number of people involved in these trials is much higher than used in other medications, vaccines, or treatments that were developed to treat various diseases. Data from these trials was dramatic. 95% of people had an immune response at least as good as those who have been infected with COVID-19. Side effects or complications from the first vaccination can include pain at the injection site for a few days. Following the second shot there is a significant number of people who get headaches, low-grade fevers, generalized aches or fatigue for 24 hours. These are all symptoms of your immune system responding as it should.

The information obtained in these trials has been reviewed by the FDA and other scientific organizations including the Infectious Disease Society of America (an organization whose membership is this country’s Infectious Disease physicians) and the overwhelming agreement was that these vaccines were both safe and effective relative to the risks of being infected with COVID-19. Since the Emergency Use Authorization, 4.66 million U.S. residents have received their first shot, including 92,700 in Washington state. There have been rare cases of mild allergic reactions (less than 1 in a thousand doses) which have been easily treated with no residual problems. The safety of the vaccine in people less than 16 years old, and pregnant women, is now being evaluated and until that is completed, it is recommended those individuals consult with their health care provider prior to receiving the vaccine.

The risks and benefits seem to strongly favor getting the vaccine as a method to reach the 70% to 85% level of individual immunity we need in this region. In the best-case scenario, 62,000 residents of North Central Washington will be vaccinated as quickly as supply becomes available over the next few months.

The trials are continuing to assess the question of how long vaccine immunity lasts and will be answered over time. It also appears that the "spike protein" in the virus is not significantly changed in the virus variance currently being reported, so the vaccine should be effective against these new strains as well.

Here is a link to a video by Dr. Mark Johnson, an infectious disease specialist at Confluence Health. The video provides a thorough discussion of COVID-19 vaccines. While it is a complex topic, it is worth watching to recognize the seriousness our pharmaceutical and healthcare professionals took in the development of a safe and effective vaccine.

Vaccines don’t save lives. Vaccinations do. We need most of us to get vaccinated over the next several months if we are to have any hope of ending this pandemic in the foreseeable future. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. A light at the end of a LONG tunnel for all of us. Help us get back to a life that looks something like what we used to know.

Please do your part.