What you should know about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout | Michigan Radio
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What you should know about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Jan 5, 2021

The COVID-19 vaccine uses messenger RNA. It causes the body to produce a protein that triggers antibody production in order to fight the virus, says Dr. Arnold Monto, a leading epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.
Credit Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The state of Michigan has begun distributing COVID-19 vaccines, and frontline health workers and residents of long-term care facilities are first up to receive the vaccination.

That’s based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), which has designated a number of phases for vaccine distribution to particular populations of individuals.

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Though it’s still early in the rollout process, Michigan is reporting a relatively low rate of administered COVID-19 vaccinations so far, compared with other states. As of early Monday, Michigan was lagging 40% behind the national average in vaccination rates.

“I am realizing, once again, that approving the vaccines may have been the easy part. Getting them distributed and people vaccinated seems to be the hard part.” said Dr. Arnold Monto, a leading epidemiologist at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. He’s also the acting chair of the Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee.

A messenger to the body

The COVID-19 vaccine is a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. In more traditional vaccines, the body is given protein that resembles part of a virus, and the body responds by producing antibodies to fight the disease, Monto says. But in an mRNA vaccine, the body is taught to respond using a different technique.

“Instead of giving the protein, the messenger RNA is delivered to the body. The body then produces the protein, which is the mechanism for triggering antibody production,” Monto said.

The speed of the development of the COVID-19 vaccines has set historical records. While many scientists and physicians are urging individuals to get vaccinated when available, misinformation about the vaccine is still circulating. A Wisconsin pharmacist was arrested December 31 for allegedly spoiling several dozen doses of the Moderna vaccine, due to an unfounded belief that the vaccine would change people’s DNA.

Monto says that’s not at all how the mRNA in the vaccine, which codes for the spike protein found on the COVID-19 virus’ surface, works.

“It is easily broken down, it doesn’t last for very long, [and] it is very specific,” he said. “The body is actually producing only the part of the virus that we need to get antibodies produced to. It has nothing to do with changing the DNA.”

Some have raised concerns about potential side effects of the vaccine. But Monto says these are minimal—rarely, people with allergies may have an anaphylactic reaction. And that’s not unique to the COVID-19 vaccine, he adds.

“That’s pretty standard—something that we have to watch out for for all vaccines," he said.

Monto says that while your risk of contracting severe COVID-19 might be relatively low, it’s greater than any potential risk associated with getting the vaccine.

Low vaccination rates in Michigan

One reason for Michigan’s relatively low vaccination rate could be that some of the state’s frontline health workers are currently declining to get their COVID-19 vaccinations, says Robin Erb, a health reporter for Bridge Michigan. She says that while employers at places like hospitals and nursing homes are strongly encouraging staff to get the vaccine, they aren’t mandating that they do so.

Erb says there could be many reasons why a number of frontline health workers haven’t yet gotten the vaccine. Some might be hesitant because of the speed with which the vaccine was developed, while others may simply not have scheduled an appointment yet. But she says it’s surprising that some health care workers, who are likely to have more knowledge of the science behind the vaccine than the general public does, have not yet opted to get vaccinated.

“The state wants to vaccinate 70% of Michiganders 16 years and older. Healthcare workers are in one place, and presumably they would be the first ready to take the vaccine,” Erb said. “When this group is reluctant, that could spell trouble going down the line.”

Erb says she can see why some people might be unsure about it.

“Not even a month ago, this vaccine wasn’t even authorized yet, so things have moved fast,” said Erb. “You can argue that the science should be trusted, but I do understand, too, where people are kind of lost in all of this. There’s an awful lot of information to sort through right now.”

Frontline essential workers and individuals 75 years of age or older are scheduled to receive the vaccine next, in Phase 1B. If you’re wondering when it’s your turn, you can check the phases of Michigan’s vaccine distribution plan here, and stay on top of updates from public health officials.

“What we’re hearing right now is that the public health departments, your doctors, even the person who delivers your mobile meals—you’ll hear that way. Which is kind of frustrating, because right now, it’s ‘don’t call us—we’ll call you. But we are being told right now that that word will get out," said Erb. 

As of January 5, COVID-19 has killed over 13,000 people in Michigan alone and over 350,000 people in the United States.

You can find Robin Erb and Mike Wilkinson's story here.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.