Q&A with a Vaccine Provider

Part 4 of our Vaccine Content Series

By Meaghan Enright
We spoke with the Clinical Executive Director of Island Health and Wellness to answer some FAQs about the COVID-19 vaccines.

The vaccination effort is well underway here on St John, in large part due to the amazing efforts of Island Health and Wellness Center. This nonprofit clinic was founded by Clinical Executive Director Sandy Colasacco, a Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner with a focus on patient centered care. Sandy holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and family studies from Wheaton College, a bachelor’s degree in nursing from The Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions and a master’s degree in nursing from Duke University. She completed her residency at CariCare Family Health Services on St. Thomas, VI. Island Health and Wellness Center treats patients of all ages and genders for a wide variety of acute and chronic issues as well as preventive care, and is the primary source of care for the many uninsured residents on St John. If you’re interested in supporting the important work at IHWC, you can donate here.

We spoke with Sandy recently about some frequently asked questions related to the COVID-19 vaccines. Read on to learn more!

Q: What is an mRNA vaccine? Can it alter my DNA?

A: An mRNA vaccine contains messenger RNA (mRNA) wrapped in a coating that allows it to enter the body safely and effectively. mRNA is a genetic material that tells our bodies to make a protein or part of a protein. This protein then triggers an immune response inside our bodies to produce antibodies and certain types of white blood cells. These antibodies and white blood cells help protect us from getting infected if the actual virus enters our bodies. Basically, mRNA gives our cells instructions to make the harmless spike protein found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. After our bodies make the protein, it breaks down the instructions and gets rid of them, leaving us with just the antibodies and white blood cells needed to protect us. These vaccines do not contain live or inactivated COVID-19 virus, therefore there is no risk of getting ill from the vaccine. mRNA vaccines cannot alter your DNA. mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA is stored. It does not come into contact with our DNA and has no ability to alter DNA. 

Q: Will the vaccine affect my fertility?

A: There has been no scientific or anecdotal evidence that these vaccines (0r any vaccines for that matter) will affect fertility. This claim was started due to a rumor that the protein in the vaccine is similar to the proteins used to make the placenta during pregnancy, and that due to this, the body could attack the placenta. This is not true. The proteins are different, and will not confuse the body or cause the body to attack the cells of the placenta.

Q: The Johnson & Johnson vaccine only contains one dose. Should I wait for that one?

A: No. The CDC recommends getting whichever vaccine is available to you. As of now, the USVI is administering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. These vaccines are available to anyone sixteen and older (Pfizer) or eighteen and older (Moderna). The USVI is expected to get some doses of the J&J vaccine, however the plan is to prioritize those vaccines for residents with significant barriers to receiving two doses, for example residents who are homebound, face access or functional needs, or are homeless. 

Q: Will I have to get revaccinated?

A: We do not know the answer to that at this point. It will be more clear as time goes on exactly how long the protection from the vaccines will last. There is a chance that we will need to be vaccinated annually as with a flu shot, or that we will need boosters every few years like a Tetanus vaccine. The research is still being done on this. 

Q: Do the vaccines keep me from transmitting the virus, or just from getting sick?

A: This is something that is also still being studied. As of now, the evidence shows that the vaccines are effective at protecting people from developing symptoms and getting severely ill from COVID-19. Preliminary studies are suggesting that the vaccines do at least offer some prevention of transmission as well. While the data is still being gathered, we need to continue to follow safety protocols and guidance. 

Q: What pre-existing conditions would make it dangerous to receive the vaccine?

A: As of now, the only medical condition that is a contraindication to getting a COVID-19 vaccine is a history of severe reaction/allergy (anaphylaxis) to any component or ingredient of the vaccine itself. This with suppressed immune systems may get the vaccine, but it may not produce as strong an immune response as in those with a non-compromised immune system. If you have pre-existing conditions and have specific questions regarding whether it’s safe for you to get vaccinated, speak to your healthcare provider. 

Q: Will I still need to wear a mask after I’m vaccinated? 

A: The CDC has set out interim guidelines for those who have been fully vaccinated. These are as follows:

“People are considered fully vaccinated for COVID-19 two weeks after they have received the second dose in a two-dose series (Pfizer or Moderna), or two weeks after they have received a single dose vaccine (Johnson & Johnson)” (CDC, March 2021)

Fully vaccinated people can: 

  • Visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing.
  • Visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID-19 disease indoors without wearing masks or physical distancing.
  • Refrain from quarantine and testing following a known exposure if asymptomatic.

For now, fully vaccinated people should continue to:

  • Take precautions in public like wearing a well-fitted mask and physical distancing.
  • Wear masks, practice physical distancing, and adhere to other prevention measures when visiting with unvaccinated people who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease or who have an unvaccinated household member who is at increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease. 
  • Wear masks, maintain physical distance, and practice other prevention measures when visiting unvaccinated people from multiple households. 
  • Avoid medium and large in-person gatherings.
  • Get tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. 
  • Follow guidance issued by individual employers. 
  • Follow CDC and health department travel requirements and recommendations. (CDC, March 2021)

Q: Are the vaccines effective against the mutations of the virus?

A: This is also something that researchers are still determining. Early research shows that the vaccines do have some efficacy in preventing severe disease from the new variants. Vaccine developers and manufacturers are also already working on boosters and updates to ensure the vaccines will continue to cover these variants.

Q: Will I get antibodies from the vaccine?

A: The human body produces numerous types of protection after getting a vaccine. These include antibodies, T-lymphocytes, and B-lymphocytes. These lymphocytes are called “memory” cells that will remember how to fight the virus in the future, thereby protecting us from getting sick.  Not everyone will test positive on an antibody test for numerous reasons, mostly due to the method or reliability of the test. These tests should not be done on the general public after vaccination, and are not a reliable demonstration of immunity.