Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, addressed concerns and questions about the coronavirus vaccine from Prince George’s County residents during a Monday webinar hosted by County Executive Angela Alsobrooks.
Prince George’s County is the Maryland county that has been hit hardest by the coronavirus, making up close to 20 percent of the state’s more than 364,000 cases. But with the vaccine, Fauci said, there is hope.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is vaccines,” Fauci said. “We have been fortunate enough that we have made investments in the development of clinical trials of a number of candidate vaccines that have proven to be highly efficacious.”
Alsobrooks echoed Fauci, encouraging residents of the county to get vaccinated when they can.
“The science tells us that these vaccines are safe and effective,” Alsobrooks said. “When we take the vaccine it not only protects us, but also our family, neighbors, colleagues and those with whom we worship.”
Yet, there is still hesitancy from Americans surrounding the vaccine, which Fauci is working to address.
One of the most common questions from the community was about the possibility of getting COVID-19 from the vaccine itself. Fauci explained that this is impossible because of the way the two vaccines currently authorized in the U.S., produced by companies Pfizer and Moderna, work. With these vaccines, people are injected with fluid containing messenger RNA, not the virus itself or any infectious material.
Fauci also addressed worries that the vaccine would modify the recipient’s DNA. He explained that the mRNA in the vaccine doesn’t alter genetic material, it codes for a protein so the body will create a preventative response against that protein, protecting recipients from the virus.
The vaccine is not fatal and will not cause long-term complications, Fauci continued. He explained the side effects he encountered from the vaccine, which included short-term muscle ache and fatigue. Other people have experienced a fever, though that is a more unusual side effect, Fauci said.
“I did everything I do normally on a working day. Went to bed, woke up and got a little bit better the next day and by the following night, I was back to 100 percent normal,” Fauci said.
The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are 94 to 95 percent effective in preventing the development of COVID-19’s clinical symptoms, Fauci said.
The Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which only requires individuals to get one shot, has been up to 72 percent effective in clinical trials. The new vaccine is “extremely effective” at protecting against severe symptoms — including hospitalizations and death — which makes it a valuable addition to the other vaccines, Fauci added.
Other community members were worried the vaccines were developed too quickly, raising concerns that the shot could be unsafe. Fauci explained that the speed at which the vaccine was developed was not a result of cutting any corners, but rather a showcase of how far modern medicine has come.
“People should not feel that the speed is a negative,” Fauci said. “The speed is a very positive thing, because it reflects extraordinary advances in science.”
Moreover, some communities of color — which have historically been negatively impacted by medical experimentation — don’t trust the medical system, said Joseph Wright, interim president and CEO of University of Maryland Capital Region Health.
Black and Latino people have had much higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death than their white counterparts. Nationally, Black and Latino communities have 1.4 and 1.7 times the amount of cases compared to white people, respectively. In Prince George’s County, cases for those same communities are far greater than those in white communities.
Fauci said these concerns are understandable, and that the implemented ethical safeguards mean that clinical trials undergo very strict reviews.
Once a person has received the vaccine, Fauci said, they should still continue to wear a mask because — while they are protected from COVID-19 — the coronavirus can still be present in their nasopharynx, which is the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
This means someone who is vaccinated can still spread the virus to another person, so it’s important to continue wearing a mask, Fauci said. That could change with time, though.
“As the months go by, and we get more information as to the efficacy of the vaccine and actually preventing true infection, not just clinical disease, then there might be modification of that recommendation,” Fauci said.
Currently, there are not enough doses available for everyone to receive the second shot, but that doesn’t mean people should wait to get the first dose, Fauci explained. More doses will become available in April and May.
Fauci advised everyone that can get the shot to do so. As more people are vaccinated, communities get closer to herd immunity, which happens when about 85 percent of the population is vaccinated, he said.
“Every day, every week every month that you delay — if you have it available to you — you’re putting yourself at risk of getting infected,” Fauci said.