‘Amazing feat of society and collaboration’: Health experts explain COVID-19 vaccine, dispel myths

MADISON, Wis. – Health officials have been battling the coronavirus for nearly a year, but with the vaccine comes another challenge: vaccine misinformation.

With new COVID-19 vaccines developed in record time, there are bound to be questions, including from frontline health care workers themselves.

“You watch (COVID) take over the world. It was terrifying,” said Carly Winslow, a registered nurse at SSM Health St. Mary’s. From the hospital’s secondary COVID unit, she saw how the coronavirus took over here at home.  “To see what it had done was unreal.”

When vaccines became a reality, she said she and her coworkers were “very pumped to have this vaccine after a long-awaited journey.”

Even then, when it was Winslow’s turn to get the shot, she had some trepidation.

“I’ll describe it as you go to the lake and you go to jump in the water, all excited to do it, and then there’s that moment of hesitation,” she said.

Concerns muddied the waters for Winslow, with questions such as whether the vaccine could affect her ability to have children.

“There’s so many things on social media. The fertility ordeal,” she said. “You see the other questions people are having. Is it legit, not legit?”

Coronavirus isn’t the only thing to float around; coronavirus misinformation can, too.

“Social media, I love it, but it runs rampant with myths and stuff like that,” Winslow said.

“There are lots of things that sort of float around,” said Ajay Sethi, an associate professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

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Both COVID-19 vaccines approved for use do not use live virus like some other types of vaccines.

“Actually getting the virus from the vaccine is not something people need to worry about,” said Dr. Alison Schwartz, the associate medical director of infectious diseases at SSM Health.

The vaccines use mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) to go into cells and encode for spike proteins.

“Those are proteins on the coronavirus that allow the virus itself to enter into our cells,” Schwartz said. “The mRNA gives instructions to make fake spike proteins, which then our immune system will react to and start to build antibodies.”

Sethi said the vaccines have no effect on fertility, explaining that confusion arose because placenta has spike proteins, but that’s not the same as spike proteins on the coronavirus.

Vaccines don’t alter DNA, another misconception he’s seen online.

“People shouldn’t think there’s going to be some genetic consequences of getting this vaccine,” Sethi said.

The mRNA degrades, but the protection remains, with a high effectiveness rate.

“I think 95% is sort of higher than any of our wildest dreams,” Schwartz said.

Both Schwartz and Sethi have heard worries about how quickly the vaccine came about.

“Some might feel it was rushed. I think it’s important that people recognize the science behind the development of this vaccine is about two decades in the making,” Sethi said. “It goes back, actually, to our own university here where some researchers showed you could infect RNA into a mouse and begin producing proteins, and that study was published back in 1990.”

Sethi and Schwartz said large amounts of funding, effort and participants in overlapping trials helped bring about the COVID vaccines so quickly.

“I think it’s a really amazing feat of society and collaboration within the scientific community,” Schwartz said.

Side effects happen, but symptoms like headache, fatigue and fever mean the vaccine’s working.

“There haven’t been any side effects that create so much alarm that tell us we shouldn’t be doing this for society,” Sethi said.

“It was not bad,” Winslow said. “I thought it was going to be a lot worse.”

After some research and reflecting cleared her concerns, Winslow decided to take the plunge and get the vaccine. She’s now had both doses.

“It is safe. The risks are very, very, very low going into getting that vaccine,” she said. “It’s totally up to you. Get your facts, though, before you go in thinking this is going to do X, Y or Z.”

Schwartz said the COVID-19 vaccines contain preservatives like other commonly-used vaccines, and are safe for those with allergies to foods such as eggs.

Polyethylene glycol is in the vaccine, so those with a known allergic reaction to that or polysorbate should avoid the vaccine.