The New Year brings renewed energy in our collective efforts to win the race against a common foe. If we intend 2021 to be a year of joy and hope, we need to use all viable tools at our disposal and unite in our efforts to beat the coronavirus.

One such tool is vaccines, considered one of the most important advances in modern medicine. Vaccines have been responsible for greatly improving our quality of life over centuries, allowing us to reduce or eliminate many dangerous infectious diseases that we don’t even think about anymore.

Vaccination research and development has never stopped. Global partnerships have been formed to create faster, more efficient platforms and new technologies to help us against the onslaught of diseases like Ebola, Zika and the coronavirus family — SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and now SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

The victory of vaccines, our most promising counterpandemic measure, relies on a critical mass of people becoming immune to the virus. This breaks the chain of transmission and, most importantly, protects the most vulnerable people in our community who cannot develop immunity through vaccination. This is called herd immunity — vaccines go beyond our individual benefit, protecting us as a community. Imagine this vaccinated community surrounding a pregnant mother who cannot get vaccinated now; she is protected through this invisible shield of the community blocking SARS-CoV-2 from reaching her.

Two vaccines — from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — have received U.S. emergency use approval from the Food and Drug Administration. As of this weekend, nearly 6.7 million people in the U.S. had received a COVID-19 vaccine. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health — who received the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 22 — said saying the two vaccines had been examined and put through more rigorous analysis than most vaccines to date. Nonetheless, some common myths about the vaccines persist.

COVID-19 myths

You can get COVID-19 from the vaccine. Both approved U.S. vaccines contain no virus or viral particles. You are not injected with any part of a virus. The vaccines use synthetic messenger RNA (mRNA) that our cells can read to make a specific piece of the virus, which on its own cannot cause harm. This piece mimics the protein spikes on the outside of the virus, and it is what helps the virus dock onto a human cell and allows it to infect us. By allowing our cells to reproduce this spike temporarily, we teach our immune system what to look for in the face of a future coronavirus attack. This memory of what to look for provides us immunity and allows us to respond much faster.

The speed of the vaccines’ development affected safety and efficacy. The development of the vaccines did not start in January 2020. Science has been paying close attention to the coronavirus family for many years. Research into the mRNA technology used in both vaccines has been in development for close to 15 years. The perceived speed in getting the vaccines to the public is partly due to unparalleled worldwide emergency cooperation, free sharing of information and new, faster technology platforms. Also helping has been billions of dollars in private and public funding, allowing vaccine firms to run preclinical and phase 1, 2 and 3 trials in parallel instead of sequentially. The FDA completed a meticulous safety review, and the independent Advisory Committee on Immunization scrutinized safety and efficacy data from the clinical trials.

The vaccine can alter your DNA. Your cell’s DNA is securely kept inside a nucleus in the cell. The snippet of mRNA that gets injected does not gain access to the nucleus and never comes in contact with your DNA. Your cell machinery translates the mRNA and manufactures the viral spike protein needed to present to your immune system. Once the instruction is read, human cells break down and get rid of the mRNA.

If I had COVID-19, I wouldn’t need the vaccine. Currently, we don’t have enough information to know for sure how long someone might be protected from reinfection with COVID-19. Early indications suggest this natural immunity may not last very long. The CDC recommends getting vaccinated. However, if you are currently infected with COVID-19, the recommendation is to delay vaccination until the illness has resolved.

You can stop wearing a mask after you’re vaccinated. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, getting rid of public health measures like wearing a mask is only possible once there are extremely low levels of circulating virus left. For this to happen, we need 75% to 95% of people to have immunity to the coronavirus.

COVID-19 vaccines are stored at extremely low temperatures because of preservatives in the vaccines. Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have reported that their vaccines contain no preservatives. The vaccines are created using a novel methodology to synthesize the mRNA, encapsulated for protection in a lipid, or oily shell. This technology allows the vaccine to be free from materials of animal origin — egg — and without preservatives. However, mRNA is fragile and can break down easily. Storing vaccines in ultracold environments keeps them stable and safe. Vaccines are thawed before injection.

What are the risks?

Life and vaccines never present us with absolute safety. We must acknowledge that vaccines do carry some risks. Some vaccine recipients have reported short-term mild or moderate symptoms that resolved without complication within a day or two. These include sore arms, redness at the injection site, headache, chills, fatigue, muscle pain or fever — all expected indicators that your immune system is responding to the vaccine, and comparable to side effects seen with the shingles vaccine. As of Dec. 23, the U.S. had seen 10 cases of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening but extremely rare allergic reaction. The cases occurred in people with a significant history of severe allergies and were safely managed with epinephrine. The CDC has distributed safeguard protocols to vaccine sites.

But compare these calculated vaccination risks to that of the virus itself — which has infected more than 89 million people globally and killed more than 1.9 million, including more than 370,000 in the U.S. Now add in the devastation caused to economies and health systems. In the current pandemic, time is lives. We need an estimated 80% of people vaccinated to reach herd immunity and have a fighting chance to stop the pandemic in its tracks. And we need to get it done now.

Final thoughts

We face a collective threat — a pandemic, and a moral dilemma on choosing to be vaccinated. Concerns about the vaccines’ safety are understandable, but reports of negative outcomes are few, and far outweighed by the benefits.

This quarantine year has taught me that we are intrinsically bound to our community, and can truly thrive only through community involvement and participation. We need each other, and we have an obligation to take care of one another. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is not just about you. It is protecting your grandmother who has diabetes, your neighbor who is immunocompromised. It safeguards everyone who is medically unable to receive a vaccine and needs you as their human shield against coronavirus reaching them.

The COVID-19 vaccine saves lives. When your eligibility phase comes up, be a solid citizen, a loving, caring child, sibling, parent and spouse: Get it.

TODAY’S COLUMN is a regular health feature created in partnership with Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine in Scranton. It appears monthly in place of Dr. Paul J. Mackarey’s Health & Exercise Forum. Mackarey, a doctor in health sciences specializing in orthopedic and sports physical therapy, is in private practice and an associate professor of clinical medicine at GCSM. Email: drpmackarey@msn.com. Writer HENDRIK MARAIS, M.D., received his Doctor of Medicine degree from GCSM in 2015 and his Master of Science degree in global medicine from Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in 2019. He grew up in South Africa and currently lives in Scranton. He is a member of the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association and the International Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. He plans to pursue a clinical career in physiatry.

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