CONWAY — White Mountain Community Health Center’s medical staff have begun to receive their COVID-19 vaccines. Staff vaccinations are expected to be completed by the end of January.

We talked with Deborah Cross, a family practice nurse practitioner at the health center, the day before she got her vaccination.

How does it feel to know that you’re going to be vaccinated?

I am super excited and looking forward to it. I feel very lucky to be able to get it so soon.

And how does it feel to know that in one month, the health center will be vaccinated for COVID-19?

It feels good, I feel like it’s going to relieve a lot of stress that we’ve all been under. The fear of picking the virus up and bringing it home to our families. We’re still going to have to be really careful, but it’s going to help us feel a little safer being here at work.

What will it change for our staff and patients?

It's not going to change the way we do anything right now — we’re still going to be on high alert to the virus, we’re still going to be limiting the people who come in the building, we’re still going to be using masks and face shields when we’re in visits with patients — but it can help the patients feel a little more secure, in that we are a little less likely to give them the virus interacting with us, and it can help us feel more secure that we’re not going to pick the virus up. But we all still have to be really careful.

Because we don’t really know yet whether you can still spread the virus when you’re vaccinated, but probably it’s less likely?

Right. In phase 3, they were just focused on whether it was safe to use and prevented you from getting sick to get it approved for emergency use, but they’re still studying it to find out whether it keeps the virus from spreading. It’s possible some people who were vaccinated got the virus and could have still been spreading it to others, but the vaccine kept them from getting any symptoms. We’ll know more as more data is gathered.

As someone with a medical background, are you at all concerned about this vaccine? What makes you feel safe getting it?

I don’t feel concerned at all. I do know that they’ve been working on the technology that’s involved in this vaccine prior to COVID even coming out, so even though it seems like, ‘oh, wow, it’s such a big rush of this vaccine,’ it’s not brand new technology. What they’ve done is taken the existing technology and used it for the specific virus that we have right now. I’m not worried about any bad side effects or problems from the vaccine.

It really is impressive they were able to develop it so quickly. Do you know anything more about that?

Well, we’ve known that there would eventually be a pandemic like this, and researchers have been trying to make sure we’re as prepared as we could be. They’ve been studying the different types of viruses most likely to cause a global pandemic, including coronaviruses, and laying the groundwork to develop vaccines for them. They’ve been creating the infrastructure to manufacture those vaccines quickly. That’s paid off, and it’s very cool. And it’s going to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

You also have to look at all the resources that were put into this. Once it became clear that COVID was going to be a global pandemic, this was a worldwide No. 1 initiative. So they were able to get it moving quickly, and not have to search around and apply for funding, which would be more typical for vaccine development. They could start producing it months before they knew whether it worked, which is a risk no one would take under normal circumstances. Plus because the virus is so prevalent, they were able to see very quickly how well it worked.

How does this vaccine work?

From what I’ve read, there are a lot of different COVID vaccines being developed, but Pfizer and Moderna are the ones that have been approved for emergency use in the U.S. and they both work about the same way. Vaccines are just a minute fragment of something that’s being introduced into your body to help your immune system learn to fight this enemy. Some vaccines use just a surface protein of the virus they’re teaching your body to fight, and that’s what these two do. The hepatitis B vaccine and some flu vaccines work this way.

The new development is that the COVID vaccines create the protein using mRNA, which is a type of molecule your body already uses to make proteins. The mRNA stimulates your body to make a batch of the spike protein that’s on the surface of the COVID-19 virus, so your body learns to fight it. The mRNA will disappear pretty quickly, as will the spike protein it makes, but your immune system will remember it and protect you. So it’s not altering your body at all, it’s teaching it.

Are there any side effects from the vaccine?

The biggest ones were achiness and fatigue, and soreness in the spot they got the vaccine, but most people didn’t have any significant side effects. When people have side effects from vaccines, it’s really their immune system responding the way it’s supposed to. Getting some of those symptoms, a low grade fever or a little achy, it’s a good sign that you’re getting a good response from the vaccine. In the trials, the side effects they saw were mostly after the second dose.

Is there anyone who shouldn’t get the vaccine?

Well, people who are allergic to any of the components of the vaccine, and you can get a breakdown on the CDC website. And it’s not approved for people under 16 yet, or 18 for the Moderna vaccine. Other than that, no. If you’ve had severe allergic reactions to any other vaccines, or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you should talk to your provider before getting it.

When will the general public be able to get vaccinated?

I don’t think we can know exactly, but the hope is by June. They’re doing health-care workers, first responders, and people in long-term care facilities first in the 1A group. After that, there are more categories of people who are being prioritized, including older people and people with conditions or occupations that put them at risk. As soon as we know how our patients can get vaccinated, we’ll make sure they have that information.

Where should people go for more information about the vaccine?

The CDC has a lot of information about the vaccines, and there’s information specific to New Hampshire at nh.gov/covid19 and Maine at maine.gov/covid19.

Do you have anything else to say about the vaccine?

I would just really encourage anybody who can get it, get it now! This is such an opportunity, we are so lucky to have it. Take advantage of it and get vaccinated. The more we get vaccinated and lower the numbers, the sooner we’re going to be able to take our masks off.

Siena Kaplan-Thompson is director of communications and development at White Mountain Community Health Center in Conway. White Mountain Community Health Center provides comprehensive primary care to men, women and children, including dental care, a prenatal program and support services. The health center is a non-profit working to ensure that all can access high-quality health care, regardless of ability to pay. For more information about the health center, go to whitemountainhealth.org or call (603) 447-8900.

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