As we now head into 2021, the COVID-19 coronavirus remains a very real and present threat to public health, having now taken the lives of over 300,000 Americans and more than a million people throughout the world.

It’s been a very long and stressful nine months for all of us. However, the devastating impact of COVID-19 has enabled unprecedented, worldwide collaborations among scientists, medical doctors, provider care teams, the public, health and government officials and manufacturers.

Because of this exceptional united effort, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel, as two COVID vaccines — one produced by Pfizer-BioNTech, the other by Moderna — have been given emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. This is an extraordinary leap forward in the battle against Coronavirus, given the vaccines’ rapid development and the fact that they appear to have 95% efficacy.

Distribution of these vaccines — which both require two shots — is extremely important to significantly slowing down the virus’ spread. While we still need to continue socially distancing, wearing masks and practicing good hygiene, ultimately mass vaccination will provide us with the protection, i.e. “herd immunity,” we need to overcome this terrible scourge.

Currently, vaccine distribution is focused on health care personnel and the residents of long-term care facilities, but will eventually become available to the general public. When that time comes, everyone will need to do their part and get inoculated. Otherwise, the vaccines will not prove effective.

For some people, I realize this is easier said than done. Many are generally skeptical when it comes to vaccines, while others are likely to fear the vaccines due to rampant disinformation.

With that in mind, let me answer a few questions you might have regarding the vaccines:

How were the vaccines able to be produced so quickly?

COVID-19 is part of a large family of coronaviruses that also includes SARS, which spread worldwide during the early 2000s but was quickly contained.

As a result, researchers have been working on coronavirus vaccines for years. When COVID-19 first began to spread rapidly, scientists incorporated the virus’ particles into their research, with the further benefit of massively increased funding for their efforts. So, while the technology for a vaccine was long in the works, it took an unstoppable worldwide pandemic to send it into overdrive.

What makes the COVID vaccines different from others?

Unlike other vaccines, the COVID vaccines don’t include traces of the virus itself. The vaccines were developed using cutting-edge Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which shows the body’s cells how to make protein particles that ultimately produce the antibodies needed to ward off the virus.

What about potential side effects from the vaccines?

As with any vaccine, there are risks of side effects with the COVID vaccines. The most common include soreness and swelling at the injection site, and some recipients report headaches, tiredness, chills and fever. It’s important to remember though, that side effects are normal signs of your body building protections, and they should go away within a few days. Quite frankly, I tell patients that the vaccines’ side effects are far less of a risk than contracting the virus itself.

Will we have to get a COVID vaccination every year?

Because we don’t yet know how long the antibodies last, and given the virus’ capacity for producing mutant strains, we will likely have to get a yearly COVID vaccination, as we do for the flu.

My ultimate message to readers is this: Believe in the power of science and welcome the vaccines when they are offered, both for the good of your own health and the collective health of our society. Get vaccinated and encourage your friends, family and coworkers to do the same. We all play an essential role in keeping our community healthy.

Jignesh Y. Sheth, M.D., a primary care physician dually board-certified in internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health as Chief Medical Officer and serves as Senior Vice President of Clinical Operations for The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. He sees patients at the Wright Center’s Jermyn practice and lives with his family in Clarks Summit. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

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