In the lobby of Oak Street Health’s newest location in Firestone Park, Dr. Laolu Fayanju sends a quick text, slides his phone into the pocket of his white jacket and joins his colleagues for a group photo at the front desk. Behind an N95 mask, he flashes a smile for the camera.
A graduate of Harvard University and Tufts University School of Medicine, Dr. Fayanju has spent the last 11 months combating misinformation surrounding both the COVID-19 pandemic. He is the senior medical director at Oak Street Health, a network of primary care centers that serve older adults on Medicare. Often, his patients are among the most vulnerable when it comes to contracting COVID-19.
On Jan. 29, Dr. Fayanju sat down with The Devil Strip to talk about what to expect when you receive a vaccine, and the science behind how vaccines protect us in the first place.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
So how does the vaccine actually work?
There are two vaccines that are currently available in the United States. One is offered through Pfizer. The other one is offered through a company called Moderna. Both of them are mRNA vaccines.
On the surface of the COVID-19 virus, there’s a small little protein called a “spike protein.” It’s not the part of the virus that actually makes you sick. It is, however, the part of the virus that latches on to the surface of our cells. When that virus latches onto the surface of our cells, that enables the virus to begin the replication process that leads us to get sick.
nRNA technology has been around for about 20 or 30 years, and it sends a very short instruction into our bodies. That instruction tells our bodies to create a spike protein.
By engineering this vaccine to deliver the instruction of just the spike protein, we’re teaching our bodies to get a sense of what COVID-19 would look like if you were to encounter it. If we do encounter COVID, our bodies already know what it looks like and have the tools to neutralize it.
Are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines safe?
Yes. From the studies that have been done through accelerated but safe trials, we know that this is safe. I personally received my first dose on Jan. 11, and I feel great.
If I get vaccinated, will I experience any side effects? Is that normal?
Some people are experiencing more noticeable effects of the vaccine. That is OK. If you get a little fever, feeling a little achy or a little run down, that is OK.
I kind of analogize it to working out. If I go to the gym, and I’m on a treadmill and kind of just walk slowly, I’m probably not going to feel the burn. But if I get on the elliptical and get the incline up and really push myself, I’m gonna feel sore, but I’m gonna feel great later. Similarly, vaccines whip our bodies into shape so we can combat these pathogens.
What should I do if I experience side effects after being vaccinated?
In most situations, all people need to do is drink plenty of fluids. Gatorade or sports drinks can also help if you’re feeling particularly dehydrated. Tylenol, acetaminophen, a couple tablets every 6 to 8 hours, will really tamp down any discomfort or fever you might experience.
Is there any reason someone shouldn’t get the vaccine?
Some folks with histories of severe allergies that have required Epinephrine should talk to their primary care doctor about whether getting the vaccine now is the right choice for them.
But in general, folks with histories of severe allergies have still done well and received the vaccine. Some of them have had to use their auto injectors, an EpiPen, but that’s OK
At this point, I have not seen anything that says why someone should not take the vaccine.
There are special populations where it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about whether or not the vaccine is the right choice for you. If you are expecting a child, or if you’re in the midst of receiving therapy for some other condition, you should talk to your doctor before making that step. But we do want to remind folks that at this point, there are very few reasons not to get the vaccine.
Do I still need to wear my mask after I get vaccinated?
Yes. I would love the idea of walking out of the door after my second shot and throwing my mask in the air like I graduated from COVID University, but we can’t do that. Not yet.
A couple of reasons why:
We don’t know how people are going to do immediately after getting their second shot. We want people to make sure that their immune systems have built up the proper amount of immunity.
Positivity rates and infection rates are still very, very high. We want to make sure that we continue to wear masks until we start seeing significant decreases in cases and positivity rates.
When we see a consistent decrease in those numbers, then some of the restrictions will start to come down. Some of the physical distancing requirements and other mitigation tactics will be relaxed.
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Can I still carry the virus after I’ve been vaccinated, even if I don’t get sick?
If somebody is vaccinated and then contracts COVID again, could they still spread it? Yes, they could do that. That can happen.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have an efficacy of more than 90%. That’s not 100%, but that is still high. That’s why we have to keep wearing our masks until we see the numbers really starting to show us that these infections are coming down.
If enough people are vaccinated, will things go back to normal?
If we get enough folks vaccinated, 70% to 75% of the population, life is gonna look a lot more like normal. But it’s gonna take all of us to really stick with it and continue to wear masks, to physically distance where we can, to avoid crowds and to avoid any situation that can allow the virus to proliferate.
I’ve heard about new COVID-19 variants. What does that mean?
You may be aware there are new mutations of the virus. They have sprung up in the United Kingdom, in South Africa and now in Brazil.
These variants will not look exactly like the COVID-19 virus that has dominated the globe over the last year. And what we cannot do is take a long, long time to get vaccinated against the virus we know. If we don’t get people vaccinated quickly enough, these new variants will be less vulnerable to the vaccine. And if that’s the case, it’ll be easier for those new variants to spread.
We’ve got to really double our efforts. Get as many people vaccinated as we can and just get shots and arms. That is the goal. We must, we must, we must get shots in arms.
Black Americans in particular are grappling with a lot of trauma and distrust when it comes to health care and the vaccine. What would you say to Black Akronites who are worried? Would you encourage them to get vaccinated?
Absolutely. I would absolutely encourage my Black patients to get vaccinated. As a Black man myself, I am vaccinated. I am trying to get my parents, who are Black people, vaccinated.
I understand where the distrust and the hesitancy comes from. The history of medicine in America has been wrought with racism, with activities that we look back on with shame.
This virus has killed 1 in about 750 Black people in the United States. It has already done tremendous damage. We do not need to compound that tragedy by limiting our ability to get vaccinated.
Pandemics and plagues put a mirror to our society. They shine a mirror on our society and show us who we really are. We know there are great inequities. We know there’s a lot that we have to fix in our society. We should not waste this crisis. We should do more to address inequities, to address the systemic racism in our health care system and to ensure that we don’t compound those problems in the roll out of the vaccine.
H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.