Patience is crucial as campus awaits wider distribution of vaccine

The innovative vaccines approved to protect against COVID-19 are safe and effective but unfortunately still relatively scarce, leaving the timeline for campuswide availability out of the university's control, an ISU panel of health experts said in a Jan. 15 town hall

ISU vaccine website

Iowa State has created a vaccine page on its main COVID-19 website for sharing updates and information about vaccines, including links to state and federal resources. 

Distribution of the vaccines in the U.S. begins with the federal government allocating supplies to states, which set their own policies and procedures for delivering doses to their residents. In Iowa, the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) establishes how to prioritize which populations to vaccinate and works with county health departments to distribute to health providers approved to administer the vaccine, such as the Thielen Student Health Center.

"It's not Iowa State making our own plan. It's not Story County making its own independent plan. We're part of an overall phasing process," said Erin Baldwin, associate vice president for student health and wellness.

The state's first phase of vaccine distribution covered staff and residents at long-term care facilities and health care staff, allowing ISU employees who work at the health center or the COVID-19 testing site to be vaccinated. Decisions on who to include in subsequent IDPH vaccine rollout phases are in flux, adjusted as vaccine supply expectations change and new considerations emerge. 

Iowa vaccine status

IDPH shares current information about vaccine distribution in Iowa in an online report. As of Jan. 19, 156,296 doses had been administered in the state and 16,854 people had received both doses. In Story County, vaccine providers had administered 6,140 doses and 965 people had received both doses.

For instance, Baldwin said, IDPH made several changes in the past few weeks to the state's second phase set to begin Feb. 1. Current plans for phase 1B include people older than 64 and those in numerous specified living situations or occupations -- such as staff at Pre-K-12 schools but not colleges.

"I think the biggest takeaway today is to understand the vaccine rollout phases are constantly changing and that Iowa State is part of a chain of command. It's also important to understand that vaccine plans are going to look different from state to state, and the phasing will look different," she said. "We just have to know that things will continue to change, and we'll provide information as soon as it's available."

Uncertainty about the coming phases and the amount of vaccine Iowa and Story County will receive makes it impossible to estimate when particular groups or individuals on campus will have access to the vaccine, Baldwin said. Wide distribution likely is several months away. In the meantime, she recommended taking advantage of any offer to be vaccinated, though it's important to be wary of possible scams

"If you have an opportunity to get your vaccine through your health provider, we want you to take that opportunity. We encourage you to get the vaccine wherever you can," she said.

Vaccine of the future

The vaccines approved so far for use in the U.S. were developed by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech and both rely on an injection of genetic material, mRNA, to direct cells to make the protein that forms the spikes on the outer surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. The spike protein the body makes acts as a harmless decoy, triggering a flood of antibodies to fend off the actual virus. These are the first vaccines ever approved for human use that employ the mRNA method. 

Though they're the first, they won't be the last. ISU vaccine expert David Verhoeven, an assistant professor of veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine, said vaccines that use mRNA are likely the vaccines of the future because they work well and are easy to create. The Moderna vaccine was designed in two days, he said.

"That could be very important when we have some of these variants people are starting to hear about," he said.

Despite the rapid development, the vaccines went through a full approval process and data from their large-scale trials shows few adverse reactions. Both are more than 90% effective, far better than the 50% protection many expected, Verhoeven said.

"They knocked it out of the park," he said.

The vaccines require an injection into the shoulder, and then a booster dose administered a few weeks later. It's not yet clear how long the protection will last, but it appears to be stronger than the immunity provided by having had COVID-19, said Dan Fulton, an infectious disease specialist at McFarland Clinic in Ames. Annual booster shots might be needed to maintain immunity, Verhoeven said.

Taking the leap

While an mRNA vaccine uses genetic material, it doesn't interact with your DNA and poses no risk of causing cellular changes, Verhoeven said. There's also no risk of the vaccine causing COVID-19, Fulton said. 

"People do not get coronavirus from the vaccine," Fulton said. "It's just not possible."

Still, it's normal for people to have concerns about the safety of a new vaccine, Fulton said, noting that his grandparents had to consider a similar plunge into the unknown in the 1950s when deciding whether their children should take the newly developed polio vaccine. He encouraged those unsure about taking the vaccine to consult reliable sources of information and said those looking to persuade the reluctant should try to dispel myths with facts and share their own values and experiences.

"This is something that people have encountered before, and it does take a fair amount of courage to move forward. But when you do, it can have a profound impact," he said.

For viral infections, prevention typically trumps treatment and vaccines are often the best method of prevention, Fulton said. He expects the vaccines will be approved for use in children in the near future -- both manufacturers are running juvenile trials -- and he would not oppose vaccinating pregnant or breastfeeding women.

"For the grand, grand majority of people, this is a useful tool I'd recommend," he said.

After the shot

Though the vaccines may pave the way for a return to pre-pandemic life, it won't happen quickly. The Cyclones Care practices in place on campus throughout the summer and fall -- including face coverings and physical distancing -- will continue in the spring semester. The university’s testing, case investigation and contact tracing programs remain essential.  

"It is critically important we remain vigilant and diligent," President Wendy Wintersteen said in introducing the town hall panel. 

Even people who have been vaccinated should continue mitigation steps such as wearing face coverings and maintaining distance from others, as some studies have shown that people with COVID-19 immunity may still carry the virus in their nasal passages, Verhoeven said.

"Some individuals might be able to shed that virus," he said. 

It will probably take 70-80% of people being immunized to achieve the herd immunity needed to prevent community spread, a level that depends on vaccination rates and durability, the contagiousness of coronavirus variants and other unknown factors, Fulton said. Hitting that mark is a long way off, said Kristen Obbink, COVID-19 public health coordinator.

"The vaccine provides hope, but the virus is still here in our community," she said.