Facts and Fears: What Shasta County Needs to Know About COVID Vaccines

Misinformation abounds. We’ve fact-checked. Here’s What You Need to Know

Data in this article reflect county numbers as of September 6, 2021.

Shasta County’s COVID case numbers are soaring.

The county’s current case rate for the virus (462 per 100,000) is more than four times the number considered high transmission (> 100 per 100,000) by the Centers for Disease Control.   Rapid spread of the disease within Shasta County is attributed to the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 as well as the relatively low rates of vaccination in the county. 

The vast majority of Shasta County’s COVID cases, vaccinations and deaths are in the unvaccinated population. The county’s vaccination rate (now 44.7%) is significantly below both the California vaccination rate (57.4%) and the national vaccination rate (53%).  

Dr. Karen Ramstrom, Shasta County’s Public Health Officer, said in last week’s media briefing that local health care personnel are “exhausted” by the increasing demands of responding to the pandemic. She called on all Shasta County residents to do their part to reduce transmission in the community and the associated strain on healthcare providers. Ongoing science indicates that masking, vaccination and staying home when sick are the best ways to prevent spread of the disease. 

Shasta County’s vaccination rates are rising, but myths and misinformation continue to create vaccine resistance and hesitancy locally. That’s why we’re sharing facts that respond to common misconceptions and misinformation surrounding the vaccine.

How did the COVID-19 vaccine get FDA approval so fast? 

Prior to the various COVID vaccines, the fastest vaccine development was for the mumps vaccine, a process that took four years. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines took less than one year from start of development to authorization for emergency use. 

Researchers were able to develop the COVID-19 vaccine quickly for several reasons.

For the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, scientists used what they had learned from previous research of related coronaviruses. The genetic sequencing from those viruses led them to quickly focus on the way COVID-19 enters cells, allowing them to accelerate past the extended “discovery” phase of vaccine development. Similarly, HIV research was instrumental in the development of the very different technologies used in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The process was also significantly accelerated by federal investments in the manufacturing and distribution process early on, before any vaccines had been approved.  Operation Warp Speed, a cooperative program between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense, was utilized to fast-track the vaccine process. The U.S. military coordinated vaccine distribution.

What about the doctor who invented mRNA vaccines and now criticizes them? 

Dr. Robert Malone, who recently appeared on Steve Bannon’s War Room, has been referred to by some as the inventor of the mRNA vaccine. While Dr. Malone is responsible for some of the important pieces of research behind mRNA technology, he is only one of many who have contributed to the science behind the COVID-19 vaccination.

Dr. Malone has been a source of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine by sharing information which he has later acknowledged was untrue.

What’s in the COVID-19 vaccine? 

The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines contain modified messenger RNA (mRNA) and other ingredients that keep the vaccine stable. Messenger RNA is used by the body to copy information from the body’s genetic material (DNA) to make new proteins. Messenger RNA does not enter the nucleus of cells or change their DNA, but prompts human cells to create copies of the SARS-COV-2 spike protein as a means of “training” the immune system to respond to actual virus.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine works differently.  It contains a modified adenovirus and other ingredients to keep the vaccine stable.  Adenoviruses are common viruses that cause pink eye and the common cold. The Johnson & Johnson Covid Vaccine uses adenovirus that has been modified to contain a small piece of the genetic code from the COVID-19 virus. That modified adenovirus serves as a Trojan horse, delivering code that causes production of the spike protein within the body which leads the body to respond by releasing antibodies. Johnson & Johnson says the virus has been modified so that it can’t make you sick, can’t replicate and can’t integrate into your DNA. 

All three vaccines contain no metals, eggs, latex or preservatives.

Full (and short) ingredient lists can be found here.

Aren’t vaccine manufacturers shielded from liability in the case of COVID-19 vaccines?

By law, vaccine companies are protected from liability caused by COVID-19 vaccine injuries.  

The same is true for all routine vaccinations because Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act in 1986 to limit the liability of vaccine manufacturers who were facing lawsuits that threatened their ability to produce vaccines. Because of that act, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) was developed and healthcare providers are required to report qualifying side effects of immunizations to the Vaccines Adverse Event Reporting System or VAERS.

Why is there now a vaccine called Comirnaty?

Comirnaty is the brand name of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.  That vaccine, which has been administered for the last eight months under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was just given full approval by the FDA. 

Is the FDA-approved Pfizer vaccine the same one that’s available to the public now? 

Yes.  Some have claimed that the vaccine available to the public is different from the one that has been fully approved by the FDA, but that is incorrect. The Pfizer vaccine available to the public has been fully approved. 

Confusion has arisen because in addition to the full FDA approval of this vaccine there is also an ongoing emergency use authorization for the same vaccine. That emergency use authorization allows the vaccine to be utilized in ways that have not yet received full approval by the FDA, including for those ages 12-15 and as a third booster shot for the immunocompromised.  

Paper Signs with Dignity Health Logo and handwritten notes indicating why people chose to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
A COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Shasta College displays hand-written signs indicating people’s reasons for vaccinating. Photo by Annelise Pierce.

Have people had bad reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine? 

Most adverse effects reported from the COVID-19 vaccine are minor and include short-term headache, muscle pain, and tiredness.  

Some serious side effects have been observed. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been associated with a very low incidence of life-threatening blood clots. Distribution of the vaccine was temporarily halted but has now resumed.  

As of August 2, just under 700 claims of injuries or deaths related to the COVID-19 vaccines had been submitted for review to the federal program that compensates COVID-19 vaccine injuries. It’s not clear how many of these represent true injuries or deaths caused by the COVID-19 vaccine because the claims are still under review.

For some perspective, those 700 claims represent a small fraction of total vaccinations in the United States. 176 million Americans have been fully vaccinated and an estimated 649,000 have died from the virus.

Is there any help if someone is injured by the COVID-19 vaccine?

A federal program called the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program (CICP) which has existed since 2010,  may compensate individuals who die or suffer serious injuries caused by COVID-19 vaccines as well as other “countermeasures.”

There is no difference in liability coverage between the emergency use authorization and the full FDA approval. 

You can report injury from the COVID-19 vaccine and all other vaccines through the Vaccines Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS.  

VAERS accepts all reports of adverse impacts from vaccines and reports to VAERS do not indicate proven injury caused by the vaccine. The CDC provides updates from VAERS reports for public awareness and transparency. Serious reported injuries from the vaccine are rare, but include Guillian-Barre syndrome, myocarditis and pericarditis, and death.

Can the government mandate the vaccine? 

In 1905, the Supreme Court ruled that states could require vaccination against smallpox to protect health, safety and the common good. In that case the Supreme Court issued a statement that: “the rights of the individual may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint to be enforced by reasonable regulations as the safety of the general public demands.

The federal government cannot mandate vaccines but can offer financial incentives to encourage voluntary vaccinations. So far, none of the states have mandated vaccines for all. Employers can require their employees to be vaccinated as long as they allow medical and religious exemptions. 

Sci-Check’s Covid-19/Vaccination Project, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, provides comprehensive information related to ongoing misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines and served as a valuable resource for this article.

8.9.21 This article was updated to include information about reported vaccine injuries.

Do you have a question or comment? Email us, or join the community conversation at Shasta Scout’s Facebook page. Do you have a correction to this story? Submit it here.

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