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Emory University hosts COVID-19 vaccine town hall

With the first shipments of COVID-19 vaccine arriving in Georgia this week, Emory hosted the first of many virtual town halls on the topic Dec. 17.

At this early stage, uncertainties remain about vaccine availability in both the short and long term, but the virtual town hall sought to inform Emory faculty, staff and students about what is known about the safety and efficacy of these vaccines and to begin to answer questions. 

Based on CDC guidelines, the initial phase of vaccine rollout will prioritize high-risk health care workers and residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities. It is important that people get the vaccine, as at least 60% of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to control the spread of COVID-19. 

The virtual town hall featured the following presenters:

  • Gregory L. Fenves, President, Emory University
  • Jonathan Lewin, MD, Executive Vice President for Health Affairs, Emory University; CEO and Chairman of the Board, Emory Healthcare
  • Aneesh Mehta, MD, Chief, Infectious Diseases Services, Emory University Hospital
  • Walter Orenstein, MD, Professor, Associate Director, Emory Vaccine Center
  • Sharon Rabinovitz, MD, Executive Director, Emory University Student Health Services
  • Marybeth Sexton, MD, Epidemiologist, Emory Clinic

Here are some key points presented during the town hall, which can be viewed in full above.

Promising vaccines: The basics

  • Currently, the Food and Drug Administration has cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for Emergency Use Authorization and is expected to approve the Moderna vaccine soon.
  • Both Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines that contain temporary genetic instructions (messenger RNA) to make a spike protein. Your immune system then learns how to recognize the spike protein and make antibodies so that it will also react to a coronavirus particle in the future.

Vaccine safety and side effects

  • Based on clinical trials, the vaccinations are safe and effective.
  • Side effects may look like COVID-19 symptoms but do not mean you have COVID-19. Your immune system is reacting and that is a good thing.
  • Some studies noted a “severe” reaction. “Severe” is a research term which just means the reaction interrupts daily life, e.g., fatigue or a mild fever. These are not dangerous or life threatening.
  • About 10% of the clinical trial participants experienced these and that is a low number.

Expected timeline for availability

  • Emory received an initial vaccine allocation on Dec. 17.
  • Initial allocation will be limited and will be prioritized among groups following state and federal guidelines.
  • Initially, we anticipate that the vaccines will be in short supply even for our priority groups.

Key questions about the vaccine and Emory

Will the vaccine be mandatory?

We do not have plans to mandate a vaccine for the Emory university community. Before taking such a step we would establish a formal process for collecting staff and provider feedback as well as conduct an ethics review. However, we are hoping that with additional education and public health promotion, members of our community will voluntarily take the vaccine to protect themselves, their loved ones and our community. 

With the understanding that Emory Healthcare is receiving initial vaccines, how will Emory prioritize who will receive the vaccine?

While we don’t know exactly when enough vaccine will be available to broadly vaccinate university faculty, staff and students, we will follow CDC and state department of public health guidelines:

  • Health care personnel likely to be exposed to or treat people with COVID-19, which includes Student Health Services
  • First responders: Emory Police Department, Environmental Health and Safety Office, etc.
  • Other workers performing essential functions: Building and Residential Services, Facilities Management, animal care, research, etc.
  • All other populations

The vaccine is two doses. Do I have to take both?

Yes. The data for how well the vaccines work is based on having both doses.

  • We don’t know whether the vaccine would work as well (or at all) with a single dose.
  • It is incredibly important that anyone who receives the first dose is committed to complying with the second dose.
  • We will work during scheduling to make sure you have both appointments and get reminders. 

If I am vaccinated, can I stop wearing a mask?

  • Getting a vaccine series does NOT mean one can stop wearing a mask or stop physical distancing practices. No vaccines are 100% effective.
  • Everyone should continue to follow masking, physical distancing and hand hygiene guidelines for the foreseeable future.

To review additional questions and answers or to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine for the Emory community, please visit the Emory Forward website.

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