SEIU 1107, University Medical Center (UMC), and Clark County Commissioners William McCurdy II and Justin Jones held a virtual town hall tonight with SEIU union members to discuss the COVID-19 vaccines. They covered a whole lot of ground in just over an hour, from confirming the safety and efficacy of these vaccines to highlighting local efforts to make these vaccines more available to more Nevadans.
As Nevada begins to expand eligibility for these COVID-19 vaccines, here’s more of what you should know about how they work and how you can “get the jab”.
“Via this mRNA, we make it in a lab, we place it in fat, or lipid particles, and we place it in the patient. It makes this spike protein, and only this spike protein. It does not make any virus in the patient.”
– Dr. Luis Medina-Garcia, University Medical Center (UMC), on how the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines work
In previous editions of our “This Week in Corona Scams” series, we went to great lengths to debunk anti-vaccine rumors, and then to explain how the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson (Janssen, or J&J) COVID-19 vaccines work. Fortunately for SEIU 1107 members, many of whom are frontline medical workers and/or frontline public sector workers, they got to hear directly from Dr. Luis Medina-Garcia, an infectious disease specialist at UMC, on how these vaccines work.
On the mRNA based Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, Dr. Medina-Garcia noted, “They were able to create that genetic code for the spike protein which is key for infections in humans. Via this mRNA, we make it in a lab, we place it in fat, or lipid particles, and we place it in the patient. It makes this spike protein, and only this spike protein. It does not make any virus in the patient.”
On the adenoviral vector based J&J vaccine, Dr. Medina-Garcia explained, “It causes an infection, but a very mild infection. Through the adenovirus, it also carries instruction to develop the spike protein.” And just as UNR’s Dr. Mark Riddle explained during a Nevada Health Response press call earlier this month, Dr. Medina-Garcia explained that because J&J mimics infection in a way that elicits a stronger immune response, “With J&J, we only need one shot to produce sufficient immunity.”
“It is secure. It is safe. It is scientifically proven.”
– Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy II, on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines
Now that we’ve had that refresher course on how the vaccines work, how can we know they’re safe? Medina-Garcia noted that it’s “extremely rare” to find allergies to specific vaccine ingredients, and even then patients probably still need at least one vaccine dose for proper inoculation. He also confirmed that pregnant people, people with HIV/AIDS and other autoimmune diseases, and other groups who have been rumored to be “at risk” really face more risk from contracting COVID-19 than getting any of the vaccines.
Regarding pregnancy, Medina-Garcia said, “It’s a personal decision. I know nurses here at UMC have been vaccinated and haven’t suffered any complications with their pregnancies.” He continued, “Pregnant women who get COVID-19 face higher risk for mortality. Please get your shot.”
Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy II also chimed in. Regarding the vaccines, he reassured, “It is secure. It is safe. It is scientifically proven.” He also noted that the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD) is working to provide Clark County residents with accurate information on the vaccines along with local opportunities to get vaccinated.
“We need to get this accurate information, this scientifically backed information, to our communities.”
– Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy II
So what’s being done to ensure more Nevadans get vaccinated? SEIU 1107 Executive Director Grace Vergara-Mectal asked, “There’s data suggesting that working-class communities of color are being vaccinated at lower rates than other communities. What are we doing to ensure that everyone has enough resources to [get vaccinated]?” And later in the program, I asked more generally what else is needed in order to ensure more people can get vaccinated.
Both McCurdy and fellow Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones indicated that Clark County is working to establish more mobile pods up and down the Las Vegas Strip to reach more hospitality workers. In addition Clark County is working to develop more pop-up vaccination sites in neighborhoods across the county, and the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) has already launched special buses to safely transport patients to and from vaccination centers.
McCurdy then added, “One thing that we’re doing is ensuring we provide accurate information to our communities. We need to get this accurate information, this scientifically backed information, to our communities.” He noted that SNHD already began local outreach in primarily Spanish-speaking communities in February, and Jones added that SNHD is working with community partner organizations like the Asian Community Development Council (ACDC) to reach Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) and other diverse communities with vaccine resources.
Jones also noted that the arrival of the J&J vaccine means a critical resource that expands new vaccination opportunities to more Nevadans. Or as Jones put it, “With J&J, they can get the one-shot vaccine and get [inoculated].”
“We can’t reopen The Strip entirely until we have a substantial number of residents who’ve been vaccinated. That’s the only way we’ll get anywhere close to normalcy.”
– Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones
So why is it so important for people to get vaccinated? For Jones, “We can’t reopen The Strip entirely until we have a substantial number of residents who’ve been vaccinated. That’s the only way we’ll get anywhere close to normalcy.” Others at the town hall concurred that these vaccines provide critical tools to safely get us to the herd immunity we need for a more sustainable and robust reopening.
But why can’t we just try more “natural immunity”, as so many so-called “alternative wellness gurus” (read: anti-vaxxers) have suggested? Dr. Medina-Garcia explained, “When you have the infection, you develop antibodies yourself. You develop some level of protection, but it usually lasts about 90 days.” From what we now know about COVID-19, vaccination provides a far safer and more reliable path to herd immunity than any kind of “control group”/“natural immunity” experiment: “With vaccination, we’ve found much more uniform protection through antibodies.”
For Mason Van Houweling, UMC’s Chief Executive Officer, Europe’s recent COVID-19 resurgence and rebound in “vaccine hesitancy” (the latter, thanks to the false rumors about the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine) are nothing that we should want to emulate here in the U.S. With COVID-19 hospitalizations at the lowest levels we’ve experienced since last November, Van Houweling noted, “The numbers are looking good, but we can’t afford to fall back.”
“Stay safe. Stay strong. Please make a plan to get the vaccine when it becomes available to you.”
– Kevin Carey, SEIU 1107
UMC leaders disclosed that as of today, 65% of UMC staff have been vaccinated. As of tonight, 24.1% of Nevadans have received at least one vaccine dose and 13.5% of Nevadans are fully vaccinated according to the CDC. We’ve definitely witnessed a lot of progress since the nation’s initial shambolic vaccine rollout last December, but we nonetheless have more room for improvement.
Kurt Houser, UMC’s Chief Human Resources Officer, suggested, “We hope you can be human evangelists. Tell your story. Tell others how good you feel after getting vaccinated.” He then provided some more reasons why more people should get vaccinated: “We need to get our folks back together. We want to have picnics again. We want to bring our community together again.”
While a handful of SEIU members had some questions about how the vaccines work and whether they’re safe for everyone, I sensed far more hope and desire for vaccination. As Liz Bolhouse, a registered nurse at UMC and a SEIU 1107 worker, noted, “We all know it’s been such a life-changing year for all of us. And for so many of us in SEIU 1107, we’ve been on the front lines of this pandemic.”
And towards the end of the program, SEIU 1107 President Kevin Carey offered a few words of wisdom: “Stay safe. Stay strong. Please make a plan to get the vaccine when it becomes available to you.”
If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Nevada Health Response on testing in your area, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please wear your masks and maintain social distancing from people outside your household.
The cover photo is a screenshot taken by me.