PORTLAND, Ore. — The COVID-19 vaccine is the light at the end of a long, dark, 10-month-long tunnel.
There are two vaccines very close to coming on the market, one from Pfizer and the other from Moderna. Both have efficacy rates higher than 90%.
Both vaccines use "messenger RNA," where the virus' genetic code is injected into the body so it can instruct cells on what antibodies to produce.
The Pfizer vaccine is already being sent to states ahead of expected Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emergency use authorization. The number of vaccines sent depends on each state's population.
When will Oregon receive vaccines?
Oregon health officials said that a total of 147,950 first doses of the vaccines would be shipped to Oregon in mid-December, while another 119,450 second doses of the vaccine would be shipped to Oregon later in the month.
Here's a look at when the doses are expected to be shipped:
- Dec. 15: 35,100 first doses of the Pfizer vaccine
- Dec. 22: 40,950 first doses of the Pfizer vaccine
- Dec. 22: 71,900 first doses of the Moderna vaccine
- Dec. 29: 87,750 second doses of the Pfizer vaccine
- Dec. 29: 31,700 second doses of the Moderna vaccine
How will the vaccines be stored?
Both vaccines need to be kept cold before they are distributed. The Pfizer vaccine needs ultra-cold storage, between minus 70 to 80 degrees Celsius, while the Moderna vaccine can be kept in a regular freezer.
Dr. Joe Sullivan, a senior health advisor with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), said that preparing ultra-cold storage, or a "cold chain," for the Pfizer vaccine is one of OHA's biggest challenges.
States have a couple of options for storing the Pfizer vaccine. First, the vials can be kept in an ultra-cold freezer for up to six months. Oregon already has a couple of these freezers and is trying to acquire more, though they are competing with every other state for a limited supply.
Another option is to keep the vaccines stored in their ultra-cold shipping containers, which can be refilled with dry ice for up to 15 days. Once thawed, the Pfizer vials can also be kept in a fridge for up to five days.
Sullivan helped come up with the state’s plan to distribute the COVID-19 vaccines.
"The Moderna vaccine has more flexibility," Sullivan said. "It can be stored in a refrigerator for 30 days."
Who is prioritized to get the vaccine in Oregon?
Health-care workers, first responders, people in long-term care facilities and their caregivers comprise the first phase of the vaccination plan.
Sullivan said next in line are "people who are essential workers who keep our society going, our teachers, our transportation workers, our food handlers, and then we're looking at people with chronic diseases and people over 65 to get to the end of that."
Using a "health equity" lens, Oregon will then move on to vaccinating populations disproportionately affected by the virus.
This includes people from racial and ethnic minoritized groups, people from tribal communities, people who are incarcerated, people experiencing homelessness and people attending colleges, among others.
Only after that will the vaccine be available to the general population at vaccination events, pharmacies, doctor offices, dentist offices and more. Sullivan predicts this could happen by the end of March.
How do we know the COVID-19 vaccines are safe?
Sullivan said that while many are worried about how fast the vaccines came to the market, they are indeed safe and highly effective.
The vaccines must go through all the independent safety steps a normal vaccine would go through to get that emergency use authorization by the FDA.
While a normal vaccine study may have 5,000 people, these trials had between 30 and 60,000 participants.
Sullivan emphasizes that there have been no serious adverse events like a heart attack or paralysis but there will be some side effects associated with the COVID-19 vaccine.
"With these vaccines, you will get normal side effects from a vaccine like your arm might be sore, or you may have a low-grade fever or a headache, or be tired the next day," Sullivan said. "That's the sign that the vaccine is working, and your immune system is responding.
"The value is that we can get out of this COVID nightmare, that we as a society can move forward. One of the best ways to get herd immunity is for all of us to get vaccinated."
Oregon has joined with California, Washington and Nevada to put together an additional scientific safety workgroup to add one more layer of security before vaccines are administered in Oregon in December.
What about people who won’t take the vaccine?
About two-fifths of U.S. adults (39%) surveyed by the Pew Research Center in November said they would definitely not or probably not take a COVID-19 vaccine at that time, citing concerns over safety. This number is up from 27% in May but down from 49% in September.
In this most recent survey, 18% of U.S. adults said they may decide to get vaccinated once people start getting a vaccine and more information is available, but 21% do not intend to get vaccinated and are "pretty certain" new information will not change that.
Since 2019, the anti-vaccine movement has gained almost 8 million digital followers, according to a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a London-based nonprofit.
Oregon has long been a hotspot for the anti-vaxxer movement. In fact, a 2019 CDC study found that Oregon had one of the highest vaccine exemption rates among kindergarteners in the country (7.7% compared to 2.5% nationwide).
Oregonians for Medical Freedom, a group that advocates for vaccine exemptions, has more than 12,000 followers on Facebook, and they have taken to the streets with statements against the COVID-19 vaccine.
On Sunday, Nov. 29 the organization hung a banner on an overpass over 1-5 in southwest Portland saying, "COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers are exempt from liability." They joined Washingtonians, who put up a similar banner near Ridgefield, Wash., and medical freedom activists across the nation.
The organization "V is for Vaccine" and activists planned the statement to raise awareness of supposed COVID-19 vaccine risks on Nov. 29 — typically the busiest travel day of the year according to the Department of Transportation.
Their statement of vaccine makers being "exempt from liability" comes in reference to an amendment to the PREP Act, which states that companies "cannot be sued for money damages in court" over injuries caused by COVID-19 medical countermeasures, like vaccines. The only exception is if death or serious physical injury is caused by "willful misconduct."
Oregonians for Medical Freedom did not return KGW's request for comment.
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