New Mexico will receive over 17,000 COVID vaccines from Pfizer in the first round of national distribution. Melissa Martinez, a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of New Mexico, is a member of the state’s Vaccine Advisory Group, and says healthcare workers and the elderly will be among the first to get vaccinated.
“The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, who is the group in the CDC that does this, looked really carefully at this,” Martinez said. “They looked at ethical issues like benevolence and equity, and they came up with a framework for prioritizing the vaccines. And they decided that very frontline people, those who live-in long-term care facilities, people who are in nursing homes and things like that should be the very, very first people to get the vaccine because they are the most vulnerable to the disease. They also looked at health care workers, because they want health care workers to be available and be able to take care of everybody.”
New Mexico Lieutenant Governor Howie Morales also wants teachers to be given priority access to the vaccine in order to reopen schools as quickly as possible.
“We do recognize the tremendous sacrifices that our educators will be making as they put themselves in harm's way,” Morales said. “As we make the transition to in-person learning, we want to do all we can to ensure the safety and well-being of our educators.”
New Mexico will be one of four states in Pfizer’s distribution trial, along with Texas, Tennessee and Rhode Island. Martinez says one of the challenges will be getting the vaccine to rural areas.
“There are people that are in remote areas, and it's hard to get the vaccine to them, especially with the cold chain requirement of some of the vaccines that are going to roll out early, that they have to be kept at very low temperatures, and just transporting them is an issue,” Martinez said. “I think that the other issue that we face, not only New Mexico, but all over the country, is that people have some hesitancy about vaccines.”
The Pew Research Center reports public confidence in the vaccine has grown, with approximately 60% of Americans indicating they would either definitely or probably get the vaccine, a 9% increase from when the same question was asked in September.
Walter Isaacson, a journalist who participated in the Pfizer Vaccine Trial, recently spoke to PBS about his experience.
“There's no way that there would have been a safety thing where you could have gotten COVID from it, it's simply a piece of RNA,” Isaacson said.
RNA, or Ribonucleic Acid, works naturally to help make proteins in the human body. The Pfizer vaccine uses RNA for the generation of spike protein, a protein the CDC has labeled as harmless, in order to build up immunity against COVID.
Martinez says that while people might experience some flu like symptoms upon getting the vaccine, it will not infect them with COVID.
"It's the protein on the outside of the virus, and it's already the protein, it's not the whole virus. It can't replicate itself. You will not be able to get COVID from the COVID vaccine,” Martinez said. “It's physiologically impossible. I would say though, that people can anticipate that it will be like the flu shot with side effects of, you know, achy body, sore throat, headache, little pain in the arm, little minor side effects like that.”
Isaacson says the use of RNA in vaccines will allow the scientific community to fight future viruses more easily.
“With these RNA vaccines, it fights this COVID-19, but let's suppose, another virus comes along, and it will, in the next year or two or three years, there's another coronavirus or any type of virus that comes along,” Isaacson said. “This can be easily reprogrammed. All you have to do is get the genetic sequence of the new virus and a college biology student in a lab in one day can do the reprogramming of this sequence, so you get a new vaccine to fight any new virus that comes along.”
As confidence in the COVID vaccine grows, experts say other measures will still be needed. Martinez says social distancing and mask wearing will be vital.
“I think it’s going to be a long time before the vaccine is fully rolled out and fully does its job,” Martinez said. “I think people need to continue to be very, very cautious. It would be terrible to have the vaccine and then still have people getting ill. So all the things—social distancing, good hand washing, covering your mouth when you cough…people should continue to do that.”