As questions continue to arise each day on the vaccination process in Oklahoma, so do our state's COVID-19 numbers. This has caused a statewide concern over how to get vaccinated, where to get vaccinated, and what it all means for Oklahomans. We sat down with the Oklahoma News Report's Rory Taylor to ask him all things vaccine-related and get as much information as possible on this confusing, yet critically important process.
OETA: Vaccinations in Oklahoma are officially underway. What phase are we currently in?
Rory Taylor: Oklahoma is currently moving into phase two of four. Within the phase, the state is starting with remaining health care workers that weren’t in phase one first responders, and Oklahomans sixty-five and older. Up next will be K-12 teachers, essential government officials, and staff and residents of “congregate locations,” meaning homeless shelters, prisons, as well as some factories and public transit workers.
OETA: What is the next phase? Can you explain each stage and how it impacts Oklahomans?
Rory: Phase three will start with teachers, students, and other staff in schools outside of the K-12—essentially, colleges and vo-techs. Norman and Stillwater both saw significant outbreaks in their populations when students returned for classes in the fall, and since nearly June, the 18-30 population has had the highest amount of community spread. Even right now, 31% of Oklahoma’s cases are in that age group. The hope is that by prioritizing those education settings, not only will in-person classes be safer for students but that it will have a substantial impact to reduce community spread.
“Critical Infrastructure Personnel,” or essential workers as defined by the governor’s third executive order, are also covered in phase three. This will be the largest group to get the vaccine, covering an estimated 1.5 million Oklahomans.
OETA: What are the different categories of each different phase? I think most people understand there are four phases, but people are confused about phase 1a, or 2b, etc.
Rory: Here in Oklahoma, we have four phases, and while the different groups in a phase are prioritized, they don’t have named sub-phases like 2a or 3b. Vaccines will be distributed to each new group as supplies allow. The 1a, 1b, and 1c phases you’ve heard of refer to the CDC’s proposed vaccine plan. The CDC’s plan is made as a guideline and is very similar to Oklahoma’s priorities, but it’s also intended to be more time focused than people-focused. The CDC’s phases two and three are nearly identical except their phase three expects more routine to the distribution as supplies and community spread level off. For Oklahomans, all you need to know is which phase of the four to which you belong.
OETA: How do people schedule their vaccinations? How do they know if they are able to register?
Rory: Scheduling a vaccination is fairly simple right now. If you go to the state’s online vaccine portal, you can fill out the questionnaire to determine which phase you belong to, and if your phase is being vaccinated, you can select an appointment time there on the webpage.
OETA: Can you register for your vaccination before the phase a person fits in? If I’m in the phase four demo, can I register now?
Rory: Anyone can register at any time. If you’re in a phase or demographic that isn’t receiving vaccines yet, you can still register, and the vaccine portal will send you a notification when your group can get vaccinated, at which point you can sign in and select an appointment time. When you register, you should receive a registration confirmation email, and then a phase confirmation email when you are eligible to receive the vaccine.
OETA: How will I know when I have an actual appointment? Many of the slots are being filled within 1-2 minutes of the registration opening each day. People are getting an email notification saying they will be emailed with information on how to schedule their vaccination appointment within their group when they finish the previous group. This is happening to people in phase two right now.
Rory: If you have selected an appointment time, the vaccine portal should show your schedule time and location, but you will not receive a verification email for the appointment. If you were not able to schedule an appointment even though your group is eligible, OSDH recommends checking back in the portal weekly on Thursdays for new appointments.
OETA: Can you explain the dosing, and what the overall vaccination process looks like for an individual?
Rory: A single dose of the Pfizer vaccine is roughly 0.3 ml of the mRNA vaccine diluted in simple saline water for injection. A patient receives two doses, 21 days apart. The Moderna vaccine is a half-milliliter dose that doesn’t get diluted, injected twice, 28 days apart. While the Pfizer vaccine is certified for those 16 and older, the Moderna is only certified for those 18 and older. Both are injected into the deltoid muscle of your arm. Once injected, the vaccine prompts an immune-system response, which may very mild flu-like symptoms for a day or two while your body uses resources to produce antibodies, but at no point is the virus in you, and there is no real threat; your body is just running drills so it knows what to do with the real thing.
OETA: Is it important to receive the same brand of vaccine for your first and second dose?
Rory: Yes, if you start your regiment with Pfizer, your second dose will also be Pfizer. Under the current federal system, when the state orders ten doses, those doses are shipped and ten more are set aside to arrive later for the booster doses, to ensure no one misses their booster.
OETA: Are both doses necessary to receive full protection?
Rory: Both doses are necessary. One dose can have some benefits, making you less likely to have a severe case if you were to catch COVID, but it can still be spread. Two doses are necessary to get up to the 95% efficacy the vaccines offer.
OETA: Should people still wear a mask and social distance after getting the vaccine? Should they wait until they have received both doses?
Rory: People should absolutely wait until they have had both doses, and then another week or so before relaxing any safety measures. It takes the body a little bit of time to build up the antibodies needed to prevent infection, and during that time, you’re still vulnerable.
Having received both doses and let them take effect means that if the virus enters your system, your body knows how to fight it, preventing it from becoming an infection. However, this does not mean that you cannot spread it by coughing while carrying it, shaking hands after touching an infected surface, or even being in crowded spaces. It is currently recommended by both the CDC and state department of health that even after receiving the vaccine, social distance and masking measures are maintained until community spread is under control. And, especially remember to WASH YOUR HANDS! A little soap goes a long way.
OETA: Should Oklahomans be concerned about the new variant (B117) that is circulating? Are there issues the variant could cause with the current vaccines?
Rory: With the current vaccine and standard COVID-19, the antibodies your cells produce disable the spike proteins on the virus, so it cannot infect your cells. The new variant shares 99% of its proteins with the prevailing strain of COVID-19 according to BioNTech, the company working with Pfizer on their vaccine. This means the current vaccine should be equally effective against the new strain. Concerns to keep in mind are that the new strain is showing to be more contagious, so as it spreads, social distancing measures may become even more important until vaccinations catch up.
OETA: Some people are concerned about even taking the vaccination. Where are those fears coming from and are they justified?
Rory: No one wants to get stabbed with a syringe full of unknown substances. Fortunately, the vaccine’s contents aren’t a secret. The current vaccines are made of what’s called mRNA—think of it as a microscopic blueprint that your cells can read. When they read the mRNA, it gives them instructions for making the same kind of spikes that are on the COVID-19 virus without the actual virus body that infects your cells. This means your body can practice making antibodies to disable the spikes without the threat of the virus. The rest of the vaccines’ contents are traces of preservatives because RNA is meant to be disassembled by cells and deconstructs very easily. This is also why the vaccines must be kept frozen until they’re ready to use.
For the vast majority of people, there is nothing in the vaccine that can harm them. Again, some mild flu-like symptoms are common within a day or two of receiving the vaccine. If you have a history of severe allergic reactions to vaccines, you should consult your doctor before getting vaccinated, but other allergies, such as pets, food, or bee stings generally don’t indicate your body would react to a COVID-19 vaccine. In the unlikely circumstance you do have a reaction, doctors administering the vaccine are aware of the allergy risk and keep epinephrine and other tools available to ensure your safety.
OETA:Thank you so much, Rory, for this incredibly helpful information.