Dr. Akram Sadaka, director of Public Health and Occupational Medicine at Naval Health Clinic Patuxent River, can’t stress firmly enough that everyone needs to take advantage of their earliest opportunity to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

“At this moment, we are losing two Americans per minute to COVID-19,” Sadaka said. “On a daily basis – each day – we are losing as many Americans as were lost on 9/11. So far, we’ve lost more than we lost in all of World War II, and that lasted four years. People need to take the vaccine; there’s nothing in it to be worried about.”

How does the vaccine work?

There are currently two vaccines being distributed, each requiring two shots at least three weeks apart.

Sadaka, explaining the process in simple terms, said scientists looked at which part of the virus was easily attacked to stop it from penetrating the cells of the human body; some part of it that could be used to interrupt or prevent the virus from doing what it wants to do. That turned out to be the spikes that protrude from the virus surface.

“They came up with a portion of the spikes’ makeup and made a strain the human body will respond to as a foreign substance, react to, and develop an anti-body that functions like a guard by grabbing the spike and stopping the whole virus from entering the human cell,” Sadaka said. “You might say it’s like grabbing the bull by its horns. Once that happens, the virus becomes incapable of entering the human cell to occupy or destroy it.”

Once our body produces the necessary antibodies, the injected material in the vaccine will dissipate and leave nothing behind other than the generated protective antibodies, Sadaka explained.

“It is estimated the first shot produces approximately 50% efficacy within a week, and the second shot yields 95% efficacy a week after that shot,” Sadaka said.

If infection occurs in the future, memory cells will recognize and fight the virus.

Is the vaccine safe?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted Emergency Use Authorizations for the two COVID-19 vaccines in use and each has been shown to be safe and effective as determined by data from the manufacturers and findings from large clinical trials, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). These data demonstrated that the known and potential benefits of the vaccine outweigh the known and potential harms of becoming infected with COVID-19.

“The fatality rate of the disease has plateaued at 1.7% in the U.S.,” Sadaka noted. “So, you have a disease we haven’t been able to get rid of that has nearly a 2% chance of killing you, or a vaccine with a 95% chance of preventing you from dying from the disease. I know which one I’d go with.”

The doctor was vaccinated a few weeks ago, along with all the doctors and nurses at the Pax River health clinic.

“Healthcare providers at the clinic took the vaccine weeks ago and no one reported any significant side effects,” Sadaka said. “You might get mild body aches, or a minimal headache, or a slight fever. I got that myself, but I took an ibuprofen and it was gone within the hour. We’re not trying to sell people something we’re not buying into ourselves.”

Sadaka reports that some individuals in the region who are on the current priority list have opted out of receiving the vaccine. 

“My concern is deep,” admitted Sadaka, who has lost two cousins to the disease. “In order for the vaccine to work, we need to vaccinate two-thirds to three-quarters of the population; otherwise the vaccine will not be, in a global sense, as effective as it should. We need to spread the word and work hard to cross that threshold.”

How to get the vaccine

Maryland is distributing the vaccine to five different priority groups based on relative risk of exposure or developing serious illness. At this writing, Phase I is currently underway and includes such individuals as healthcare workers, first responders, and nursing home residents and staff.

According to the COVID-link page at Maryland.gov, the state has adopted a rolling vaccine allocation model, meaning it may not wait for every member of a particular group to be vaccinated before moving ahead, though individuals will still have the opportunity to be vaccinated in subsequent phases. Anyone interested in receiving the vaccine can contact their primary healthcare provider for more information about their eligibility, or sign up for an appointment at a local health department or other community partner at marylandvax.gov.

For naval medical facilities, distribution is also being conducted in phases, which prioritizes the distribution and administering of COVID-19 vaccines to protect their people, maintain readiness, and support the national COVID-19 response. Due to limited availability of initial vaccine doses, the first phase distributed and administered vaccines at select locations. As manufacturing rates and CDC allocation permits, there will be/has been an increase in distribution and administration to additional selected sites and then to broader Navy- and Marine Corps-based locations. This process can be expected to take several months. Full-scale unrestricted vaccine availability to naval personnel, similar to the annual influenza vaccine program, will be accomplished before or by mid-2021.

Masks, distancing still necessary

The vaccine produces antibodies inside the body to prevent the virus from violating cells but it does not repel the virus, Sadaka noted, and all preventive measures must continue to be taken.

“Being vaccinated, you can still be infected with the virus, but are not likely to get sick or die,” Sadaka clarified. “The virus will remain in your body until it dies out, and during that time, you can still potentially transmit the disease to others. Face coverings and physical distancing are still necessary. All preventive measures still apply while vaccination is underway until the virus disappears.”

Going forward

The Food and Drug Administration, CDC, and other federal partners will be assessing COVID-19 effectiveness under real-world conditions, making sure vaccine assessments include diverse groups of people. Many other vaccines are still being developed and tested.

“We can’t say this is a silver bullet, we don’t know for sure what’s going to happen,” Sadaka added. “But we know it’s safe and effective according to available studies. We owe it to the public to explain these things because there’s so much misinformation. It will take some time for us to reverse the course.”

For detailed information and FAQs about the COVID-19 vaccine, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/index.html

For the latest information and details on the virus and vaccine in Maryland, visit https://covidlink.maryland.gov/content/vaccine/