Georgia Gwinnett College nursing professor explains why coronavirus vaccine is nothing to fear
The race to herd immunity is in full swing. More than 95 million Americans have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose, and by the time this article is published, Georgia alone will have administered more than 3.7 million vaccine shots. Those are encouraging numbers, but there is still a considerable way to go before reaching that magical, oft-discussed point when we can start living our everyday lives again.
The key to getting to the finish line is getting vaccines into the arms of enough people, says Georgia Gwinnett College professor of nursing Dr. Jeffrey Fouche-Camargo. Unfortunately, a significant number are still wary of getting that done. A few weeks ago, he created a presentation for the Louisiana chapter of the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) to dispel some of the more common misconceptions that are out there. The level of interest in it surprised him.
“It was interesting how it got started. I posted on Facebook trying to dispel some of the misinformation about the vaccine, and a former colleague of mine who lives in Baton Rouge said, ‘Hey, this would be a great topic for our nurses,’” he said. “I put a presentation together, and we went through the process of getting it approved for continuing education credits. It was just going to be for the Baton Rouge area, but AWHONN opened it up for the entire state of Louisiana. We did it over Zoom, and the day it opened we had 200 nurses and pharmacists connect.”
He started with a quick review of how the immune system and vaccines typically work and then explicitly talked about how the two new coronavirus vaccines target the immune system in a much different way.
“A traditional vaccine is usually made up of pieces of the virus,” Fouche-Camargo explained. “They grow the virus in a lab in cultures and kind of break it into little pieces, then use those pieces in the vaccine so that when injected, the body will sense it as foreign material and build antibodies against it. That takes a long time to do, and it’s expensive to grow and process a virus like that.”
The coronavirus vaccines work by using something called Messenger RNA (MRNA), which acts as a trigger to get the body to start making a specific protein.
“These vaccines use Messenger RNA molecules, so when it gets into our body, it goes straight to our cells and tells them to make the protein that’s on the surface of the coronavirus. The body then starts making antibodies to it. If we get the virus, that antibodies will already be there.”
One of the most common fears is that the coronavirus vaccines are bound to be defective because they were rushed, but Fouche-Camargo said that is not the case.
“The use of MRNA greatly expedited the process, but it wasn’t rushed,” he said. “They went through all the proper procedures, using trials with tens of thousands of people. It was faster than normal because they didn’t have to grow the viruses in the labs. It’s also a lot cheaper to make Messenger RNA molecules than to grow viruses, and it’s a lot safer because you don’t have to worry about the viruses getting out of the lab.”
Another unfortunate misconception making the rounds on social media is that the vaccines can alter a person’s DNA. That is simply not true.
“When some people hear ‘RNA,’ they think DNA because they sound similar, but they’re two completely different things,” said Fouche-Camargo. “RNA can’t override your genetic code or anything. It just tells your body to make a protein. That’s all it does. It has nothing to do with your genetic code.”
In fact, Fouche-Camargo says the MRNA is like the television show Mission Impossible, because as soon as it cracks the code for a protein, it self-destructs.
“It disintegrates,” he said. “It doesn’t hang around and do anything else.”
Fear of severe side effects is another issue making people hesitate to get vaccinated. While a small number of people do experience severe side effects, most of them are people who have had severe reactions to vaccines before. Minor side effects like a slight fever or feeling tired are good things because that means the vaccine is working.
“Minor side effects are a normal response because that’s the body’s immune system kicking in,” said Fouche-Camargo. “All our immune system does is seek out foreign material and destroy it. That’s where the fever, the aching, and the headache come from. I tell people, if you get those reactions, that’s a good thing.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), In the context of COVID-19, herd immunity level is estimated to be 60-70 percent but could be higher if the new variants of the virus are more contagious. It will take an unprecedented national effort to get there, with an army of caring healthcare professionals like Fouche-Camargo leading the way.
Fouche-Camargo graduated cum laude from the Medical College of Georgia with a Bachelor of Science in nursing in 1994, obtained his Master of Science degree in nursing from Georgia State University in 2003, and his Doctor of Nursing Practice degree at Georgia Regents University in 2014.
He speaks nationally on fetal heart monitoring, obstetric emergency and critical care, and inpatient obstetric certification review. He was selected as the advanced practice nurse of the year by the March of Dimes in 2010, and as an emerging leader for AWHONN in 2011, and Georgia section chair for 2015-2017.
For the most up-to-date information about COVID-19 and the vaccines Fouche-Camargo recommends visiting the official website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.