Less than a year into the global coronavirus pandemic, several pharmaceutical companies are in the final stages of testing and seeking emergency use authorizations for COVID-19 vaccines. Madeline Camejo, M.S., Pharm.D., chief pharmacy officer and vice president of pharmacy services for Baptist Health South Florida, is charged with leading the healthcare system’s vaccination efforts across four counties. Here she answers some of the most commonly asked questions about the vaccination process.

How does the vaccine work?

The Pfizer and other new generation COVID-19 vaccines rely on ribonucleic acid (RNA) molecules that actually send messages and provide instructions to the cells in your body. The vaccine works by directing your body to produce proteins that will trigger your immune system to produce antibodies that will fight the coronavirus. Contrary to some of the traditional vaccines we have seen throughout history, there is no live virus present in this vaccine.

What are some of the logistics involved in the distribution process?

We know that the State of Florida will be getting the Pfizer vaccine. Baptist Health South Florida is ready to accept the vaccine once the Florida Department of Health says go. We can store up to 120,000 vials, so we are in very good shape. We are probably looking at end of December to early January before we can begin administering the vaccine. To accept and distribute the Pfizer vaccine, you have to be able to store it at -90 degrees. Baptist Health has the ability to do this, and we’re ready to store and distribute it once we receive it from the state.

Who Will Get the Vaccine?

Priority will be given to high-risk groups as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Healthcare personnel who work directly with COVID-19 patients or in areas conducting COVID-19 testing will be included among the first group to be eligible for the vaccine on a voluntary basis. The next consideration will be long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. We are estimating that it will take three to four months to complete this cycle of vaccines in Florida. As far as the general population, it may be mid-2021 before they can be vaccinated.

This is a vaccine that has to be delivered in 2 doses?

Yes, two doses will be more effective in making people’s immune system respond more effectively and better protect them. It will create a situation with the recipients of the vaccine when they have to come back 21 to 28 days later for the second dose, and that can be a challenge. It’s always a bit harder when you have to create a series for a vaccine (just like the shingles vaccine) where people have to return. The good news is that our healthcare workers will be on location, so administering the second stage of the vaccine will be more convenient. It is important that everyone gets the second dose to reap the full benefits of the vaccine.

How effective is the vaccine?

The Pfizer vaccine has been shown to be 95 percent effective in clinical trials. As a pharmacist, it is amazing to see how quickly the scientists have created these vaccines. With that being said, we want people to understand that even though the vaccines have been developed in record time, it does not mean that it is not safe or effective. The type of technology we have today has allowed scientists to create a vaccine that safely helps your body to fight COVID-19.

What do you want people to know about this process?

People have to understand that until we get everyone vaccinated, they need to continue to do their part by wearing masks, practicing social distancing and proper hygiene. We do have some cultural issues where people have distrust in vaccines, but the population needs to realize that this pandemic is not like a regular flu or other illnesses. This is a virus that affects people in many different ways. We’ve seen everything from elderly patients who experienced minor symptoms to seemingly healthy young people who have had serious complications with their lungs. It is a disease that we are still learning about.

What would you tell someone who is skeptical about getting the vaccine?

COVID-19 is a big gamble. You can take the vaccine and be fairly certain that you are not going to get sick, or you can decide not to get it and take your chances. You could end up in the hospital or you could end up dying. No one can predict how COVID-19 will affect you, each case is different. You will now have the opportunity to protect yourself, loved ones around you and society in general. We all have to do our part to get rid of this virus. It’s the humanitarian thing to do.

Are there any potential side effects from the vaccine?

Extensive clinical trials were conducted to evaluate the COVID-19 vaccine. The FDA will be reviewing the safety data and would not release the vaccine if there are any major safety concerns. During those trials, no serious safety concerns have been reported.  Many medications and vaccines, including this one, do have some risks of side effects among certain populations — ranging in severity from mild to more severe. We have to weigh those risks with the risks of getting the virus.

Will this be a yearly vaccine?

Great question and one many people are asking. It’s just too early to tell. We will definitely know more in a year when we are able to test the antigen levels in the vaccine recipients to see if they have the required amounts to continue to fight off COVID-19.

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