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The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Eau Claire on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

In just about a week, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services is expected to move into the next phase of COVID-19 vaccinations, affording the opportunity to get inoculated to several more groups, including ag workers.

Once that door is open, experts are urging those working in agriculture to get the vaccine as soon as they’re able to.

“If you’re eligible for that vaccine, we want you to get that,” Natalie Roy, executive director of AgriSafe, which works to address health and safety in ag communities, said recently during a “Dispelling misinformation on the COVID-19 vaccine: What agricultural producers need to know” webinar.

“We are very much concerned with the fact that in rural America, we already have health disparities that could place a farmer or farmworker at a disadvantage when it comes to COVID-19,” Roy said.

Among the particular risk factors that farmers, farmworkers and rural residents in general face are a higher prevalence of older people in their communities, some chronic health issues, like obesity, that persist at higher levels in rural areas, and often a shortage of health professionals, Roy said.

There is also a “rural mortality penalty” in that rural areas have more deaths each year due to health disparities than urban areas do, Roy said.

“We want you to choose to get vaccinated when it’s offered,” Roy said. “That’s critical.”

Addressing concerns

Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines has been swirling for months, but people are urged to seek out accurate information to decide when and whether they should receive the vaccine.

Lisa Morici, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine, worked to dispel several myths about the COVID-19 vaccines that are and may be available, but talking to one’s health provider can also help address specific questions and determine if and when the vaccine is right for them.

The two vaccines that have been currently approved for use in the United States through Emergency Use Authorization are produced by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Both vaccines are mRNA-based (with an mRNA sequence coded for the virus’s spike protein, which is delivered in fat bubbles and aimed at generating an immune response); have similar efficacy rates (94% for Moderna; 95% for Pfizer); and require a second dose (after 4 weeks for Moderna; 3 weeks for Pfizer), Morici said.

The mRNA-based vaccines like these, which Morici described as “plug-and-play” because the mRNA can “encode any protein from any virus,” were designed “for this exact purpose: to combat a pandemic, to combat an emerging virus that we didn’t know how to grow and make lots of it.”

Morici said that these vaccines are built off of advances that have been in development over the last 30-plus years and that this isn’t something that suddenly developed like “magic.”

Other vaccines are also in development, including those being produced by Johnson & Johnson and Oxford-AstraZeneca. Johnson & Johnson has requested an EUA in the U.S. that as of deadline was still pending review. Oxford-AstraZeneca has yet to apply for an EUA in the U.S. but is being used in other countries.

The Johnson & Johnson and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines are similar to each other in the way that they are produced but are different than the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Both the Johnson & Johnson and Oxford-AstraZenaca use modified harmless adenoviruses to transport the genetic material that triggers an immune response; Johnson & Johnson uses a modified human adenovirus, and Oxford-AstraZeneca uses a modified chimp adenovirus, Morici said.

The vaccine efficacy is somewhat lower for the adenovirus-based vaccines, with Johnson & Johnson, which is a one-shot vaccine, at 66% (72% in the U.S.) and Oxford-AstraZeneca, another two-dose vaccine, ranging between 76-82%, Morici said.

Despite the vaccines’ differences, Morici said that people should take whichever approved vaccine is offered to them first. The efficacy rates may seem to vary widely, but the efficacy rates are talked about in relation to mild and moderate cases of COVID-19, Morici said.

Every vaccine being offered is “terrific,” Morici said, at preventing severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths.

“It’s for this reason that I would encourage you to get the first vaccine that’s made available to you, no matter what it is,” Morici said.

Vaccines are also being watched for how they address variants that are popping up, with modifications being looked at for variants that might escape protection from the current vaccine, Morici said.

Side effects are mostly mild or moderate for the vaccines, Morici said, and side effects tend to be worse after the second dose as the vaccines are inducing a “really robust secondary immune response.” Allergic reactions to the mRNA-based vaccines do occur but at a rate of approximately two to six reactions per million doses, she said, and the reactions are treatable.

There are a number of other myths regarding the COVID-19 vaccine that Morici said are not true. Contrary to some information that is circulating, the vaccine does not integrate into DNA, cause female infertility, give you COVID-19 or carry microchips to track you.

The process to create these vaccinations was also condensed but not rushed, Morici said.

Since the platforms used to create the vaccines have been in development for decades, there was already some initial data to use, she said.

Also, instead of waiting for each of the three phases of testing to finish completely, as is more traditional, once enough safety data was generated, the next phase began before the previous phase ended, creating a series of overlapping phases that continue to be monitored and speeding the process, Morici said.

A large pool of willing volunteers for the initial trials and an influx of funds from the federal government that helped offset the financial risk of producing the vaccines also contributed to the speed with which the vaccines have been able to be developed, Morici said.

Before authorization, the vaccines are also scrutinized by the Food and Drug Administration and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, Morici said, and the FDA and Centers for Disease Control are monitoring any effects after vaccination, including through the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System and v-safe, a monitoring effort for any health effects post-vaccination

“These vaccines, as far as vaccines go, are some of the safest that have ever been developed,” Morici said.

Getting a vaccine is also much safer than contracting COVID-19 itself, she said.

Those who have gotten the vaccine or who intend to get it can help vaccination efforts take hold in their community by sharing their experience, Roy said.

“Share your experience with your coworkers,” Roy said. “We really need your help; if you’ve got that vaccine or even if you plan to get it when ... it’s your turn, let people know that.”

Following vaccination, people are also encouraged to consider participating in v-safe, Roy said.

The CDC has a COVID-19 vaccine toolkit available for essential workers. It can be found at tinyurl.com/1b6907f2. Additional information on the vaccine and what to expect before, during and after vaccination can be found at tinyurl.com/edvsn20l.

For more information on who is eligible for the next round of vaccines in Wisconsin, visit tinyurl.com/1w9qwvc1.