Like an unexpected holiday gift, the first COVID-19 vaccines are on track to arrive soon.

The speedy production of the vaccines is “remarkable,” said Russ Lampen, DO, infection disease division chief for Spectrum Health.

“I did not anticipate that we would have a vaccine available by the end of 2020,” he said. “I am pleasantly surprised that we will be distributing this vaccine before Christmas.”

The Pfizer vaccine was given to 40,000 volunteers during its three initial trial phases.

“The research studies done so far have shown it to be effective,” Dr. Lampen said, noting that because the vaccine is authorized for emergency use during the pandemic, the vaccine’s maker will continue to collect data to demonstrate whether the vaccine is effective over longer periods of time.

Dr. Lampen answered questions about the vaccines, plans to distribute them, and possible side effects they might cause.

Q. How does the COVID-19 vaccine work?

Vaccines, which have been around since the late 1700s, trick the immune system into creating antibodies to fight infection.

Some vaccines use weakened viruses. Others use dead viruses.

The COVID-19 vaccine uses just pieces of the virus to target a protein on the surface of the virus—which stimulates an immune response.

It is important to note that you cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine, he added.

Q. How is the vaccine administered?

The vaccine is given as a shot into the muscle of the upper arm. A second dose is administered three or four weeks later.

Q. Will the vaccine cause side effects?

Like many vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccine can have some side effects.

They include muscle soreness at the injection site, body aches, low-grade fever, headaches and fatigue. Most have been mild and lasted less than 24 hours.

“This is your body’s immune system that is ramping up,” Dr. Lampen said. “It’s responding and creating antibodies. Even though you may feel a little crummy, this is your way of knowing the vaccine is working.”

Q. If someone recovered from COVID-19 or tested positive, should they still get the vaccine?

Yes, at this time we do not know how long natural immunity lasts after having a case of COVID-19. Currently it is felt that people may be naturally immune for at least 90 days.

Q. Who will get the vaccines first?

The federal government has created a phased approach for distributing the vaccines to ensure that those most in need get first priority.

“Health care workers who have contact with patients will be the first to receive the vaccine,” Dr. Lampen said.

That includes nurses, doctors and therapists, as well as those working in food service and environmental services.

Also allotted the first vaccines are elderly people living in group settings.

“As we know, elderly people are really vulnerable to hospitalization and severe illness associated with COVID-19,” he said. “And when you have groups of people living together, the virus can spread easily.”

The next group in line for vaccines are those older than 65 and people with underlying medical conditions who would be more likely to become severely ill if they contract COVID-19.

By spring, Dr. Lampen hopes the vaccine will be widely available for all who want to receive it.

More information is available from the CDC about priority groups.

Q. How has Spectrum Health prepared for the COVID-19 vaccine?

Spectrum Health has the capabilities to receive, store, distribute and administer the vaccines when they become available. It will be one of the first five health systems in the state to receive the vaccine for team members.

Spectrum Health leaders have been planning for months and are ready with freezers located at sites throughout the health system.

Q. Will Spectrum Health employees be required to get the vaccine?

We will encourage our Spectrum Health team members to get the vaccine—just as we encourage our patients and community to be vaccinated. But the vaccine is not mandatory at this time.

Q. Can you outline the order in which Spectrum Health will give the vaccine to team members?

There is a schedule for vaccination that prioritizes health care workers and team members who will have the most significant risk of exposure to patients with COVID-19.

As the vaccine becomes more widely available, Spectrum Health will increase access to other team members.

There will be efforts to try to stagger vaccinations of team members who work together. Since some individuals may develop mild symptoms of fevers or body aches, it is important to make sure each unit has adequate staffing while these side effects resolve.

Q. Can you tell us about the research behind the vaccines?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized use of the vaccine, in a shortened timeframe, due to the public health emergency.

Each authorized COVID-19 vaccine will go through three stages of research.  But, the time for following research participants is much shorter. In each stage, an increasing number of volunteers receive the vaccine, and the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness are evaluated.

The rapid development of the vaccine was made possible by focused attention from science, industry and government support.

“I think the work is really astounding,” he said. “It is remarkable that it has been able to come together this quickly.”

Q. Do you plan to roll up your sleeve and get a vaccine?

“Absolutely,” Dr. Lampen said. “It’s going to be very important for us as a country to get the schools back open, to get businesses back open. We really need to get this COVID-19 under control.”