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COVID-19 vaccine FAQs for cops

We answer Police1 reader questions about vaccine safety, efficacy and distribution

Harris Co Sheriff's Office COVID Vaccine.JPG

Harris County Sheriff’s Office medical personnel and front-line workers in the county jail started receiving their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine in late December.

Harris County Sheriff’s Office Facebook

In December 2020, Police1 asked LEOs to weigh in on COVID-19 vaccination mandates, ethical obligations and whether they will be vaccinated. More than 3,300 officers responded to a survey, with 38% saying yes to vaccination. Readers were also invited to submit their questions about the COVID vaccine. Here we answer some of those questions.

1. Is the vaccine safe?

Yes, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been found by the FDA to be safe and effective enough for them to issue an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), which is a way to get medications reviewed and distributed in a crisis situation.

2. How long does the vaccine last?

We’re not sure exactly, but probably for 4-6 months and possibly longer.

3. What side effects have we seen with the vaccine?

Side effects can include temporary soreness and redness at the injection site, localized lymph node swelling, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, chills, nausea and vomiting, and fever, which may last 24-48 hours after the injection. Many clinicians who have received their vaccination are posting daily on social media to report their progress post-vaccination. The reports center on tenderness around the injection site and short-term nausea.

There have been rare instances of severe allergic reactions, which can occur with any vaccine, and the clinic where you get the vaccine should be prepared to treat an allergic reaction.

On a personal note, I had some soreness at the injection site after my first shot and a mild headache that was resolved with acetaminophen.

4. Are there any differences between the two vaccines currently available?

The two vaccines that have Emergency Use Authorization are from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. They are both mRNA vaccines that are about 95% effective. Two doses are required to get full immunity. The Pfizer-BioNTech doses are given 21 days apart and the Moderna doses are given 28 days apart. Other vaccines are coming, but they are not yet authorized for release.

5. I have concerns over the safety of a vaccine that was rushed into production. What are the risks?

Both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech did closely supervised clinical trials, which included more than 73,000 people over a period of several months prior to the FDA reviewing their data and issuing Emergency Use Authorizations in December. The vaccines are 95% effective, not 100%, so there is a small chance that you could contract COVID-19, even if you took the vaccine.

Two things stand the development apart from other vaccine development processes:

  • The trials enrolled considerably more candidates in a rapid fashion that enabled the phases and stages of the trial to proceed on a much quicker scale. To get 70,000+ enrollees in usual trials would take considerable amounts of time to select the right candidate who may be predisposed to the particular condition the vaccine is attempting to prevent. In terms of COVID-19, the whole population is at risk, so finding candidates is that much easier.
  • The large amount of funding made available for the development of a COVID-19 vaccine both incentivized and accelerated the process. Additionally, the science of using the vaccination as a method to “instruct” the cells to make antibodies to fight the COVID spike protein is revolutionary and may be used for other vaccines in the future. You can equate this to the discovery of penicillin – a major scientific breakthrough!

6. I have heard the vaccine has been developed through this RNA/DNA process. What does this mean?

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are “mRNA” vaccines, which according to the CDC “give instructions for our cells to make a harmless piece of what is called the spike protein. The spike protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19. Next, the cell displays the protein piece on its surface. Our immune systems recognize that the protein doesn’t belong there and begin building an immune response and making antibodies, like what happens in natural infection against COVID-19.” This is nicely described as injecting a “Wanted Poster” or BOLO into the body to tell the body to look out for and fight the villain!

There is no live virus in the vaccine and you absolutely cannot be infected with COVID-19 by taking it. The mRNA does not incorporate into your own DNA, and although this is the first mRNA vaccine authorized for use in humans in the US, medical experts have been researching them for years and planned to use them for a pandemic just like this one. Operation Warp Speed and desperate times have accelerated this research.

7. How can we have a vaccine developed in less than a year that is 95%-99% effective yet in most years the flu vaccine that has been around for 70 years is only 60%-65% effective?

COVID-19 vaccine efficacy (95%) is much better than that seen with seasonal flu vaccines (which average only 40%), because the vaccine developers had the COVID-19 virus “blueprint” before they began working on the vaccine. For seasonal flu, scientists have to guess as to which 3-4 specific flu strains are going to be most prevalent, and sometimes they guess wrong. If they waited to get the seasonal flu virus “blueprints,” the flu season would be over by the time there was enough vaccine ready for the general population.

8. COVID-19 has a 99.98% recovery rate. Why do we need a vaccine?

It is correct that the great majority of people who contract COVID-19 recover uneventfully. We also know that looking at current statistics a small percentage of people (1.8%) will die and another 2% will have long-term side effects (lasting longer than 12 weeks) that can include fatigue, breathing difficulties, infections, blood clots, and heart, kidney, skin, neurologic and psychiatric problems. So out of a group of 1,000 people, 18 will die and another 20 will have long-term side effects, as mentioned. The purpose of a vaccine is to try to eliminate the serious consequences that 38 out of 1,000 people are going to have.

COVID-19 is not a flu virus and should not be compared to one, as it does devastating things to the body that we do not see with the flu. It can attack the heart, kidneys and brain and cause serious clotting problems. That said, people are also encouraged to take the flu vaccination as well.

9. Does the vaccination prevent you from spreading COVID-19 if you are exposed or just prevent you from getting COVID-19?

Researchers are not sure if a person could contract a subclinical COVID infection and spread it, even after being vaccinated, so that is why mask wear and social distancing is still recommended after getting the vaccine.

10. If I have had COVID-19, do I need the vaccine and when should I get it?

The immunity from a vaccination tends to be stronger than the immunity from a natural infection, so yes, you should get the vaccine even if you’ve had COVID-19.

You need to wait until you have fully recovered from an active infection before taking it, and your primary care doctor can best advise you when you would be ready for the vaccine.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that vaccination should be deferred until 90 days after receiving convalescent plasma or monoclonal antibodies if these were used to treat you during a COVID-19 infection.

11. What is the priority schedule for law enforcement to receive the covid-19 vaccine?

The answer to this question is a little complicated.

Depending on your priority group and the state you live in, some police officers have already gotten the vaccine, and others should get it soon.

The CDC defers to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) for prioritization recommendations, and ACIP recommended the following distribution schedule:

  • Phase 1a: Healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents.
  • Phase 1b: Persons aged ≥75 years and non–healthcare frontline essential workers (first responders including police and corrections officers are in this group, among others).
  • Phase 1c: Persons aged 65–74 years, persons aged 16–64 years with high-risk medical conditions and essential workers not included in Phase 1b.

Each state takes the ACIP recommendations into account but is not required to follow them and may modify the priorities, so it is best to look to your local/state public health department for guidance. Not all states have prioritized police and other first responders in the same way. There is variation by state, but there are now examples of law enforcement being vaccinated alongside their public safety colleagues. As both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are available (and Moderna does not have a strict temperature control regime), this may mean more availability of the vaccine.

What other questions do you have about the COVID-19 vaccine? Email

NEXT: I’ve been offered the COVID-19 vaccine. What do I do now?

John M. Williams, Sr., MD, MPH, is a physician with a Master’s of Public Health degree, board-certified in both occupational medicine and ophthalmology. He is also a retired Navy medical officer, combat veteran and former Marine Corps Medical Battalion Commander. For the past 12 years, he has been a reserve deputy sheriff in southern Colorado and has also served as an academy instructor.