ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – After extensive research and development, the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed throughout the country to protect service members and civilians against the unprecedented virus. On January 7, 2021, emergency personnel and first responders on Aberdeen Proving Ground received the first round of COVID-19 vaccines on the installation.The COVID-19 vaccine is currently under Emergency Use Authorization for distribution, which has posed many questions for those looking to take the vaccine. We spoke with APG’s Chief of Preventative Medicine and Public Health Emergency Officer, Dr. W. Thomas Frank, to answer the most commonly asked COVID-19 vaccine questions.1.      Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine?No. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are the only vaccines currently available in the United States and both use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. This means that they do not contain any actual virus and therefore COVID-19 cannot be transmitted through the vaccine. Similar to a recipe, mRNA instructs your muscle cells to manufacture a specific protein. In this case, the vaccine tells the body to create the "spike protein" from the COVID-19 virus. You may be familiar with "spikes" as the projections you see in illustrations of the virus. These spikes allow the virus to enter our cells and cause infection. From the production of the “spikes” our bodies will know how to fight against the coronavirus without ever having to have had the virus in the body. The mRNA in the vaccine does not interact with the DNA inside your cells and does not persist after it is injected, but degrades in a matter of days.2.      How is this vaccine effective then?Once the muscle cells produce this spike protein, the immune system will produce antibodies directed against this protein. After a sufficient quantity of antibodies have been produced in our system, immunity to the infection is achieved. Now if there is virus exposure, the antibodies could keep the virus from infecting cells.3.      How is the vaccine administered?The vaccine is injected into the muscle of the upper arm. Two shots will be given per vaccinated person, about four weeks apart. In clinical trials about 80% of patients developed protective antibody levels after the first shot and 94% had protective antibody levels after the second shot. This is why two shots are necessary.4.      How long does it take for the vaccine to be effective?It will take about two weeks for the body to manufacture a sufficient quantity of antibodies to be immune. If you are exposed to the virus just before or after you are vaccinated, but before your body has had the time to develop an antibody response, you could become infected with COVID-19. Because of this, it is extremely important to remain vigilant and continue to practice pandemic safety procedures after you receive the vaccine.5.      How often will I need to take the vaccine?It is not currently known how long the antibody protection will last. Once scientists have this information, we will know how frequently we must get revaccinated. It is possible that we will need an annual vaccination (similar to that of the flu vaccine) but we don't know yet.6.      What kind of symptoms can I expect from the vaccine?The most common side effect has been pain or muscle ache at the injection site. Some patients also develop fever, muscle aches, joint pain and fatigue the day after they receive the shot, but these symptoms generally resolve within 24 hours. While more patients tend to experience these symptoms after the second shot than the first shot, symptoms may develop after either shot. If these symptoms develop, aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or similar anti-inflammatory pain relievers may be taken, however it is important to avoid these medications immediately before the vaccination because they could interfere with the effectiveness of the vaccine.7.      Is this vaccine safe?Yes! The only severe side effect seen has been allergic reactions. There have only been 29 severe allergic reactions in the many, many doses that have been given since the vaccine was introduced. The risk of a severe allergic reaction is no higher than 11 in one million. Of those who had an allergic reaction, many had a history of adverse reactions to vaccines or vaccine components in the past. Persons who have a history of reactions to vaccines should make this known before they are vaccinated to ensure the vaccine can be given in the appropriate setting. Additionally, people with many different allergies including drug allergies should remain at the vaccination site for 30 minutes rather than the usual 15 minutes to ensure they tolerated the vaccine. Most allergic reactions will occur during the first 15 minutes.8.      If this vaccine is under an Emergency Use Authorization, how do they have enough data to declare it safe?Researchers have studied enough people for long enough to know that there are no immediate life threatening side effects and that the vaccine was 94% effective in preventing illness. However, there are still many unanswered questions such as; how long does the vaccine’s immunity last and is it possible to get an asymptomatic COVID-19 infection after being vaccinated. We won't know the answers to these questions until we have studied the virus and the vaccine for another year or more. Generally we have these answers before vaccines are marketed, however in this case we know that thousands of lives will be saved by making the vaccine available before all the questions are answered. Although the most important questions have been answered, there are some questions still left unanswered, thus the vaccine has been released under an "emergency use authorization."9.      Will DoD require all service members and civilians to receive the vaccine?No. The vaccine will be offered on a voluntary basis. Priority populations are highly encouraged to receive the vaccine. Once the vaccine is formally licensed by the FDA, the DoD may require a vaccine for military personnel or personnel in specific fields, as is the case for the influenza vaccine.10.   If I already had COVID-19, should I still get a vaccine?Yes, because the duration of immunity following COVID-19 infection is unknown, and the vaccine may be effective in protecting previously infected people.11.  If I get the vaccine, can I stop wearing a mask and social distancing?No. It will take several weeks after your second shot before you can be confident that you have a protective level of antibodies. Even then, we do not know with certainty that you cannot become asymptomatically infected and pass the virus on to unvaccinated individuals. This is why you shouldn’t change your mitigation strategies after being vaccinated. Eventually, if enough people vaccinate, we will see the incidence of viral infection plummet and public health authorities may then allow us to relax our posture. Until then: mask, distance and wash your hands!