9 takeaways from KSAT’s COVID-19 vaccine townhall with Metro Health doctors

San Antonio Metro Health doctors, experts answer your vaccine questions with KSAT’s Isis Romero

SAN ANTONIO – With the first doses of Pfizer’s newly approved COVID-19 vaccine arriving in Texas this week, many questions still remain about distribution and the drug.

To answer some of those questions, we brought in a panel of experts who are involved in the development and distribution of the vaccine in South Texas.

On Dec. 10, KSAT’s Isis Romero asked them some of the hundreds of viewer questions we received to help viewers better understand the vaccine. In case you missed the livestream town hall, here are 9 takeaways from the conversation. (Watch the full video in the player above.)

1. How does the vaccine work?

Unlike some others, the COVID-19 vaccine does not contain dead cells from the coronavirus. Instead, it uses a technology called messenger RNA.

“It’s a code that allows our body to produce a protein called the spike protein, which is part of the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. And that protein then unleashes the production of antibodies” said Dr. Kenneth Kemp, a board-certified pulmonologist and intensivist and pastor in San Antonio. “When the person who has been vaccinated is exposed to COVID-19 then they are able to neutralize and prevent it from causing disease. That’s what we are seeing with Moderna and Pfizer.”

2. What’s in the vaccine... or isn’t?

Viewers wanted to know about the presence of possible ingredients known to cause allergic reactions like penicillin and eggs.

Dr. Ruth Berggren, an infectious disease doctor with UT Health San Antonio’s Long School of Medicine, said: “As far as allergy-inducing ingredients, we know that there are some for some people. But the way this vaccine is manufactured is such that we don’t have to grow it up in a cell culture. We’re not growing it up in eggs like we used to for the flu vaccine. So there’s no warning against this vaccine for people with egg allergies.”

She also said there aren’t any antibiotics, therefore no penicillin in the vaccine.

RELATED: UK probes whether COVID-19 vaccine caused allergic reactions

There has been some unfounded concern on social media that the vaccine contains cells from a human fetus.

“That’s a myth,” Dr. Berggren said. “People ask sometimes biologically plausible questions like ‘could this spike protein have some similarity to some other protein that’s important in, say, the human placenta formation? And should we worry about this?’ That question has been posed and the question has also been answered. That is not an issue. But I think people then think about while the placenta, that’s related to the fetus, is related to embryogenesis, and then there’s a lot of confusion about it. And that happens with a lot of myths about vaccines in general.”

3. Immunocompromised people are encouraged to take the vaccine.

“Immunocompromised people are at risk for doing poorly [with COVID symptoms]. And so they’re in the group of folks that we want to go ahead and get the vaccine,” said Dr. Berggren who has decades of experience taking care of patients with HIV and AIDS. She said Pfizer included people who have managed and stabilized HIV, hepatitis B and C in their trials and there has not seen any signs of trouble.

4. How much will the vaccine cost?

Dr. Junda Woo, the Medical Director at Metro Health, kept this answer short and sweet — vaccines will be given at no cost to the patient.

“Providers can charge an administration fee. However, if somebody cannot afford that fee, then they have to be provided the vaccine anyway. And then there’s a way for providers on the back end to try to get reimbursed by the government. That’s probably too much detail,” she said. “But the point is, it’s taxpayers who paid for this. It’s going to be free.”

5. When will everyone be able to get the vaccine?

“The point where everybody will be able to go to their neighborhood pharmacy and just get a vaccine, which is probably the most efficient way... we’re looking at maybe from July 2021,” said Woo.

For now, health care workers, veterans and those living and working in nursing homes will be among the first to receive the vaccine. Metro Health is hoping for community feedback in deciding who should be included in the second phase. You can submit your input by filling out their survey here.

RELATED: San Antonio veterans hospital could receive COVID-19 vaccines as early as next week

6. Will the vaccine be mandatory?

State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins kept this answer short, too... no vaccines will not be mandated by the government. But she took the time during this question to encourage people to consider getting vaccinated.

“This is something we as individuals, as Americans, must take very, very seriously and do the things we need to do to protect ourselves, our families and those around us,” she said. “I’m not the type of individual who loves vaccines, OK? But I will take this vaccine because I’ve been told by the highest level of medical experts that is the right thing to do.”

She said the goal is to get 80 percent of Texans vaccinated, around the threshold needed for herd immunity.

7. There is no chip implanted with the vaccine but shot records will be tracked.

One conspiracy circulating the internet warns that the vaccine will contain a chip to track an individual. Both Dr. Kemp and Dr. Berggren debunked this idea but say keeping track of vaccinations is crucial.

Rep. Gervin-Hawkins said there will be a database to keep track of things like demographics, the types of vaccines used, side effects and effectiveness.

“There will be tracking. We have to. We’ve got to look at what the outcomes are because things have happened so quickly and we want to be as transparent as possible and we want to give our greater society confidence in what we’re doing,” said Gervin-Hawkins.

8. Communities of color and the vaccine

The Black and Latino communities have proven to be some of the most vulnerable during the pandemic both psychically and economically. Dr. Kemp and Rep. Gervin-Hawkins said confidence in the safety of the vaccine is crucial to protecting communities of color from the coronavirus.

“If you say to an African-American, you say to a Latinx citizen, ‘you’re going to get it first.’ What you’re going to get back is, ‘are you using me as a guinea pig?’”, Dr. Kemp explained. “So we want them to understand what the vaccine is about, how it’s developed, how it will be distributed so they can make their own decisions about what is good for them. And I believe that people of color make good decisions based on what’s good for them if we give them good information.”

According to Metro Health, 20% of participants in these vaccine trials are Latino. Another 10% are Black. Dr. Kemp said that is a good percentage overall but in comparison to the African-American citizens that make up the U.S., the representation could be better.

9. The vaccine and pregnancy

Pfizer originally excluded pregnant people from their trials but 23 people became pregnant during the research. OF those, 14 decided to continue in the trial. But with some 40,000 participants, Dr. Berggren says that’s not enough data to prove the vaccine is safe during pregnancy and breastfeeding. However, the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine recently issued a statement recommending pregnant women have access to the vaccine. Dr. Berggren said women should consider their options with their doctor.


About the Author:

Alyssa Medina is the Video-On-Demand Producer and has worked at KSAT since 2016. She creates exclusive content for the KSAT-TV streaming app. Some of her most notable contributions focus on race and culture or health and wellness. She's created the segments 'Creating Black History in S.A.' and 'New Week. New You."