This week, Massachusetts began Phase 2 of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, making roughly 450,000 Massachusetts residents age 75 and older eligible for vaccination. 

But the process has been plagued with difficulties nationwide, from distribution to appointment signups. Massachusetts currently ranks 34th nationally in per-capita vaccinations, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released on Tuesday. 

Dr. Andrew Arenstein, Chief Physician Executive at Baystate Health, leads the COVID-19 response at western Mass’s largest health network. Dr. Arenstein joins Connecting Point to share what citizens need to know about the state’s vaccine rollout process. 

Read the full transcript

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: This week, Massachusetts began the second phase of its COVID-19 vaccination rollout, with roughly four hundred and fifty thousand residents ages 75 and older now eligible to receive a vaccination.

But, the vaccination process has been plagued with difficulties nationwide, including here in Massachusetts, which ranks thirty fourth nationally in per capita vaccinations, as reported on Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To find out what you need to know about the state’s vaccination rollout, I spoke with Dr. Andrew Artenstein, the Chief Physician Executive and incident commander for COVID-19 at Baystate Health.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein, Baystate Health COVID-19 Incident Commander: We are into early phase two of three phases. Now, recall phase one was — had to do largely with health care workers. And that’s broadly defined people in the general field of health care, as well as residents and staff of various long term care facilities and various types of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

That was phase one. There are still people getting vaccinated under phase one, but we’ve moved on to phase two. And the first, early stage of phase two started with those adults seventy five years and older. So, it was really an age based criteria. And that started on February 1st.

Zydalis Bauer: It will be about a year in March since we were first advised to quarantine, practice social distancing. And here we are a year later already distributing vaccines. This rapid pace is unlike any other. How was this vaccine able to be created and released so quickly?

Dr. Andrew Artenstein: There was investigation more than 15 years ago. In 2003 and 2004, there was an outbreak and epidemic, as you recall, of SARS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which is a genetically related virus to the virus that causes COVID-19. It was new at the time, 15 plus years ago, and a lot of work was done at that point, scientifically, to develop a vaccine.

Now, that infection sort of disappeared from the face of the earth. But other coronaviruses have since appeared and this is one of them. And so we had the scientific community had some understanding of the virus. They’re genetically related. So, some of the basic work had already been done.

Additionally, we’ve had 40 years of dealing with HIV. Now, HIV is a completely unrelated virus, completely unrelated disease. But, the science that has moved forward related to the study of HIV has helped other fields of science as well. So, that’s how.

The other two things that have helped is there has been a worldwide focus on COVID over the last year. What’s happened is scientists from around the world have turned their attention and focus their attention on this one infection and this one disease, which has resulted in some spectacular advances.

And then finally, governments and organizations have poured funding, dollars into the scientific study of this infection, including pharmaceutical companies. And that has really helped propel science forward fast to get us to the point where we now have this achievement.

Zydalis Bauer: And speaking of science, this vaccine is an mRNA vaccine. Can you talk about the science behind this inoculation and how it’s different from the traditional vaccine that we’re used to?

Dr. Andrew Artenstein: These are based on this novel, mRNA platform. And the messenger RNA basically is a genetic — synthetic genetic sequence of the virus.

So, it’s not the virus. It is not even the actual virus and cannot cause anyone to get sick with the virus. But it’s just a piece of genetic material that’s synthesized, that’s made in laboratory that looks just like the genetic material from the virus, that when it’s injected into the human body, it instructs human cells to make certain proteins. That’s what messenger RNA does for us under normal conditions.

This time, the proteins it’s having our bodies create are proteins that stud the surface of the coronavirus, the spike protein. And when our body produces that protein in response to the vaccine, our body also sees it as a foreign substance and produces antibody against that protein. Those antibodies are what protects us, like an invisible shield against the actual virus infection and disease caused by the virus. So, it prevents viral replication because the virus, those those antibodies stick to the viral proteins as they try to get in our cell and prevent it.

So, it’s almost like giving the blueprints for a house when a contractor gives you blueprints. This is giving our body the blueprints to make these proteins, to produce these antibodies against them, which protect us against the virus.

That messenger RNA quickly goes away when it’s injected into the body. It doesn’t last for long. It doesn’t cause any ill effects, but it does allow our body to create this immune response which protect — appears to protectat very high levels, upwards of ninety five percent, against disease and severe disease caused by the virus.

We don’t know for sure yet whether it protects against all asymptomatic infections, which is why everyone still is hearing that it’s really important to wear masks, physical, social distance, stay home with symptoms, wash your hands frequently. All those public health recommendations we still need to follow until we’re out of the woods, until enough vaccine has gotten into enough people that we have herd immunity and we’re out of the woods. That’s still several months away, maybe six or more months away.

Zydalis Bauer: There’s been a lot of debate and discussion around this vaccine and whether it is safe or not. What are some of the misconceptions you’ve heard and can you clarify them for anyone who has concerns?

Dr. Andrew Artenstein: What we’ve seen, at least in the two big clinical studies of the messenger RNA vaccines that resulted in the emergency authorization, that over thirty thousand people were vaccinated in total. And of those people, there were essentially no serious adverse events, meaning — or very few, very minimal adverse events out of thirty thousand.

And now, twenty eight million Americans, as of yesterday, have received at least one dose of these vaccines and about seven million have received two doses and fully vaccinated. It’s a small percentage, but it’s a lot of people nonetheless. And there have been very, very few reported severe side effects. Now, the second dose may be a little bit more side effects than the first.

And the side effects tend to occur more often in those who are younger, as opposed to those who are older. And that’s probably related to sort of an exuberant immune response. You know, younger people have a more active immune system, so their responses are more — they they have a more stimulated immune system. That’s one of the benefits of being young. And when I say “young” in the studies, they were really those under fifty five.

As of what we know now, there are no serious side effects. But again, this vaccine has only been used, even in the clinical trials, since the fall. So we’re talking about six months, even in the folks who were part of the initial studies. That’s not a long time, but it is long enough to see any immediate or short term serious side effects. And there were very few seen.