9 things to know about COVID-19 vaccines: Starbucks, Fred Hutch host panel

The Starbucks store manager wasn’t sure she was going to take a vaccine for COVID-19. She was skeptical about how quickly the new vaccines had been developed.

But one of her three children has a compromised immune system due to cerebral palsy and, ultimately, she decided that the vaccine could help protect not only her, but also those around her. She’s fully vaccinated now and said she’d encourage others with questions to do their research.

“I feel like I made the right decision, not only for me but my family,” said Brittani, who lives in Texas.

She shared her story recently with other Starbucks partners during a virtual panel designed to answer questions about the current vaccines available in the United States. The panel featured scientists Drs. Stephaun Wallace and Amitabha Gupta from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The renowned center, based in Seattle, is leading clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Wallace is a director of Fred Hutch’s COVID-19 Prevention Network and the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, as well as a staff scientist of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division. Gupta is the scientific content strategist at Fred Hutch and was formerly a researcher in the Basic Sciences division.

The event was moderated by Becky Elias, a public health expert and director of retail food safety and quality assurance at Starbucks. May Jensen, vice president of Starbucks partner resources, also joined.

Read on to learn the answers to questions submitted by Starbucks partners for the panel. (Answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

How do our immune systems work and what role do vaccines play?

These vaccines were developed quickly. Are they safe?

Will we need booster shots?

Will the vaccines be effective against the variants?

If I already had COVID-19, should I still get vaccinated?

What can you say about the range of side effects that occur and how that can be different from person to person?

What are some trusted sources of information on COVID-19?

How can we tell whether a report or article is true or misinformation?

Some people can’t get vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons; how will we ensure we're being inclusive in the workplace for those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t?

How do our immune systems work and what role do vaccines play?

Dr. Stephaun Wallace: What we know is that our immune systems are already designed really well to prevent us from acquiring diseases and getting seriously ill from different things, but oftentimes our immune systems aren't quite up to speed on emerging infectious diseases. So, what a vaccine does is, it primes our immune system, or as I like to say, it teaches our immune system to better recognize and fight these invaders.

There are different ways that we also understand that vaccines can work. They can prevent infection, depending on how the vaccine was developed and how the trials were designed to test that particular product, but we also know that there are some vaccines out there that [may not totally prevent infection but can] prevent serious illness, and that is their main function. And then we also understand that there are some vaccines out there that work to prevent disease and delay disease progression.

These vaccines were developed quickly. Are they safe?

Wallace: Yes. It's important that I say that no safety protocols or processes were skipped at all in this process. The (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) was very clear from the very beginning that they needed to see a very specific set of data to come from the trials in order to move things forward.

There was a huge amount of coordination in this process at the federal level and internationally as well. Everyone is working on this, everyone is thinking about how to resolve this, everyone is talking about this. As a result, when you have that much energy and input and attention and focus on a particular thing, it's going to speed the innovation process up a bit.

The other thing I would say is that typically pharmaceutical companies have to go through a funding period between the different phases of clinical research. What the federal government did was take taxpayer dollars and invest billions of dollars in this process. So that means that between the Phase One safety trials, the Phase Two trials looking at potential immune responses and the Phase Three trials primarily looking at [how well the vaccines worked], the pharmaceutical companies did not necessarily have to go back and find/develop the resources needed to move to the next stage of research. That funding came from taxpayer dollars. So that helped to move this process along really quickly as well.

Also, the way that the vaccines have been developed is using technology, or platforms, that they had already for other diseases including Ebola, influenza, and even SARS and MERS. And so these are not necessarily new ways to develop vaccines, rather they're being applied in this particular virus.

Will we need booster shots?

Wallace: There is a high likelihood of needing a booster shot in the future. What we do not know yet is the duration of antibody protection so we have to define that first before we're able to go back and say what the boosters look like. I would tell people to think about it in terms of a potential every year sort of a thing, similar to how people think about the flu shot, but again, what it actually ends up being will be determined by [after we know more].

Will the vaccines be effective against the variants?

Wallace: Yes. Pfizer, Moderna and J&J actually are really good again at preventing people from getting seriously sick and being hospitalized. Now, [trials of] Pfizer and Moderna were not being conducted during the time when we were identifying these various variants. So, I think that there's some consideration there around less efficacy, specifically for mild or moderate disease.

But when we think about severe illness, all of them, again, worked really well to respond to that, and these vaccines are actively being tested against variants as we continue to identify them.

If I already had COVID-19, should I still get vaccinated?

Wallace: Yes. If you have had COVID-19 disease, you should still get vaccinated. The recommendations are still 90 days after symptoms have subsided, and you should still get both doses of Pfizer/Moderna or the one-dose J&J vaccine.

Our antibody response from natural infection doesn't last very long, we've observed. And another thing is that you may actually encounter a variant. So it would be good to make sure that we are protecting people against that, and the vaccination process will ensure a more robust immune response should you encounter the virus again in the natural environment.

What can you say about the range of side effects that occur and how that can be different from person to person?  

Dr. Amitabha Gupta: There are a range of side effects that occur with these vaccines and basically, they range from a sore arm to a little bit of a headache to a little bit of a fever. I know my wife got her second dose of Pfizer last week, and she described it as having a mild hangover, if you will.

There’s a range of side effects including chills and fevers, and it varies from person to person. Everybody's immune system is different, and there are different stages. And it's not to say that if you don't suffer a reaction your immune system isn't working. Your immune system is still working, and your body is still building protection to the different vaccines.

There are some side effects that people were seeing early on. There was the talk of anaphylaxis in some of the mRNA vaccines [Pfizer and Moderna]. Those are being considered very carefully, and it's important to know that these [side effects] exist and to understand who they're affecting, and whether there needs to be an update to the guideline. This is where this Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca piece fits in. The pause [on the J&J vaccines to investigate reports of rare blood clots] was exactly what science meant to happen when you do a trial for 30,000 people [while the vaccines were being tested].

Thirty thousand is not a million people, it's not 10 million people. As we start getting into 10 million people [vaccinated] we will encounter people whose immune systems are different than the people who are tested in the 30,000. It's important at that point to pause and really understand the underpinning of that.

There are systems in place to help monitor and track people who may experience reactions to the vaccine so that we're able to then go back and say, OK, well, we're seeing this number of people that have this kind of reaction and it wasn't expected, we may need to pause this particular vaccine in order to look closely at whether or not there is causation versus correlation – whether this vaccine is actually causing the reaction versus just being sort of part of the story.

There is a lot of information about COVID-19 -- both accurate information and misinformation. It can be hard to tell if the information is from a reputable source. What are some trusted sources that people could go?

Wallace: Some of the top sources are the National Institutes of Health, pharmaceutical companies who are doing the trials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fred Hutch’s COVID-19 page, the COVID-19 Prevention Network and PreventCovidWA.org.

How can we tell whether a report or article is true or misinformation?

Wallace: When I'm working with people around how to distinguish between misinformation and accurate information, I look to see if there are links to reference articles and whether it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. I also look to see if there a date on the article and is it from some anonymous person or do they actually have a name of the author of the article. I see a massive amount of information from anonymous sources who [claim to be] a nurse or a doctor but they never say what their affiliation is and they never say their name. I think it's really important that we arm ourselves to better distill this information and to be able to navigate it effectively.

Gupta: I want to add that when people [show me these articles] I always ask them what the sources of where they got them. I might say “What is it that is leading you to trust this piece of information?” I have a lot of friends who are still hesitant [about getting a vaccine], educated friends with advanced degrees but they still have questions. Understanding their motivation or their distrust is something I really try to get to with all my friends and family as well.

How will we ensure we're being inclusive in the workplace, with our guidance for vaccinated and unvaccinated Starbucks partners, as many partners can't get vaccinated due to medical, personal or religious reasons? How will we make sure our store leaders are doing what's right through the lens of inclusion?

May Jensen: We all have the lens of Our Mission and Values as leaders and partners at Starbucks, which is around creating a culture of warmth and belonging for everyone. And, as we know, there are so many different nuances to making the decision to get vaccinated or not. And we need to be respectful of those decisions and be inclusive of our partners.

And so a couple of things that we can just make sure we recommend is that how are we leaning in and creating a support system as leaders and partners for each other, asking questions about like “How are you doing today? How are you feeling, given the current environment? What do you need from me as a partner or leader to help you through this time?” Rather than asking “Have you been vaccinated yet?” because that obviously implies a bias.

So we're actually putting together a lot of tools and resources for our leaders in the stores, to be able to engage in these conversations appropriately and supportively with our partners.

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