Just recently, the CDC reported that although Black Americans were only slightly more likely to contract COVID-19, they were nearly three times more likely to be hospitalized with it and twice as likely to die from it.
Add in the equally troubling statistics around Black Breast Cancer and, as survivor/thriver Stephanie Walker puts it: “I’m thinking to myself: I have a double whammy. With metastatic breast cancer, we die at a 40% higher rate. And then if all of the sudden I got COVID? I’d be cooked.”
But Black Americans are the most hesitant to get the vaccine, with the lowest vaccination rates of any group (Pew Research Center). More recently, a JAMA study found that young Black women were the least likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
When Stephanie—who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015—first heard about the vaccine, her response was immediate: “I didn’t want anything to do with it. We still don’t have a cure [for cancer], but you can come up with a vaccine for something that you don’t even know that much about? I’ll take a number at the back of the line.”
How do the vaccines work?
Both COVID-19 vaccines currently in use (Moderna and Pfizer) are mRNA based vaccines. Neither vaccine uses any living (or dead) virus, which means that the vaccine can’t give you COVID-19.
You can think of mRNA as a battle plan and your immune system as an army. When injected, mRNA instructs your cells to make spike proteins that mimic the spikes of the coronavirus. But once built, your immune system says hey you don’t belong here! and attacks the spike proteins. The ensuing battle trains your immune system to recognize and effectively fight off spiked intruders, like coronavirus.
The first injection (which readies the immune system) gives you about 51% immunity; the second (which boosts the immune system’s response) gets you up to 95% immunity.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine—authorized by the FDA at the end of February—also focuses on spike proteins. It’s a viral vector vaccine, which means that scientists took the spike gene from COVID-19 and put it into a weakened, harmless virus (adenovirus). The adenovirus that carries the spike gene cannot replicate or spread inside your body, which means that it cannot make you sick.
When injected into your body, the harmless virus enters some of your cells and the spike gene inside instructs the cells to make spike proteins. Once your cells have made copies of the spike proteins, your immune system army attacks them. All of the vaccines have the same goal: to teach your immune system to recognize and attack spike proteins.