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Questions about COVID-19 vaccines abound.

We turned to state health officials, the state vaccination plan, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local physicians and others for answers. What follows is what we found. We will continue to pose questions and provide updates. Email questions to reporter Caity Coyne at caity.coyne@hdmediallc.com.

What vaccines are approved and available in West Virginia, and how do they work?

As of Wednesday, vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are being distributed in West Virginia. Both are what’s known as mRNA vaccines, a relatively new type of technology. These vaccines are based on synthetic genetic material (messenger RNA) that, once injected, creates a virus antigen inside a person’s body that can help the immune system fight the virus.

Because of their makeup, mRNA vaccines must be stored at extremely low temperatures (minus 70 for Pfizer and minus 4 for Moderna), frequently requiring specialized freezers equipped with dry ice.

Anyone receiving these vaccines must get two doses a few weeks apart from the same type to ensure protection from COVID-19.

There are other, more traditional vaccines in development by such companies as AstroZeneca and Johnson & Johnson that wouldn’t require special storage or multiple doses. These vaccines have not been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Who can get a COVID-19 vaccine and when?

Vaccination priorities in West Virginia are: reducing the number of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations, protecting the state’s most vulnerable and ensuring the continuance of crucial services.

The state’s vaccination distribution plan is split into two phases that are further split into smaller tiers based on these priorities. Throughout each step, vaccines will be prioritized for older people in each tier since they are more likely to die from the virus or suffer its worst side effects, according to death and hospitalization data.

These phases are not sequential, according to West Virginia University’s Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar. This means many phases of vaccination will occur simultaneously, and there is no need to finish vaccinating all those qualifying in one phase before starting another.

Here are the phases and tiers:

  • Phase 1-A: Hospital workers, particularly those working directly with COVID-19 patients and those living or working in long-term care facilities. Pharmacies also are included in this phase. State officials are talking with pharmacy chains to begin distributing vaccinations there.
  • Phase 1-B: First-responders, public health officials and those responsible for maintaining community infrastructure. This group includes firefighters, emergency medical technicians, police, corrections staffers, health department workers, dentists and National Guardsmen on COVID-19 support.
  • Phase 1-C: Remaining health care workers with prioritization for those older than 50. This group includes other hospital staffers, hospice and home health workers, clinic staffers, optometrists, social workers, primary care physicians, counselors, therapists and dermatologists.
  • Phase 1-D: Utility and transportation workers, public school and college faculty and staff and local officials needed for the continuance of government with priority given to people older than 50.
  • Phase 2-A: General populace with priority given for those who are older or suffering from a pre-existing condition and have a doctor’s order to receive the vaccine.
  • Phase 2-B: Other health care and critical workers.
  • Phase 2-C: Anyone who wants a vaccine should be able to get one.

I’m included in one of these tiers, what do I do when it’s my turn to get the vaccine?

If you’re a health care employee who qualifies to receive the vaccine, your employer should have doses on hand to distribute. If you live or work in a long-term care facility, local agencies are coordinating with the state to get vaccines there.

It’s unclear where the vaccine will be distributed to the general population once Phase 2 begins, likely not for a few months, according to Dr. Sherri Young, health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. She said it’s likely that, once vaccines can be stored and distributed at pharmacies, they will be responsible for some of the general population vaccination.

West Virginia National Guard Maj. Gen. James Hoyer said state officials are shifting their focus to ensure the “vaccinators” get vaccinated. This group includes rural and small health clinic workers as well as primary care providers and pharmacies.

Is the vaccine going to be required?

No. Vaccine distribution is occurring solely on a volunteer basis. Most agencies are requesting doses based on responses to surveys asking people if they would be interested in receiving a vaccine.

I know someone who has received the vaccine but doesn’t qualify based on the state’s released phases. What gives?

There are a number of reasons someone could have received the vaccine. First, consider you might not be aware of a person’s situation or risk level for the virus, or what led to them receiving a vaccine.

As the Pfizer vaccine was distributed across the United States, doctors discovered more doses stored in the vials than initially expected — sometimes six instead of five. Once the Pfizer vaccine is thawed and removed from a refrigerator, it must be administered within six hours or it becomes unstable. The Moderna vaccine remains stable for longer, but also is limited by time.

In order to ensure these vaccines aren’t wasted, they could potentially be administered to people who don’t necessarily qualify at the current tier of distribution.

How does the state know which vaccine I received? When will I know it’s time for the second dose?

The state is tracking this information through a system used by the CDC. It tells providers which version of the vaccine someone received, and those receiving the vaccine get reminders of their second doses as well as requests to provide information on side effects.

What are the side effects?

The most common include pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain and fever. These were more common in younger people.

Those with severe allergies or documented vaccine allergies should consult their doctor before receiving the vaccine.

People who experience side effects should report them to the state.

Reach Caity Coyne at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow

@CaityCoyne on Twitter.