How Vaccines Work

“How do vaccines work?”

That’s a good question, and an important one to be asking right now. What you first have to understand is how a body fights off a virus. A body fights off a virus using several different types of white blood cells. The three important ones are:


These white blood cells make antibodies that attack the germ remains left over by this next white blood cell.


white blood cells that digest germs and dying cells to produce antigens (traces of the germ that the body can identify and analyze as dangerous).


These ones are simple, all they do is attack infected cells in the body.

“Sounds like my white blood cells got it covered”

Unfortunately no, not only by not getting vaccinated do you become a risk to other people (See Herd Immunity), you become a risk to yourself. Aside from the obvious dangers dealing with the virus has, it’s shown that it also has the potential to weaken your immune system after dealing with it, making you more susceptible to getting the disease again, or getting another one, the only difference being this time around your body will have a lot harder time fighting it off.

Types of Vaccines

Protein Subunit Vaccines

Injects a harmless version of the virus (specifically the virus’s proteins) that your body learns how to fight. Pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, unlike the viral vector, which gives you a weakened, harmless version of the virus. Protein subunits just give you bits and pieces of the virus.

mRNA Vaccines

This vaccine works similar to our macrophages in our body! The vaccine gives your body tools to make proteins to protect from the virus and understand how to better detect when the virus is in the body.

Viral Vector Vaccines

This vaccine injects a modified, harmless version of the virus into our body. Our body then analyses the virus and makes instructions for how to deal with the real thing.


Herd Immunity

One of the stranger terms you have heard flung around is the importance of “Herd Immunity’ but what does that mean?

What is Herd immunity?

 Herd Immunity is when enough people become immune to a disease that it lowers the chance of the disease spreading as effectively since less people are able to spread it. This concept becomes super important when we start talking about immune compromised people. People who are immunocompromised (weakened immune system defense) have trouble building up a good immune system to be safe from diseases, and will be more at risk when deadly diseases spread. So it’s our job to be safe for them and lower a disease’s ability to spread.

How many people need to be immunized?

For this to work a certain percent of the population will need to be immune for herd immunity to work. Past major diseases like measles have needed a 95% immune rate, while Polio required around 80%. 

“Ok, let’s just let everyone get covid and build up everyone’s resistances.”

Scientists do not currently know the percent required for covid to achieve herd immunity. It is unsure how strong or lasting the immune response to getting covid is, and scientists do not recommend getting the covid virus to attempt to build your immunity as you stand a larger chance to spread it to someone who is in greater danger of dying or suffering long term. The best chance to develop herd immunity right now is to get vaccinated as soon as possible, stay hygienic, wear a mask, and stay away from large groups of people.

Doesn’t the vaccine give you the virus? Isn’t that the same as getting the virus?

Not quite, the quick answer is that most vaccines out right now give you a weakened version of the vaccine that is harmless to your body, it lets your body beat it down and learn from it so it can take tougher versions. Sometimes vaccines just give your body pieces of the vaccine to learn from. But never the whole thing, or any version that might be dangerous to you. See “How Vaccines Work” for more information.




According to the CDC there are 3 different vaccines authorized in the United States, here’s what you need to know:

Pfizer-BioNTech: The Pfizer vaccine is for people 16 years of age and older, it’s an mRNA vaccine, it required 2 shots 21 days apart. When you get the shot you’ll feel some pain along with some possible redness or swelling. Side effects can include Tiredness, Headache, Muscle, pain, Chills, Fever, and Nausea. These side effects are only mild, usually happen after the second shot, and go away after a few days, and was shown to be 95% effective in clinical trials at preventing covid.

 you should not take it if you have a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine, or if you’re allergic to any ingredients in an mRNA vaccine. An allergic reaction would take place at least 4 hours after you get a vaccine, hives, swelling, and breathing problems are all symptoms of an allergic reaction. Read this if you think you might be allergic. 

Moderna: This is another mRNA vaccine, it requires 2 shots, 28 days apart, and is recommended for people 18 years or older. As I said above don’t take this if you are allergic to anything ingredient in an mRNA vaccine. Similar to the Pfizer vaccine you might feel side effects after the second shot but they are mild and only last a few days. This vaccine was 94.1% effective in clinical trials.

Johnson & Johnson: This is a Viral Vector Vaccine. It only requires one shot. Recommended for 18 and up. As with the other vaccines don’t take it if you are allergic to any of the ingredients. This vaccine is 66% effective in clinical trials and was very good at keeping people who were already sick from dying or getting hospitalized. Johnson & Johnson, like the other vaccines listed have similar side effects. These are moderate/ mild in most people and go away in a few days so don’t worry too much about it.

 Important: currently, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is being put on pause due to some rare reports (6 cases) of blood clotting as a result of the vaccine. It is being investigated currently but this pause is subject to change. I will update this article as soon as anything changes.

Update: The Johnson and Johnson is back, but be aware that it’s linked to (extremely rare) blood clot complications.

Vaccines and Allergies

If you’re worried you might be allergic to the vaccine you’re taking and don’t understand the ingredients you find, the best way to get rid of any concerns is talk to your vaccine provider and doctor, they know what’s up and will give you a good answer/ vaccine recommendation.



Hygiene and Basic Precautions

When it comes to the new things we’ve had to go through during quarantine: face masks, extra attention to washing hands. It’s not a bad thing to ask the question “What am I doing to help?” or “Is all this stuff I’m doing now worth it?” These are all questions that are easily answered.

How does washing my hands help? Why do I have to do it if I’m already quarantining?

Washing hands is the most underappreciated and easiest way to stop yourself and other people from getting sick. Think about it, you do everything with your hands, they’re a vital sense in your body. You also touch a lot of things: computers, utensils, tables, doors, toilets, the list goes on. More importantly, you touch a lot of your own body; you rub your eyes, scratch your nose, wipe your mouth. These are all ways for the germs that you’ve accumulated in your hands from all that touching to make their way into your body. One of those things, especially if you’ve had some form of outside contact- could be covid. So washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water is extremely important for killing germs, and even more importantly, stopping you from spreading it to other people. And yes, while you may be quarantining all alone, with no one to touch, you’ll have to have some sort of outside contact eventually (unless you live in a supermarket or something) and through that those outside germs will transfer from your hands onto your face or into your body. And among the other germs and infections you don’t want, you definitely don’t want to run into covid. 

Do I have to wear a mask? Can I stop now that vaccines are out?

Yes to the first question, and no to the second. We know covid can be spread through close personal contact like coughing or sneezing as well as things like hand shaking. Masks are made to capture the spit droplets that come out of your mouth when you’re talking and all the stuff coming out of your nose when you sneeze. There are a few masks to be aware of:

Cloth masks: Catches droplets when you talk or sneeze, also prevents inhaling said droplets.

Medical masks: Protects you from mouth and nose spray, filters large particles in the air when you inhale, make sure it’s worn form-fitting to your face, loose masks aren’t as effective. This can be done by knotting the ear loops and adjusting the white wire on the top to the contours of your face.

N95 masks: More of a respirator then a mask. Filters large and small particles. Reserved for healthcare workers because they are in short supply. Make sure to remember that as a respirator, they filter the air coming in, not so much the air you breathe out.

All of these masks are effective and good to use when outside. I personally prefer the medical masks as they are cheap, disposable, and very effective. But your mask choice is up to you, so long as you’re wearing a mask, and wearing it properly, you’re doing good. 

And yeah, you still have to wear a mask even though vaccines are coming out and you may even be vaccinated. Not everyone is vaccinated and it’s hard to test if you’re asymptomatic, so it’s best if that stays on. For more detailed information, see the writing I have on what we should be doing now that vaccines are coming out.

Covid Pandemics

Next Steps

What Next?

Update: You don’t have to wear masks as long as you are fully vaccinated and are not in a crowd. That doesn’t mean “No more masks ever you’re good!” it’s more “You now have a wider access to some things.” Still try to stay outdoors, still stay away from large groups, still stay safe. Personally, I plan to keep wearing mine to feel safe and because I like making faces at people under my mask. I can’t tell you what to do, only advise you to make the safest decision for yourself.

It may be easy to push the pandemic out of the way now that people are finally getting vaccinated. And while our shared situation is improving, there is still work to do, as well as work that must be maintained. We have not reached a good level of herd immunity yet. People who haven’t gotten the vaccine yet are still at risk. Due to supply limits we are prioritizing the people most at risk to get the vaccine the quickest, that leaves the rest of us who are in the least amount of danger to keep each other out of danger. An article by UNC healthcare outlines very clearly what people should be doing before and after the vaccine. Before you’re vaccinated you should be maintaining basic hygiene: washing hands regularly, quarantining at home if you’re sick, staying 6 feet apart, as well as continuing to wear a mask. After the vaccine you should continue what you were doing before, staying hygienic, wearing a mask, ect. Doctors haven’t vaccinated everyone and are not sure if it prevents asymptomatic infection (Asymptomatic means people with COVID who are not showing any symptoms, but can still pass on the virus). If what the UNC doesn’t convince you, check out what Doctor Fauci has said, the following quote comes from an interview he did with the news site Scientific American. (Do note that this interview was in December of 2020, so it is a little dated.)

Q: Coronavirus infections are surging exponentially. Can we still get them under control?

A: “Yes, absolutely. I’ve been saying this every day. If we, uniformly throughout the country, implement public health guidelines—wearing masks, keeping physically distanced, avoiding crowded situations, doing things outdoors more than indoors and washing hands frequently—I believe we will see an effect. We know from experience that the states or cities or countries that have done this have always been able to blunt and mitigate the slope of a surging curve such as this one.”


Q: What are your major concerns for vaccine distribution?

A: “We hope to get the overwhelming majority of people in this country vaccinated. We have the logistics under Operation Warp Speed and General Gustave Perna [Operation Warp Speed’s chief operations officer] to put vaccines into the trucks, trains, planes and whatever it is that gets them to where they need to go. But then local public health officials will need the capability and resources to distribute the vaccines in an equitable way. It’s going to be a big task to vaccinate more than 300 million people—a very prodigious project.”

There’s more than a few similarities between these two, and 3 months apart we still have the same goal. We need to continue doing what we’ve been doing to keep people safe, and continue to be patient while the very daunting task of vaccinating the millions in America takes place. But as Fauci says in the interview although it’s “A very prodigious project” it becomes a much easier task when each of us do what we’re able to stay safe and keep our friends and family safe. Stay hygienic, stay safe.