College Parent Q&A about Pandemic Problems & COVID Vaccines

As our college students head back to campus (or simply back to their rooms for online classes), it’s time for another question and answer session, with pressing parent questions brought to me by my amazing friend, Suzy Mighell, creator and founder of the popular blog and lifestyle brand Empty Nest Blessed (check it out if you haven’t already!) Let’s jump right in!

Q1. My college student is so sad about missing all the classic college experiences, like football games, parties, studying abroad, etc. Is there anything we can say or do to help?

No question we are ALL feeling this, students and parents alike (not to mention fretting about the financial end, how we are paying full price for a less than full experience, though I sympathize with the costs and strains on the universities.) I certainly wish SOMEONE had a magic wand to create a do-over for 2020. Obviously, the students are mostly in the same boat, though some are at least living on or near campus while others are literally stuck in their childhood bedroom. The one positive thing I can say is that steadily, kids are creating new experiences- moving to off-campus houses and apartments with classmates they met online (especially freshmen), and schools are reaching out to helpful and/or famous alumni who are happily zooming on industry panels or giving talks that they would not have had time for pre-COVID. Also, know that these students will have that traumatic, unique, shared bond of the “COVID Year” that will forever stamp their college experience and instantly connect them to one another in future settings.

2. My freshman is struggling to make friends, and mostly seems sad or apathetic. Any advice?

From my colleague Marcia Morris, MD, a university psychiatrist and author of The Campus Cure , ““Social connection may be the most important way to reduce anxiety and depression, but social distancing is keeping us apart. Stay connected with others by joining a club that meets by Zoom, taking outdoor walks with friends, calling someone you have not heard from in awhile. Be creative in connecting; don’t give up; this too shall pass.” Adding my two cents: encourage your student to REALLY look at their university’s website, and challenge them to find THREE activities to attend in the next 3 weeks- virtual or in person. Think outside the box, considering everything from purely fun groups like Juggling Club or “Bad Movies” Club to a service organization or professional society for their major.

3. My college senior is worried about getting a job after graduation, since they couldn’t get an internship last summer, fall or even this spring, because of COVID cutbacks at businesses. Besides telling them everyone is in the same boat, what else can I add?

Our college senior is definitely dealing with this, too! Besides hoping that businesses may extend internship opportunities beyond college graduation (which thankfully, some industries are doing), the best thing our students can do is to show their work ethic and initiative by doing frankly ANYTHING that shows they didn’t purely sit back and spend their quarantine stuck in a video game or Netflix haze. They should consider reaching out to smaller companies in their chosen field that may not typically do internships, but may welcome some qualified “free labor.” Nonprofits and public services are especially open to these offers.

Moving on to all those COVID questions…

4. If my student had COVID last fall, do they REALLY need to wear a mask? How long are they immune, and is there any point in getting a vaccine since they’ve already had the illness?

Many of our kids have indeed had COVID, and thankfully, the vast majority had pretty minor symptoms. We know after a COVID infection, you are immune for at least two months, but the endpoint here is unknown, though best evidence now suggests you may be protected for up to 8 months. Reinfection can occur, but we are happily NOT seeing SEVERE re-infections that mean hospitalization and death. Even better, the new vaccines appear to create MORE immunity than actual infection, so yes, even if you had COVID, you will want to get the vaccine when it is your turn. College students are still pretty far down the priority list, but I am hoping they will all be able to get vaccinated before Fall 2021, allowing campus life to return to much more “normal.” Should they still mask? That’s a resounding YES. At this point, we don’t know if you can still spread COVID after infection or immunization, though some experts feel this may not be a huge issue. From my standpoint, it’s critical to keep normalizing wearing masks, period. If “they” say it’s okay to stop wearing masks if you are immunized or had an infection, we know that a good chunk of people will simply stop wearing masks, because the herd mentality will be “if those people aren’t wearing masks, why should I?” and then…more people spread disease. We are NOT done with COVID, friends! Many of our hospitals are overwhelmed, and frankly, it’s just NOT that big of a deal to wear a mask. Just DO IT. PLEASE.

5. Do you anticipate that college kids are experiencing “Covid fatigue” along with so many people, and that they may not be as vigilant in protecting themselves from the virus as they were last fall? How can we “encourage” our kids to stay on their guard?

Absolutely they are as COVID-fatigued as the rest of us! I’m encouraged that university leadership recognizes this as well, and many are going above and beyond to offer OUTSIDE, socially-distanced spaces and events that their students can safely enjoy, especially all those with temperate weather. I LOVE how so many campuses now have festive string lights, outdoor heaters, seating and stages to welcome students back to campus. If your student is living off campus, splurge a little on creating a fun outdoor deck or backyard, so they have a cool but lower risk place to hang out with friends! ANYTHING outside is lower risk than inside, so gift with that in mind- an outdoor sport, lessons, games, etc. Got a “theater” kid? Consider gifting them a virtual murder mystery that they can play with new friends or high school friends scattered across the country. Again, get creative!

6. What, if anything, should we add to our student’s first aid kits this semester?

First, be sure that you have the COVID essentials- a pulse oximeter, thermometer, cough drops, tylenol, advil, and individual powdered electrolyte solutions (Pedialyte, Gatorade, Powerade, etc.) Then, go through the kit and CHECK EXPIRATION DATES, especially for upperclassmen! You don’t want to reach for a pain reliever or antihistamine only to see it’s expired. Looking for the full FIRST AID KIT list? Look HERE.

7. How long do they think the vaccine effectively offers protection? Will this be an annual shot, like the flu shot, going forward?

Since COVID has only been known for one year, we obviously don’t have answers beyond that yet, but best educated guess is that these vaccines will offer protection for at LEAST a year or maybe two, so we may be getting boosters similar to the flu vaccine.

8. Do you expect college & universities to add the Covid vaccine to their list of required vaccines by next fall?

I don’t know if it will be required, but frankly, I certainly hope so, given the communal living in dorms and close contacts in classrooms and the crazy infectious nature of this virus!

9. Do you think the vaccine is safe? Have you had it yet?

YES, and YES!! I’ve already had my first dose of the Moderna vaccine (and my anesthesiologist husband has had both doses of the Pfizer vaccine!) My husband had fleeting chills and a bit of fatigue for a day with each of his doses, and I had some arm soreness, with mild muscle and headaches for a couple days. Let’s talk about these new vaccines and why I was so excited to get mine (and to administer them to hundreds of other people.) Truth be told, when I first heard about the mRNA vaccines, I was a bit unsure. Hmmm, I thought- new technology, SO much political sway both directions, then naming it “Operation Warp Speed”…will this be safe? Fully tested? How long will it stay in my body, and how will my hyperactive immune system respond? Well, the good news is that yes, they are indeed safe, and frankly- from a science nerd standpoint- they are SUPER cool and efficient. The technology has actually been developing for well over a decade, so that part was never rushed. Our government wisely dumped money into the drug companies on the front end, which allowed them to press forward and literally produce vaccines in mass quantities before they were approved (which would never happen if they were worried about losing money) while the severity of the pandemic provided unlimited volunteers to participate in the studies, and forgive my bias, but those volunteers included many physicians and other healthcare workers (friends and colleagues who I could fully trust to be transparent about their experience.) This perfect storm allowed Pfizer and Moderna to have an unheard-of number of over 70,000 combined participants in their studies, which were scientifically blinded and randomized. What we know from the data is that these vaccines are extraordinarily EFFECTIVE and SAFE. Vaccine trials start with pre-clinical animal models, then progress to Phase 1 small, totally health human groups with less than 100 people, then Phase II with dose adjustments and more healthy adults- possibly up to 1000 people, then phase III with more adults including those with chronic issues like high blood pressure or diabetes, often a few thousand people, but again, with COVID, we had over 70,000! The next step could have taken many months or years, as we waited for the participants to get exposed to the disease and actually develop infections, but the reality of 2020 is that with COVID permeating the planet, we very quickly got enough people not only infected with COVID, but symptomatic, so the companies could un-blind the studies and see whether those people had received the real vaccine or a placebo. Happily, we found that the vaccines were both roughly 95% effective in preventing disease, and nearly 100% effective against SEVERE disease- which is the whole key! Remember that the biggest societal problem with COVID- what brought us to a standstill- is that although only a tiny percentage get sick enough to end up in our ICU’s, that raw number is enough to overwhelm our hospital systems. When we can simply prevent disease severe enough to land people in the hospital, we can move forward.

10. Can you explain a little bit to us about how vaccines are made and how they work?

These mRNA vaccines are amazing! They basically slip into our muscle cells and enter the cytoplasm of the cells (NEVER entering the nucleus, which houses our DNA) and then serve as a blueprint for our ribosomes to make the famous SPIKE PROTEIN of the COVID viral particle. Note that this is ONE of 29 proteins that make up the COVID 19 virus, so in NO WAY can this simple protein CAUSE infection or disease. Think of it like a piece of hair compared to a whole human- it’s a tiny fraction, not a viable thing by itself. Every hour of every day, our ribosomes are cranking out thousands of proteins, and this is just one more. Also, mRNA is so fragile that the only way scientists can keep it intact is to keep it frozen at crazy low temperatures, plus wrap it in a fat bubble to allow entry into the cell. This mRNA “package” only stays viable in our cells for a brief time- hours to maybe a day or so when wrapped in the fat bubble- but long enough for our cells to make that spike protein and stick it outside of the cell, so our immune systems can recognize it and prepare defenses for fighting the REAL virus, should it invade. Then that mRNA is broken down and COMPLETELY REMOVED, rather like a Snapchat message. Our immune system creates different types of memory cells that persist, but the mRNA from the vaccine is quickly broken down and eliminated.

11. What about allergic reactions or side effect from the vaccine, and can you get COVID from the vaccine?

GOOD NEWS! It’s impossible to get COVID from the vaccine, because again, the vaccine is literally the blueprint for only one of 29 proteins that make up the virus. Allergic reactions are extremely rare, though we are seeing each an every significant allergic reaction broadcasted in the media. Keep in mind that over 11 million doses of the vaccine have been administered, with less than 20 severe allergic reactions, ALL of which have been successfully treated. The awesome thing about mRNA vaccines is that they are nothing but RNA bases- no eggs, latex, mercury, aluminum or anything else, because they use OUR cells’ machinery rather than another virus or cell vector. We honestly should be more worried about PB and J sandwiches than these vaccines, because there are WAY more allergic reactions to peanut butter. “Side effects” are mostly appropriate immune system reactions, including fever, muscle aches, headaches and local shot reactions like a tender arm, with some redness or swelling at the site of injection. Try to think of these as a GOOD sign that your body is recognizing those spike proteins and setting up your personal defense!

12. Some people want to “wait and see” because they are worried about long-term side effects that have yet to be discovered. Is that valid?

The bottom line here is that when we look back at the history of vaccines, the vast, vast majority of adverse effects show up within two months of the vaccine, which is why the FDA wouldn’t approve emergency authorization of these vaccines until two months after the second shots. When you balance that knowledge with the severity of COVID disease and the over 400,000 people in this country who have died from this infection, I think the choice is clear.

13. “Okay, I know it might be far-fetched, but I heard there could be microchips in this vaccine, and that they can make you sterile. Is that possible?”

No worries, these are completely FALSE. The whole “microchip” idea came from what I think is a brilliant developmental project that would allow future vaccines to leave a microscopic footprint that could let clinicians see that someone had been immunized, like a microscopic “tattoo” instead of a printed shot record. (SO many of my patients no longer have any record of their childhood immunizations!) This mark would be a “read-only” type of footprint, not a tracking device! (And hello, look no further than that phone in your hand if you are concerned about anyone tracking you!) As for STERILITY? Honestly, this rumor frustrates me beyond belief, because it’s not even medically conceivable, if you’ll pardon the pun. And for the sake of argument, even if it WERE possible, frankly, how would we know at this early date? Meanwhile, women who have been immunized are already pregnant. All I can think is that anxious people saw the genetic code (mRNA) and freaked out, associating that with DNA and assuming that would affect conception without understanding the basic science. So let’s be clear, NO, these vaccines do not make anyone sterile, male nor female. In fact, I’m thrilled our 23 year old daughter ( who works in health care) received her vaccine, which will keep her from severe COVID disease and ultimately, therefore, protect her future fertility.

14. How long do you think it will be until the vaccine is widely available for everyone who wants it?

My crystal ball is cloudy, but best estimates from vaccine manufacturers and those scientists overseeing the process suggest that by late spring or early summer, we should have enough vaccines and delivery systems to allow widespread vaccination. In the academic world, we feel comfortable saying that by FALL 2021, we should be able to move forward with “everyone” vaccinated. A quick note on the delays with administration: there are a zillion moving parts, from deciding WHO gets in line when, to physical handling of the vaccines (the crazy cold storage for Pfizer, the thawing protocols for both Pfizer and Moderna, the limited time the vaccine is viable once thawed- only 6 hours for Moderna) to certifying the people administering the vaccine with background checks and credentials verification, etc. Please know your physicians, nurses, other healthcare providers and public health departments are all anxious to get you these vaccines just as soon as possible!

BOTTOM LINE: COVID has pulled the rug out from under our college students as much as the rest of us, so let’s support them as much as possible. Check their first aid kits to be sure they are stocked up and current! Finally, I encourage everyone to keep up masks and social distancing, and don’t hesitate to roll up your sleeve when it’s your turn!

College Parent Q&A about Pandemic Problems & COVID Vaccines

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