Months into the rollout plan of the COVID-19 vaccine, there are still skeptics on what exactly it does and why it’s essential in slowing and eventually preventing COVID-19 from spreading. 

Amy P. Buckenmeyer, PhD, MPH, RN, CPH is an Associate Professor and the Public Health Program Director. Dr. Buckenmeyer asked to be written as Dr. B. She explained how the vaccine works in preventing COVID-19, noting that vaccines technically work in many different ways depending on the type.

“Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines, which basically means that the vaccine contains a part of the virus that’s caused from COVID-19, that causes SARS-CoV-2,” said Buckenmeyer. SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus COVID-19 causes. 

The purpose of the vaccine is to “instruct our cells to make a protein that is unique to the virus. After the cells copy the protein they destroy the genetic material from the vaccine,” Dr. B. said. 

Once that genetic material is destroyed, our bodies produce T and B lymphocytes. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, these are cells that act in immune responses to achieve immunity. One is involved in white blood cell activity and the other in creating antibodies. Dr. B said these cells are in charge of remembering how to fight this infection in the future: that’s how mRNA vaccines work. 

Pfizer and Moderna have two doses because clinical trials proved second doses to be boosters. 

“The second dose is recognized by the body faster and then can activate that immune response,” Dr. B. said. “Both vaccines were shown to be more effective after patients had received a second dose.”

In general, vaccines work because of herd immunity. Dr. B. noted that without vaccines we would see more deaths from diseases like measles, pertussis and chicken pox. Likewise, without herd immunity provided by the COVID-19 vaccine, more of our families, friends and neighbors will die of SARS-CoV-2. 

Dr. B. mentioned that the future of administering the COVID-19 vaccine remains unclear because groups are still being studied. Scientists will know more about the details of the future of administering COVID-19 vaccines once they have more data.

“Right now the WHO [World Health Organization] and others are following these groups forward in time who have received the vaccine to try to determine how long that immunity will last,” Dr. B said. “Basically, how durable is the vaccine?” 

Vaccines that have already been widely used like those for polio and HPV are generally mechanisms for primary prevention, which keeps those that are vaccinated from contracting the disease. 

“Primary prevention is by far very effective in mitigating disease, but one of the things that’s contributing to the effectiveness of these two vaccines in particular is the fact that they are mRNA vaccines,” Dr. B said. 

Even though the technology is new, they’re effective. After receiving both doses, Dr. B said Pfizer’s vaccine is 95% effective and Moderna’s vaccine is 94% effective. 

For the Valpo community, this vaccine rollout means it’s important to continue wearing masks that cover the mouth and nose, physically distancing and practicing good hand hygiene and hand washing. With the increased rollout and as some students become eligible and able to receive the vaccine, Dr. B. hopes we will be able to return to normal once it’s completely out for the public. 

“But that said, it’s completely provided that the people actually get it,” Dr. B said. “We need people to get the vaccine when it becomes available to them.”

She asks that everyone get vaccinated for COVID-19 when they’re eligible and able, but she warns not to attempt to jump ahead in line. 

“It’s crucial that people do not do that. The vaccine rollout was very well-planned so that those that are at the highest risk are getting the vaccine first,” Dr. B said. “Rather than jumping in line, I ask that you wait your turn. With the rollout being ramped up, hopefully that turn will come sooner than later.”

Dr. B. said we can be doing our parts in different ways while we wait for our turns, such as the new CDC recommendation for double-masking using a surgical mask covered by a cloth one. If you wear one mask, you may wear a KN95. The KN95 mask is available to the general public but the N95 is not. 

She also encourages students to get tested for COVID-19 if they have symptoms and said they can utilize the Health Center or centers off campus. 

“Part of mitigating the spread of COVID, particularly in university settings, is testing,” Dr. B. said. “Testing helps us to know who has the disease and helps us know who to isolate and who to quarantine according to who has the disease.” 

Randomized surveillance testing was announced by the Health Center on Feb. 18, one day after this interview took place.

“Even though we’re all experiencing COVID-19 differently, the fight against COVID-19 -- we are all in that together.” 


Dr. B can be contacted via email at

“The world of public health is not all COVID-19,” she said. “If students are interested in either our public health major or minor I would be happy to answer questions.”

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