A Vaccine is Coming, but Public Health Measures Remain Necessary

By Christina Moylan, December 11, 2020
A message from Christina Moylan, Director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness.

Public Health Column introduction video.

The highly anticipated emergency authorization of two vaccines to fight COVID-19 disease – produced by Pfizer and Moderna – is exciting news and offers a beacon of hope. On South Hill, we stand ready to deliver mass vaccination when it is our turn.  

Flu shot clinic

Flu shot clinic, Point of Dispensing (POD) supplies. (Photo Credit: Durst Breneiser '15)

Every year, we conduct a “point-of-dispensing” exercise for our campus community where we deliver hundreds of flu vaccines within a matter of hours. This is an emergency preparedness exercise to train for exactly this type of situation. As soon as the governor provides details on vaccine delivery and timing, as outlined in the State’s COVID-19 Vaccination Program plan, we are ready to stand up a vaccination clinic. 

Vaccines are a long-standing medical and public health tool that have successfully controlled infectious disease for decades. Vaccines fundamentally changed society, advancing health and life expectancy for all of us. It shifted our focus to preventing or reducing the impact of diseases, rather than only being able to treat disease after it developed and progressed. 

Vaccines are effective against viruses. They work by introducing weakened or inactive virus into your body to provoke an immune response. In other words, it tricks your body into thinking it has been infected so that your body produces antibodies. These antibodies remain in your bloodstream ready to attack should you ever encounter the virus again.  

The two vaccines likely to be available first in the U.S. focus on using mRNA. This works a little differently than other vaccines in that they teach your body to make proteins that then trigger the immune response. They cannot give you COVID-19. There is a lot of misinformation about mRNA, so continue to educate yourself to increase your comfort level about the vaccine.  

An important takeaway is that while the vaccine is certainly a sign of hope, it will not have a significant impact on the need for other public health measures for many months. 

Christina Moylan, Director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness

Both of these initial vaccines require two doses – one to prime your immune system and then a second about three weeks later to provoke the immune response. After receiving the second dose, it will require another 10 days or so for the full immune response to be effective. The vaccines will not be as effective if you only receive one dose. It will also take many months for the vaccine distributors to produce sufficient supply to meet demand, a challenge that is doubled, so to speak, given that two doses of the vaccine are needed for each person. 

As more people are vaccinated, our knowledge about the effectiveness of the vaccine will grow. The clinical trials produced strong evidence that vaccinated people did not develop severe COVID-19 disease. However, it remains unclear how long this protection will last. The vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus also continues to be studied. We do not yet know how much being vaccinated reduces or eliminates the possibility that you can pass the SARS-CoV-2 virus to others. 

An important takeaway is that while the vaccine is certainly a sign of hope, it will not have a significant impact on the need for other public health measures for many months. As you look forward to your return to South Hill, expect to continue to participate in surveillance testing, wear a face covering, maintain six feet of physical distancing, and practice good hand hygiene. You should also plan to avoid travel and gatherings as much as possible.  

Only when 70% of the population is vaccinated will the risk associated with SARS-CoV-2 transmission be sufficiently reduced to discontinue these efforts. Bottom line – we will be #ICInThisTogether with or without the vaccine for our return to South Hill for the spring semester. 

Let’s keep our numbers low, and our spirits high!            


Christina Moylan, Ph.D.           
Director of Public Health Emergency Preparedness