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Healthy Tahoe: How COVID Vaccine Prevents Disease

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Some wonder about the effectiveness of the vaccine against the COVID-19 virus. With the emergence of the delta variant, many people may know of a vaccinated person who has been infected with COVID-19 after vaccination.

It can be confusing and even alarming, especially with the high risk associated with contracting the virus. But rest assured, the vaccine is effective and it protects us.

Dr Rhonda Sneeringer

So what happens when you are exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a person who has been vaccinated? First, you are exposed to someone who is positive for COVID-19. The virus enters your nose and the virus spike proteins, which are unique to COVID-19, try to find your ACE2 receptors – a protein on the surface of your cells that acts as a cell gate – to bind to and enter. in your cells to start replicating.



Since you’re a vaccinated person, you have antibodies – protective proteins produced by the body’s immune system – that float, specially designed to recognize advanced COVID-19 proteins. These circulating antibodies bind to advanced proteins, effectively neutralizing them and preventing them from entering your cells.

Depending on how much virus you are exposed to, the amount of circulating antibodies from the vaccine may not be enough to neutralize every spike protein that enters your body. For example, antibodies can neutralize 85% of all spike proteins that come in, but 15% of spike proteins (and virus) still get into your cells, start to replicate, and then infect other cells, which may make you slightly sick.



After your body’s initial antibody response, your secondary immune response includes a memory book where your B cells quickly make more antibodies and cytotoxic T cells find infected cells and kill them.

Since your body already has this memory game book that kicks in quickly, you will experience fewer and milder symptoms, your symptoms will last much shorter, and your body will clear the virus faster. You are much less likely to progress to serious illness, hospitalization, or death. Vaccines work by giving your body a head start and a fighting chance.

On the other hand, if you are not vaccinated and are exposed to COVID-19, you are not that far ahead. You don’t already have these antibodies circulating to help neutralize the virus immediately. There is no pre-existing antibody memory that begins to fight earlier. More of the virus enters your cells faster than if your body already knew how to fight it. You will have more severe symptoms and a longer illness because this is the first time your body has been exposed. For some people, their bodies are overwhelmed with the amount of the virus resulting in serious illness, hospitalization and sometimes death.

If you’ve ever had COVID-19, you may be wondering why you need a vaccine. While we are still learning about the immunity of those who have had COVID-19, we know that the protection is not as strong as those who have been vaccinated. Early information indicates that it may take several infections to match the immunity of the vaccine.

Your immune system is designed to fight the virus, but the vaccine is the best way to make sure it gets a head start and maximizes protection. If you have the vaccine, your body will know what to do as soon as it is exposed, which will help you beat the virus before it grows too quickly.

Dr Rhonda Sneeringer is the Medical Director of COVID-19 Outpatient Care at Barton Health. To learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine or what to do if you experience symptoms or have been exposed, visit BartonHealth.org/Coronavirus.

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