In this episode of Suncast, Emma and Anil break down why it’s important to get a flu vaccine and how the University handled the COVID-19 outbreak at the start of the semester, featuring an undergraduate student, a Ph.D. student and Prof. Beth Rhoades, immunology. Aimee Eicher ‘24 and Kaitlyn Lee ‘25 contributed reporting to this episode.
E: Welcome to another episode of the Cornell Daily Sun’s official podcast, Suncast. In this episode, Anil and I will be revisiting COVID on campus, talking to students about their experience in quarantine and university support, protective immunity, and comparing the COVID vaccine to the annual flu vaccine, as well as going into how the flu shot works. I’m your co-host, Emma Rosenbaum, and I’m a senior editor on The Sun.
A: And I’m the other co host, Anil, and I am The Sun’s assistant managing editor. Today we’re going to be talking about the flu and COVID. Last year, there was a lot of people afraid that as we sort of went back to campus and went back to normal life, we would see a “twindemic” of COVID and the flu at the same time. Even though that sort of has not really happened, there hasn’t been a ton of cases of either, it still seems like everyone is sick all the time. And so we began to wonder how students were experiencing sickness on campus this semester with COVID and the flu having fairly similar symptoms, and how the vaccines for both of them are affecting those experiences.
E. We talked to Professor Beth Rhoades, department of microbiology and immunology, about the flu season and how flu shot immunity works. So first, let’s recap the last few months on campus.
A: As of now, 97 percent of the on-campus population is vaccinated. According to the University. But that has also left a lot of questions as to how there was such a huge outbreak of COVID at the beginning of the semester and is it possible for that to happen again, either as we go home for Thanksgiving and come back or later in the semester as we go home for Christmas?
E: Yeah, and the sentiments on campus regarding COVID range from people thinking they don’t need to wear a mask or take health precautions because they think their vaccine will protect them to those still worried about going into large group settings and how that would put them at risk. So one perspective that at least I hadn’t thought about before was from PhD students who obviously aren’t undergrad, so they’ve had a different outlook on this whole pandemic, and their requirements for testing and everything are different.
I saw on Twitter, one Ph.D. student sharing her experience getting COVID during the September outbreaks. And she was vaccinated and didn’t have the best experience calling Cornell Health. She was concerned about her underlying health conditions and wanted to be seen in person by a health practitioner. She lived off campus, and she doesn’t teach in-person classes anymore. So she was exempt from surveillance testing, but her roommate did teach in-person classes, which is why she ended up getting tested once she started to feel sick. This is what Phoebe Strom, a fourth-year ILR student had to say.
Phoebe: A lot of people are less anxious about COVID this semester, certainly with people being vaccinated, I am vaccinated. I think, you know, for me, it was certainly still psychologically kind of difficult because it’s the thing you’ve been avoiding for two years. I called in to basically ask for help following the instructions that they gave, you know, don’t go to the supplementary testing, you need to call us if you are symptomatic. And I was immediately put on hold for over an hour. Because first of all, I was told to schedule a supplementary test which their guidelines specifically say not to do if you think you have COVID, don’t go to the supplemental. So kind of surprised by that. And then when I asked about like medical care because I have asthma, and I was symptomatic, and when I asked about it — because I didn’t just want a PCR test to confirm I also wanted medical care — I was told that they could only offer telehealth appointments, and that it would be over a week before I could get in. And when I expressed concern over that, one of the things that really surprised me was that the woman I was speaking to said, “Well, aren’t you concerned about your asthma?” Obviously, I’m concerned, that’s why I don’t think a telehealth appointment is sufficient. And so it was frustrating, because I felt like you know, I don’t blame the staff, but it was clear, you know, because it was clear that she was concerned. But they just didn’t have the capacity. And she was, I mean, she was sitting there telling me like, you know, I would be concerned if I had asthma like I would want an appointment, which I was honestly kind of floored by.
E: After going to urgent care which was suggested by Cornell health, she found out her oxygen saturation, the amount of oxygen traveling through her body, was extremely low. She was subsequently put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital. Initially, though, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to go to urgent care.
Phoebe Strom: And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to urgent care because Urgent Care is kind of expensive, and it’s inconvenient and it’s far away and I felt terrible. It felt like the university was willing to take these risks with all of our health and force us to kind of be on campus and be in these classrooms and not, you know, upgrade the ventilation or whatever. They were willing to take the risk with our health but then there was no investment in the infrastructure to actually take care of us when we got sick. And I’m sure anyone that listens knows the admittedly shockingly limited medical resources in the community. Like it’s irresponsible for taking care of students, but it also feels like it’s detrimental to the community because those resources are already really stretched.
A: So we also talked to an undergraduate sophomore student who prefered to not have their name out there, about her experience getting COVID at the start of the semester, which was a bit of a surprise to her because she was vaccinated. But, she had a fairly similar experience to Phoebe and talked a lot about navigating classes while she was in quarantine, and how it wasn’t quite as accommodating as she was expecting.
E: So this student didn’t have a ton of severe symptoms related to COVID. And she attributes that to being vaccinated. However, she still, you know, had to face quarantine and like, getting accommodations from her professors.
Anonymous sophomore: Also, I do think some professors made it a lot easier than other professors. And some professors were just more accommodating. Since cases like this were pretty high at the beginning of the semester, some of them were aware that they would record or Zoom their lectures, on top of actually having [class] in-person as well. And then some of them also had like, they would post like resources, videos that were supplementary, but they would basically cover the same thing. But I will say that some of them were just like, “good luck.” Get your notes from your classmate and just try to follow along like the slides. I think something else really frustrating was, I think Cornell was pretty disorganized, in terms of keeping track of who’s in quarantine, like when they’re supposed to get out of quarantine and stuff like that. So for me, I didn’t get a call. I checked my thing and saw that I had COVID, I saw that COVID and they called me told me and told me I had COVID, but then they were like, “oh, we’ll follow up and give you like further instructions, and will tell you when your release date is soon, like in the next day.” And I didn’t hear back from them for like three or four days.
E: So that kind of shows that this wasn’t a single experience that people faced back in September. And going back to Phoebe’s story, she was also told by Cornell Health that she would be fine because she had been vaccinated and was told to just trust her vaccine.
Phoebe: And I have to go through multiple people saying, “Listen, I have symptoms. I know I’m vaccinated. I’m concerned about this. I have these positive health results.” Before I got someone who wasn’t just kind of like, “Oh, your vaccine will protect you.” Which, you know, certainly I think it did.
A: So what exactly does it mean to trust your vaccine? I think the biggest question there is, how long does your immunity last, especially for the Cornell community where many of us got vaccinated in April and May. It’s now reaching the six month mark post vaccination, which is when some health authorities are recommending that you get a booster shot.
E: So yeah, the big question is, does this immunity last? I found an article in Nature, and it was published late September, but researchers made a prediction early earlier this year, right, when people were just starting to get vaccinated, that six to seven months after receiving the vaccine, the 90 percent effective rate will drop to 70 percent. So that’s obviously a shocking statistic. And what’s explained in this article is that due to a loss of around half of the defensive antibodies the vaccine induces your immune system to make, that’s what causes the effective rate to drop. And this decline of antibodies has been documented in studies. And this is not accounting for the threat of variants like the Delta variant. But while these neutralizing antibodies, or the antibodies that are made to identify the virus attached to it and destroy it, do wane after a few months of vaccination, there is another immune response that has a longer staying power that isn’t necessarily as quick or strong as the antibody response, it’s called memory.
A: We asked Professor Beth Rhodes, who teaches Essential Immunology class on campus, to talk to us more about this lasting memory, immune response.
Beth Rhoades: So we’re thinking there’s protective immunity by this really high level of antibodies that lasts maybe four to six months. So that’s the protective immunity. Now, what they were hoping is, somebody gets their full vaccine for COVID, they get the antibodies, and they were hoping it would last forever, but it doesn’t. Like any other thing, it always falls down. And so that’s why they’re trying to ask people “do you want a booster?” and then you can get those protective antibodies again for another temporary time. But in either case, the COVID vaccines also give you this second type of very important immunological memory, so that someone who is infected maybe a year later, they have memory cells — B cells and T cells — that will see that COVID and it doesn’t take them a week to get their act together, it takes them a couple days. And then they start acting really good and protecting. So that’s why people don’t go to the hospital when they’ve been vaccinated, but they might still come down with a PCR test that’s positive, or they might have some slight symptoms because the memory response ultimately protects them.
E: So to clarify some of the terminology she used: so B and T cells, these are just immune cells that your body makes to fight infection. And B cells are what makes antibodies that target and kill the virus before they infect a cell and T cells can destroy the infected cells and also help in B cells making those antibodies. So something interesting that that anonymous student said was that she’s more inclined this year to get the flu shot than other years.
Anonymous student: I will say before COVID, before the whole pandemic at all, I didn’t get my flu shot that often. I wasn’t religiously going every year. But I think I definitely will this year, and like I did last year as well. I think that COVID has — not necessarily contracting it — but just having a pandemic, in general, made me want to get a flu shot.
A: So that brings us to the next part of the episode, which is how the flu vaccine works every year. We asked Professor Rhoades to list a couple of reasons as to why it’s a good idea to get the flu vaccine this year.
Rhoades: Number one, a lot of the symptoms of flu and COVID overlap, right. And so if you want to prevent having those symptoms that get you you’re worried about COVID and disrupting your life, then taking the chance that you’re not going to get flu by vaccinating is a good idea. And the other reason is that people are returning to normal like you’re saying in this podcast, and so there’s going to be more chances for people to catch flu and spread it compared to last year. So we will see more flu circulating, and so definitely worth getting a flu vaccine to make sure you’re not one of the ones catching it.
E: I think it’s important to talk about flu shots, since COVID vaccines have been at the forefront of people’s minds for the past few years now — not to forget that there is this other shot that’s been proven to be very effective each year and kind of going into more about the science behind it that maybe people haven’t thought about before.
Rhoades: And basically the idea is that we take something that looks like the flu, but is not the flu, so just part of the flu or an inactivated flu that can’t replicate and cause disease. And that’s what we put in a flu vaccine to train your immune system to recognize it when it really does come around for real. And so basically, when you get a flu vaccine, it’s going to be this, what would they call an inactivated flu, which they just basically kill the virus, give that to you. And that will train your T cells and B cells to see parts of the flu, and the B cells will make antibodies and antibodies are what are going to bind to the real flu when it gets into you and stop it from giving you an infection or giving a disease. And the T cells sort of help the B cells. So that’s the idea you have. You get the vaccine and about two weeks later, you have lots and lots of antibodies starting to float around in your blood and protect all your surfaces. And then for about three to four months, you have really high levels of these antibodies that will attack the real flu. And we have what we call protective immunity that lasts for a few months. And that will keep people from even noticing if they come and catch flu from their roommate, they won’t even notice because it’ll go away. And then for the rest of their lives, they’ll have some memory cells. Remember that so that next year, you don’t get that exact flu ever again, you have memory to it. But mostly people want to get the flu vaccine now so they have that four months of protective antibodies to take care of this season’s flu.
A: And getting the flu shot isn’t just about helping yourself, similar to the COVID vaccine. It considers the people around you who you could spread the flu to and may have a much more adverse reaction to the flu than you would.
Rhoades: Do you know anybody who’s immunocompromised, or anybody who’s had a transplant, or cancer treatments, or takes drugs for maybe their rheumatoid arthritis to stop their immune system from working? Those people aren’t going to have such a good response to the flu, and so it’s not as effective. And then other students who don’t eat well and take care of themselves or drink too much. Those are all factors that will reduce their immunity levels. And then finally, elderly people. So there’s flu vaccines for people over 65, where they put in four times the amount of antigens or a special boost to give them a better and stronger response.
E: So because the flu shot has these, this first wave of antibodies that eventually declines, there is a good time and ideal time to get the shot. And so this is around mid October because as flu season ramps up kind of November early December that’s when the antibodies are at their most defensive phase in at like the highest amount.
Rhoades: So if you guys want this protective immunity while you’re here at Cornell right and the flu season is coming up so the peak flu season here. Let’s call it November to February. And so if it takes one or two weeks to get that protective antibody level up that reacts immediately, you get that about one or two weeks before that peak level, which lasts for four months. Your immunity lasts for four months and the peak flu season lasts for four months, so it lines up perfectly.
E: But even though it’s a bit past mid October like it’s still, it’ll still be helpful no matter when you get it.
So all this vaccine talk isn’t going away anytime soon. But if there’s one thing that you can take away from this episode is how the flu vaccine works and why you should get one each year.
A: Speaking of the conversation of vaccines, the talk of the town now is booster shots for COVID. On October 25, Cornell sent an email to the campus explaining that those who are over the age of 65 and those who work or live in an educational setting are eligible for the vaccine. That’s a little bit ambiguous. But as we go forward, we’re not quite sure whether people will be mandated to get the booster and sort of where they’ll go from here and how often we’ll need to get these booster shots in the future.
So thanks for listening. And as usual, we’ll have all the sources mentioned in our show notes. Feel free to check out cornellsun.com for more.
Nature article about the waning immunity of COVID vaccines