Nurse Julie Kelly gives the COVID-19 vaccine to a Central Carolina Hospital volunteer on Friday.

As Lee County health officials work out the logistics of vaccinating thousands of residents, many in the community are unclear on who can get vaccinated, when mass vaccinations will take place, and the science behind the shot.

Vanessa King, the director of pharmacy at Central Carolina Hospital, spoke with The Sanford Herald on Friday to address some of those questions.

The vaccine is being distributed in phases determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, King said, going first to people who are at the highest risk of contracting the virus and at highest risk from deadly complications if they catch COVID-19.

“The tiered approach through the federal and state allotments was intended to hit the high-risk people first; focus on where we need to make the most impact and then eventually go to everyone,” King said.

On Monday, the county will begin phase 1b of inoculations for anyone age 75 or older; healthcare and frontline essential workers age 50 or older; and frontline workers like firefighters, police officers, employees of grocery stores and manufacturing plants, teachers and childcare workers, said county spokeswoman Jamie Brown.

Healthcare workers who could come in contact with COVID-19, as well as staff and residents of long-term care facilities, are already eligible for inoculation, regardless of age. They will be given priority over phase 1b.

Eligible Lee County residents should register for the vaccine with the Lee County Health Department, whose staff are distributing it at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center. Since the COVID-19 vaccine is in limited supply, it may take several days for an appointment to be set, according to a county news release. The timing is dependent on how many people choose to be vaccinated and the amount of vaccine given to the county.

At Central Carolina Hospital, King and others were giving the Moderna-manufactured vaccine to hospital staff and volunteers. As King explained, the Moderna vaccine is a “messenger RNA vaccine,” which means that unlike the flu shot, it does not contain a dead or weakened form of the virus.

Instead, the vaccine sends a message to the body to create a specific protein which is then attached to the coronavirus, King said. The vaccine also trains the immune system to recognize and attack that “spike protein,” she said. The Moderna vaccine requires two shots 28 days apart, King said.

“The series is what creates the immunity. It’s teaching your body to recognize the COVID virus specifically and attack,” she said. “It’s arming you and giving you battle-ready programming.”

The science behind the Moderna vaccine, messenger RNA technology, has been used in cancer treatment and chemotherapy for years, King said. Even though it’s new to the realm of vaccines, it’s well-known in other areas of medicine, which is one reason it was explored for the COVID-19 vaccine, she said.

“The research led toward looking at the spike protein, one, because of the knowledge of how it had been used in chemotherapy, and two, because it allows you to vaccinate without administering any form of the virus at all,” King said. “This cannot give you COVID.”

King encouraged everyone who is eligible for the shot to get the vaccine, saying that it helps prevent asymptomatic people — those showing no signs of illness — from spreading the virus.

“Until our immune systems are attacking and killing the virus upon exposure, we have the potential to proliferate and spread it, even if we don’t know it,” King said.

To register for the COVID-19 vaccine with the Lee County Health Department, call 919-721-4769 or 984-368-2112 from 8 am.-noon, or 1-5 p.m. Monday through Friday.