On January 13, I did an Instagram Live with Dr. Jill Grimes, our favorite empty nester physician and author of The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook: Your Guide for Everything from Hangovers to Homesickness. Dr. Grimes is a medical editor, a Board-Certiﬁed Family Physician, and the mom of two collegiate daughters.
As our college students headed back to campus for the first time since Thanksgiving (or simply back to their rooms for online classes), I thought it was time to check in with Dr. Grimes once again. Specifically, I wanted to get her take on the mental health toll that COVID is taking on our college and young adult kids, as well as to have her answer questions on the COVID vaccine. Prior to that interview, I asked you to submit questions, which you did. (Thank you for that!)
You can view the interview in its entirety on my YouTube channel HERE. (Please subscribe so you’ll be notified of future videos!) You can also view it on my Instagram IGTV channel HERE. But I wanted to go a step further and write a post that you could easily share with others via social media or email. (Use the “share this post” box at the bottom of this post to do that.)
So I asked Dr. Grimes to transpose her answers, which she so kindly did! What she wrote appears in its entirety in a blog post on her website. I’ve edited our conversation down (for space constraints) on Empty Nest Blessed.
A Little Background
With so many collegiate parents concerned about sending their kids to college campuses last fall, in July 2020, I did my first Instagram Live with Dr. Grimes. Due to technical difficulties, we also teamed up for a corresponding blog post entitled Sending Kids Back to College in the Age of Covid-19. As a part of that collaboration, Dr. Grimes put together both a general College First Aid Kit and a Covid Care Kit. Both were filled with items students might need if they fell ill. We put them all up on the Empty Nest Blessed storefront on Amazon, so you could easily shop—and even send items—right from Amazon. (Look for the “College First Aid Kit” list.) During our most recent interview, Dr. Grimes added a few items to that list, and the list has been updated on Amazon.
What follows is taken from our most recent interview. I asked the questions you asked me to ask, and I hope you’ll learn a lot from Dr. Grimes’ answers. I’m grateful to her for sharing honest “mom-to-mom” wisdom, a great sense of humor, and of course, her medical knowledge and experience.
The Mental Health Toll of COVID on Our Kids
Empty Nest Blessed: Many of our college students are so sad about missing all the classic college experiences, like football games, parties, studying abroad, etc. Is there anything we moms can say or do to help?
Dr. Grimes: No question, we are ALL feeling this, students and parents alike. I certainly wish SOMEONE had a magic wand to create a do-over for 2020. Many students are living on or near campus, while others are literally stuck in their childhood bedrooms. The one positive thing I can say is that steadily, kids are creating new experiences — like moving to off-campus houses and apartments with classmates they met online (especially first-year students). These students will share the traumatic, unique bond of the “COVID Year” that will forever stamp their college experience and instantly connect them in the future.
Empty Nest Blessed: Many freshmen are struggling to make friends, and seem sad or apathetic. Any advice?
Dr. Grimes: Encourage your student to REALLY look at their university’s website, and challenge them to find THREE activities to attend in the next 3 weeks- virtual or in person. Think outside the box, considering everything from purely fun groups like Juggling Club or “Bad Movies” Club to a service organization or professional society for their major.
My colleague, Dr. Marcia Morris, a university psychiatrist and author of The Campus Cure, says, “Social connection may be the most important way to reduce anxiety and depression, but social distancing is keeping us apart. Stay connected with others by joining a club that meets over Zoom, taking outdoor walks with friends, calling someone you have not heard from in a while. Be creative in connecting; don’t give up; this too shall pass.” (This book was written for parents of college students, and if your student is struggling, you may find it helpful.)
Empty Nest Blessed: College seniors are worried about getting jobs after graduation, since they couldn’t get internships last summer, fall, or even this spring, because of COVID cutbacks at businesses. Besides telling them everyone is in the same boat, what else can we add?
Dr. Grimes: Our college senior is definitely dealing with this too! Businesses may extend internship opportunities beyond college graduation (some industries are already), so the best thing students can do is demonstrate their work ethic and initiative by doing anything that shows they didn’t purely sit back and spend their quarantine stuck in a video game or Netflix haze.
They should consider doing things like reaching out to smaller companies in their chosen field that may not typically do internships. These may welcome qualified “free labor.” Nonprofits and public services are especially open to these offers.
Sending College Kids Back to Campus
Empty Nest Blessed: If students had COVID last fall, do they really need to wear a mask? How long are they immune, and is there any point in getting a vaccine since they’ve already had the illness?
Dr. Grimes: Many of our kids have indeed had COVID, and thankfully, the vast majority had pretty minor symptoms. After a COVID infection, you are immune for at least two months, and the best evidence now suggests you may be protected for up to 8 months. But we don’t know for sure. Reinfection can occur, but we do not see severe re-infections. Even better, the new vaccines appear to create more immunity than an actual infection, so even if your student had COVID, they need to get the vaccine. Hopefully, college students will all be able to get vaccinated before Fall 2021, allowing campus life to return to much more “normal.” They should still mask because we don’t know if you can still spread COVID after infection or immunization.
Empty Nest Blessed: Do you think college kids are experiencing “Covid fatigue” along with so many people, and that they may not be as vigilant in protecting themselves from the virus as they were last fall? How can we “encourage” our kids to stay on their guard?
Dr. Grimes: They are definitely as COVID-fatigued as the rest of us! I’m encouraged that university leadership recognizes this as well, and many are going above and beyond to offer OUTSIDE, socially-distanced spaces and events that their students can safely enjoy. Many campuses have string lights, outdoor heaters, and gathering areas to welcome students back to campus. If your student is living off-campus, splurge a little on creating a fun outdoor deck or backyard, so they have a lower risk place to hang out with friends! Also, gift with that in mind — an outdoor sport, lesson, game, etc. Get creative!
Empty Nest Blessed: Is there anything we should add to our student’s first aid kit this semester?
Dr. Grimes: First, be sure that you have the COVID essentials:
Consider also adding:
- Tums Chewable Bites (Since some have reported stomach issues with COVID.)
- The Campus Cure by Dr. Marcia Morris. (This book is written for parents, not students.)
Go through the kit and CHECK EXPIRATION DATES, especially for upperclassmen! You don’t want to reach for a pain reliever or antihistamine only to see it’s expired. You can find Dr. Grimes’ full recommended College First Aid Kit HERE.
COVID Vaccine Q&A
Empty Nest Blessed: How long do experts think the vaccine offers protection? Going forward, will this be an annual shot, like the flu shot?
Dr. Grimes: Since COVID has only been known for one year, we don’t have answers beyond that yet. The best educated guess is that these vaccines will offer protection for at least a year or maybe two, so we may be getting boosters as we do with the flu vaccine.
Empty Nest Blessed: Do you expect colleges & universities to add the Covid vaccine to their list of required vaccines by next fall?
Dr. Grimes: I don’t know if it will be required, but I hope so, given the communal living in dorms and close contacts in classrooms.
Empty Nest Blessed: Do you think the vaccine is safe? Have you gotten it yet?
Dr. Grimes: YES, and YES!! I’ve already had my first dose of the Moderna vaccine (and my anesthesiologist husband has had both doses of the Pfizer vaccine).
Truth be told, when I first heard about the mRNA vaccines, I was a bit unsure. New technology, SO much politicizing, naming it “Operation Warp Speed”…will this be safe? Fully tested? How long will it stay in my body, and how will my hyperactive immune system respond? The good news is that yes, they are indeed safe.
The technology has actually been developing for well over a decade, so that part was never rushed. Our government wisely dumped money into the drug companies on the front end, which allowed them to press forward and literally produce vaccines in mass quantities before they were approved. At the same time, the severity of the pandemic provided unlimited volunteers to participate in the studies. This allowed Pfizer and Moderna to have an unheard-of number of over 70,000 combined participants in their studies, which were scientifically blinded and randomized.
What we know from the data is that these vaccines are extraordinarily EFFECTIVE and SAFE. Vaccine trials typically start with pre-clinical animal models, then progress to Phase 1 (small, healthy gourps of humans with under 100 people), then Phase II with dose adjustments and more healthy adults (up to 1000 people), Phase III includes adults with chronic issues like high blood pressure or diabetes, often a few thousand people. With COVID, we had over 70,000 total volunteers!
The next step could have taken many months or years, as we waited for the participants to get exposed to the disease and actually develop infections. Still, with COVID permeating the planet, we very quickly got enough people infected with COVID and symptomatic, so companies could un-blind the studies and see whether those people had received the real vaccine or a placebo. They found that the vaccines were both roughly 95% effective in preventing disease and nearly 100% effective against severe disease. What brought us to a standstill with COVID is that although only a tiny percentage get sick enough to end up in ICU, that raw number is enough to overwhelm our hospital systems. When we can prevent disease severe enough to land people in the hospital, we can move forward.
Empty Nest Blessed: Can you explain a little bit to us about how vaccines are made and how they work?
Dr. Grimes: These mRNA vaccines are amazing! They basically slip into our muscle cells and enter our cells’ cytoplasm (they never enter the nucleus, which houses our DNA). Then they serve as a blueprint for our ribosomes to make the SPIKE PROTEIN of the COVID viral particle. The spike protein is one of 29 proteins that make up the COVID 19 virus, so this simple protein cannot CAUSE infection or disease.
Think of it as a piece of hair compared to a whole human; it’s a tiny fraction, not a viable thing by itself. Every hour of every day, our ribosomes crank out thousands of proteins; this is just one more. Also, mRNA is so fragile that the only way scientists can keep it intact is to keep it frozen at crazy low temperatures and wrap it in a fat bubble to allow entry into the cell. This mRNA “package” only stays viable in our cells for a few hours. That’s long enough for our cells to make that spike protein and stick it outside of the cell, so our immune systems can recognize it and prepare defenses for fighting the real virus, should it invade. Then that mRNA is broken down and completely removed.
Empty Nest Blessed: What about allergic reactions or side effects from the vaccine? Also, can you get COVID from the vaccine?
Dr. Grimes: It’s impossible to get COVID from the vaccine. As we just discussed, the vaccine is the blueprint for only one of the 29 proteins that make up the virus. Allergic reactions are infrequent, though it seems like we see every significant allergic reaction in the media! Keep in mind that over 11 million doses of the vaccine have been administered, with less than 20 severe allergic reactions, ALL of which have been successfully treated. These mRNA vaccines are nothing but RNA bases — no eggs, latex, mercury, aluminum, or anything else — because they use OUR cells’ machinery rather than another virus or cell vector.
“Side effects” are mostly appropriate immune system reactions, including fever, muscle aches, headaches, and local shot reactions like a tender arm, with some redness or swelling at the site of injection. Try to think of these as a GOOD sign that your body is recognizing those spike proteins and setting up your personal defense! My husband had fleeting chills and a bit of fatigue for a day with each of his doses, and I had some arm soreness, with mild muscle and headaches for a couple of days.
Empty Nest Blessed: Some people want to “wait and see” because they are worried about long-term side effects that have yet to be discovered. Is that valid?
Dr. Grimes: When we look back at the history of vaccines, the vast majority of adverse effects show up within two months of the vaccine, which is why the FDA wouldn’t approve the emergency authorization of these vaccines until two months after the second shots. When you balance that knowledge with the severity of COVID disease and the over 400,000 people in this country who have died from this infection, I think the choice is clear.
Empty Nest Blessed: An Empty Nest Blessed reader told me she heard there could be microchips in this vaccine, and that they can make you sterile. Is that true?
Dr. Grimes: This is a completely false rumor! The whole “microchip” idea came from what I think is a brilliant developmental project that would allow future vaccines to leave a microscopic footprint that could let clinicians see that someone had been immunized.
As for sterility, it’s not even medically conceivable, if you’ll pardon the pun! Some women have been immunized who are already pregnant. Perhaps people saw the genetic code (mRNA) and freaked out, associating that with DNA and assuming that would affect conception without understanding the basic science.
Empty Nest Blessed: How long do you think it will be until the vaccine is widely available for everyone who wants it?
Dr. Grimes: Best estimates from vaccine manufacturers and the scientists overseeing the process suggest that we should have enough vaccines and delivery systems to allow widespread vaccination by late spring or early summer. In the academic world, we feel comfortable saying that by FALL 2021, we should be able to move forward with “everyone” vaccinated. A quick note on the delays with administration: there are a zillion moving parts, from deciding WHO gets in line when, to physical handling of the vaccines, to certifying the people administering the vaccine with background checks and credentials verification, etc. Please know your physicians, nurses, other healthcare providers, and public health departments are all anxious to get you these vaccines just as soon as possible!
How to Follow Dr. Grimes
- To follow Dr. Jill Grimes on Instagram, click HERE.
- To follow Dr. Jill Grimes on Twitter, click HERE.
- To check out Dr. Jill Grimes’ website, click HERE.
- To check out Dr. Jill Grimes’ book, The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook (Your Guide For Everything From Hangovers to Homesickness) click HERE. I really do consider it a must-have for any college student or young adult. (And maybe for their anxious parents too!)
I hope you learned as much as I did from Dr. Grimes! She is truly one of us, and I’m so thankful for her willingness to share herself with Empty Nest Blessed readers!