COVID-19 vaccine questions answered by medical experts: vials of vaccine
COVID-19 vaccine questions answered by medical experts: vials of vaccine

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The swifter-than-ever approval of the COVID-19 vaccines was a welcome bit of good news to wrap up 2020. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially authorized emergency use of both the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on December 11 and the Moderna vaccine on December 18 for the prevention of the coronavirus disease, over 15 million doses have been distributed throughout the U.S. and more than 5.05 million doses have already been administered to Americans, according to vaccine tracking data from Bloomberg and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But for a lot of folks at home, the entire process, timeline, and details remain unclear; naturally, questions and concerns regarding the shots’ safety, efficacy, and logistics abound. Health officials are eagerly learning and sharing new information about the vaccine and its effects every day as more people are inoculated, but there is still a fair amount they do know right now. To help demystify the largest vaccination campaign in history, medical experts are here to answer the most-asked questions related to the coronavirus vaccine, from potential side effects to when you can expect to get a shot.

It’s important to mention that, while the U.S. federal government is leading a centralized effort to order, distribute, and track COVID-19 vaccines through the CDC, individual states are ultimately responsible for planning and executing vaccinations based on their respective resources and circumstances. So the plan where you live may look slightly different from those in other states. Check in periodically with your state’s health department website for up-to-date info on authorized vaccine distribution channels.

Note: We will periodically update this article as new information develops. Always consult your doctor or other qualified health provider if you have any questions or concerns regarding a medical condition.

When can I expect to get a vaccine?

At the moment, the vaccine is not yet available to the general public (the majority of relatively healthy individuals whose line of work isn’t technically “essential”). It’s still hard to pinpoint exactly when everyone will have access to it. However, most health experts tend to agree that more vaccines may be available to the larger, lower-risk population sometime in mid-2021.

Why? Simply put, there are currently fewer available doses of the vaccine than there are people who need it. Due to the high demand and limited supply, the CDC has recommended doses be allocated in carefully considered phases based on risk of exposure and occupational essentiality, starting with health care professionals and residents of long-term care facilities; then frontline essential workers, like fire fighters, police officers, and postal service workers, and individuals over 75; then people over 65, those with underlying health conditions, and other essential workers (food service, transportation, construction, etc.). Keep in mind, however, that while these are federal recommendations, individual states will make their own decisions based on respective circumstances, priorities, and available resources.

“This phased approach will continue over the next six months, as more vaccine doses are made. It will likely be the late spring or early summer before there is enough vaccine to offer it to people who are at lower risk,” says Christine Turley, MD, professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Pediatrics at Atrium Health Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte, N.C., and founder of the STRIVE Vaccine team.

In an interview with MSNBC in December, Anthony Fauci, MD, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, also predicted that healthy individuals with no underlying health conditions will likely be eligible for an injection sometime in the late spring or early summer of 2021.

Where will I be able to get the vaccine?

“As soon as large quantities of the vaccine are available, the goal is for everyone to be able to easily get a COVID-19 vaccine from doctor’s offices, pharmacies, hospitals, and clinics,” says Jon Olsen, MD, chairman of the emergency medicine department at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. Remember, this may look different depending on where you live, as individual states will determine the best and most equitable plan to vaccinate as many of their residents as possible with the equipment, staff, doses, and facilities available to them.

“Right now, COVID-19 vaccines are being offered through larger health systems and businesses that care for the elderly in nursing homes,” Dr. Turley says. “It will be offered in other settings, like doctor’s offices, retail pharmacies, and other community locations, eventually, but likely not for some time.”

When the time comes, “the best way to find vaccination sites near you is to call your doctor, local pharmacy, or healthcare provider,” says Ramzi Yacoub, PharmD, chief pharmacy officer at SingleCare, a prescription savings service that partners with both major and small pharmacies to help consumers save on prescriptions. “Once the vaccine is widely available to the public, you can also check resources like Vaccine Finder to find out where to get the vaccine near your home.”

How much does it cost, and do you need insurance to get it?

Good news. According to the CDC, the COVID-19 vaccine will be given to U.S. citizens at no cost, Yacoub confirms. Some vaccine providers may decide to charge an additional fee for administering the shot, but this fee can be reimbursed by recipients’ insurance, or, if uninsured, the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Provider Relief Fund.

What are the main differences between the (currently) available vaccines?

There are currently two vaccines, the Pfizer-BoiNtech and the Moderna vaccines, authorized for emergency use in the United States (but 64 different types of vaccines are currently being researched in clinical trials on humans). Here are a few key things to know about these two shots.

Notable Similarities:

Vaccine type: “The Moderna vaccine and Pfizer vaccine are very similar to one another, as they are both messenger RNA (or mRNA) vaccines that work to elicit an immune response by your body to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Yacoub explains. “[They] both have a similar efficacy rate as well as side effects.”

Dosage: Both require you to get one shot then return for a second shot a few weeks later.

Safety and efficacy: “Both Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines are approximately 95 percent effective,” Dr. Olsen says, with Yacoub confirming their similarly high efficacy rate and commonly reported side effects (scroll on for more details on side effects).

Dr. Olsen also assures that both vaccines have been rigorously tested, analyzed, and approved—ensuring their safety, despite the record haste of their development. “The vaccines were tested in trials and no serious safety concerns were reported,” he says. “The FDA also conducted a thorough evaluation to ensure the vaccines met its standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality.”

Notable Differences:

Age minimum: “The vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is approved for people age 16 and older, and the vaccine developed by Moderna is approved for people age 18 and older,” Dr. Olsen says.

Storage requirements: “Moderna does not require ultra-cold storage [like Pfizer doses do], making it easier to store,” Dr. Olsen says. Yacoub further explains that “while the Moderna vaccine can be stored in a freezer or refrigerator, the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored in a special container in very cold temperatures.” This discrepancy won’t affect you directly, but is more the concern of healthcare facilities.

Second dosage timeline: Both vaccinations require two shots, administered separately, for optimal effectiveness in preventing the disease. That said, there’s a slight difference in how soon you should return for your second dose. “Pfizer’s second shot is required to be given 21 days [after the first], whereas Moderna’s is required to be given 28 days later,” Yacoub says.

What are the side effects—and should I be worried about them?

Based on clinical trials, the most common side effects of the Pfizer vaccine reported by the FDA include pain at the injection site, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain, and fever, with reactions typically lasting up to several days (though they are usually shorter-lived than that). The most commonly experienced side effects of the Moderna vaccine are nearly identical, with the addition of swollen lymph nodes in the same arm as the injection, nausea and vomiting, and fever, the FDA reports. The FDA also notes that these side effects have affected more people after their second Moderna dose, although they can occur after either dose. Dr. Turely says that anyone getting the vaccine should be observed for at least 15 minutes afterward to be safe.

Experts continue to reassure that, for the most part, the occurrence of the above side effects are relatively minor, normal, and no reason to avoid or fear receiving COVID-19 inoculation.

“Side effects of the vaccine are largely what we see with other vaccines [and] they tell us that the body is responding and developing protection,” Dr. Turley says. “Very few people have had serious allergic reactions—as we learn more about this, we currently believe that people who have severe allergies, so severe that they carry an Epi-Pen, should perhaps not receive it right now.”

RELATED: How to Properly Take Someone’s Temperature—and How to Know When It’s a Fever

“Minor side effects are common after a vaccine, and your provider will help you understand and manage them,” Dr. Olsen reiterates, adding that you should always contact your healthcare provider right away if you happen to experience something more serious than the more familiar side effects mentioned.

The CDC also provides a smartphone-based tool called V-safe, which shot recipients can easily register for and use to receive personalized, text message health check-ins, inform the CDC of any side effects, answer surveys to help inform vaccine research, and get reminders about your next dose.

Will getting a coronavirus vaccine be as easy as getting a flu shot?

“The COVID-19 vaccine rollout will be similar to the flu vaccine,” Yacoub says, explaining that the major differences are that we only need one flu shot for effective seasonal disease immunization, while (as of right now) we need two coronavirus shots for the most effective protection; and that pharmacies need special containers to store certain types of COVID-19 vaccines, as some require very cold temperatures, which is not required for the flu vaccine.”

Additionally, after receiving your first COVID shot, Yacoub says you’ll receive “a vaccination card that includes the type of vaccine you received, date, and location; for your second dose, you’ll need to receive the same type of vaccine as you did in your first dose.”

And as Dr. Turley mentioned, you may also have to wait and be monitored for several minutes after receiving your coronavirus shot(s), to be safe.

For more on what to expect before, during, and after getting your coronavirus vaccine, head here.

Can the vaccine actually give me COVID-19?

Neither vaccine can cause you to get COVID-19. “The COVID-19 vaccines currently in development or in use in the U.S. do not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19,” Dr. Olsen reassures. “The vaccines teach our immune systems how to recognize and fight the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Do I need to be vaccinated if I’ve already had COVID?

The short answer: yes.

“It is currently recommended that individuals that had a COVID-19 infection more than 30 days ago should get the vaccine,” says Dr. Turley (read: if you are currently infected, you need to wait). “We don’t know if or for how long long people are protected when they get [sick with] COVID-19, and the vaccine is a good way to boost natural immunity to provide the best protection.”

Dr. Olsen echoes this recommendation, and adds that, if you’ve had COVID-19 within the last 90 days, you can delay vaccination for at least 90 days after infection, “as current evidence suggests reinfection is uncommon during that time period.”

Once vaccinated, are masks and social distancing still necessary?

Yes. Unfortunately, getting vaccinated against the coronavirus does not mean you’re free to go maskless and head to crowded bars.

“Wearing masks, social distancing, and washing your hands will continue to be important even after you’re vaccinated,” Dr. Olsen says. “It’ll take time to immunize enough of the population to stop the virus from spreading, so we’ll need to continue these safe practices for some time.” Health experts seem to agree we can likely expect to keep our distance, and our noses and mouths covered when out and about, until well into 2021.

RELATED: 7 Things You Should Sanitize Immediately to Avoid Getting Sick

Who is the vaccine safe for?

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is approved for safe use on individuals 16 and older; the Moderna vaccine is approved for safe use on individuals 18 and older.

That said, experts caution that it’s still too early to tell whether it’s safe to administer to children or pregnant women. “The vaccine has not been tested in children or in pregnant women,” says Dr. Turley. “We’re also often unable to give vaccines to people whose immune system is not working well due to cancer or an autoimmune disorder, so will need to study this further.”

Dr. Olsen adds, “If you’re pregnant, considering becoming pregnant, or breastfeeding, consult with your provider on the risks and benefits before deciding whether or not to get the vaccine. At this time, there is no safety data available on the potential risks for pregnant/breastfeeding individuals or fetuses.”

The FDA’s one, clear group who should avoid the Pfizer vaccine is anyone with a history of severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) to any components of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, as advised in a fact sheet for healthcare vaccination providers.

Those with other allergies unrelated to COVID-19 (food, mold, animals, environmental, medications), should be fine to get the vaccine, the CDC says. But, of course, consult with your doctor before receiving it, just in case.

How can I avoid being scammed?

As soon as the first vaccine was approved and administered, internet scams taking advantage of the moment started to surface. “Unfortunately, there have been reports of fraudulent scams due to the demand of the COVID vaccine,” Yacoub says. The FBI recently issued a public warning to be on the lookout for such schemes, including ones offering access to early vaccination in exchange for a fee, requests to put your name on a vaccine waiting list, and vaccine ads via social media, email, phone calls, or other sketchy sources.

Best practice is to check your state’s health department website for up-to-date info on authorized vaccine distribution channels—and then only obtain a vaccine through those channels. You can also always check the FDA and CDC websites or contact your doctor directly.

(Read up on how to avoid internet scams in general, too.)

How long does immunization last?

We know, for example, that getting a flu shot will protect against influenza infection for about the following six months. For the COVID vaccine, this is still a big—but eagerly investigated—question mark. “More research is needed to determine how long the COVID-19 vaccine will provide immunity,” Dr. Olsen says.

I’m hesitant to get vaccinated—do I really need to?

“I would highly recommend that everyone gets the vaccine. It’s an important step to help control the spread of COVID-19 and keep Americans safe and healthy,” Yacoub says.

“Over time, there may be many people who are not able to get vaccinated because of their health, which makes it important that everyone who is healthy enough to be vaccinated think about it carefully and talk about any questions with their doctor,” says Dr. Turley. “We will only be able to move beyond the pandemic when there is good community-level immunity to COVID-19.”

“The risk of COVID-19 and its complications far outweighs the risk of getting the vaccine,” Dr. Olsen says. “I’ve seen numerous patients with COVID-19 infection that become seriously ill in the short, but also long term. The vaccines were tested in trials and no serious safety concerns were reported. The FDA also conducted a thorough evaluation to ensure the vaccines met its standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality. Vaccinating as many people as possible is the only way to end the pandemic. Without a vaccine, the pandemic could go on for two to three years or longer.”

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