Everyone’s talking about the COVID-19 vaccines—for good reason. But there’s so much information to unpack that you probably have many questions.
We rounded up the most common questions—like how many vaccines are available, common side effects, safety and effectiveness, and what to expect after you get vaccinated—and asked our medical experts for the answers.
Though new information comes out almost daily, it’s clear that getting the vaccine will help keep you safe and the benefits of getting it far outweigh any risks you may have heard about.
When can I get the vaccine?
When you can get the vaccine depends on your job and risk factors for serious complications. The vaccine is being rolled out in phases, with the most at-risk groups being vaccinated first. The first group to be eligible for the vaccine were healthcare workers and people who live in long-term care facilities.
Most states have offered vaccines to people 65 years and older and frontline essential workers. And in some states, anyone 18 to 64 with certain medical conditions is now eligible. The conditions include obesity, type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, cancer, and heart conditions like high blood pressure.
Still, many states have long lines and it may be difficult to get appointments even if you’re eligible. As more vaccines become available, it should get easier to get an appointment.
To find out when you are eligible for the vaccine and how to register for it, check with your county or state health department.
How much will I pay for the vaccine?
You should not pay anything—the vaccines are free to Americans. Still, doctors and medical systems can charge your insurance company a fee to administer the vaccination. That’s why you may be asked for your health insurance information when registering for the vaccine. You should not pay a copay to be vaccinated.
What are the side effects of the vaccine?
After you are vaccinated, you may experience soreness, redness, or swelling in your arm. Within the next day or two, you may feel like you’ve been hit with the flu. You might have fatigue, headache, muscle aches, joint pain, chills, and fever. Some people have no side effects while others have intense chills. You may have to call in sick from work for a day.
Side effects are more common after the second dose of the vaccine. Although those who have had COVID-19 are more likely to report side effects with the first dose. Keep in mind that these effects are a healthy sign that your immune system is responding to the vaccine.
Experts agree that it’s safe to take over-the-counter pain medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, once you have symptoms. (Be sure to read the label of any over-the-counter medication to make sure it’s safe for you.) But they recommend that you shouldn’t take them before you get the shot in case it interferes with your immune response.
What’s the difference between the vaccines?
The two vaccines available as of February 2020—Pfizer and Moderna—are based on the same advanced technology. They are both about 95% effective. Even their side effects are similar.
Both vaccines require two doses, though the time between doses is different. The waiting period is 21 days before getting the second Pfizer vaccine and 28 days for the second Moderna shot.
One other difference: The Moderna vaccine is for ages 18 and older. Those 16 and older can get the Pfizer vaccine.
You probably won’t be given a choice of vaccines—at least not right now. Healthcare facilities are typically sent one or the other. Make sure to sign up to get the same vaccine as your first shot.
Why do I need two shots?
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, similar to other vaccines like HPV, shingles, and hepatitis B. The first vaccination helps to spark the immune response but isn’t nearly as effective as having both doses. The second dose boosts the response to its full potential and gives longer-term protection.
How long does it take for it to work?
It takes time for your immune system to start producing antibodies that protect you against COVID-19.
After the first dose, you are still only partially protected from infection. So if you are exposed to the virus, you can still get sick. It takes 1 to 2 weeks after your second dose to have the most protection from the vaccine. The second dose brings effectiveness up to 94% (Moderna) and 95% (Pfizer).
How can I be sure it’s safe?
Before the FDA approves a vaccine, medical researchers conduct large clinical studies to show that the vaccine is safe and effective. The trials of tens of thousands of people showed that the vaccine is very safe with no serious adverse reactions.
In rare instances, people who got the vaccines have had an extreme allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. If you have had an allergic reaction to a vaccine in the past, even if it was not severe, the CDC recommends that you talk to your doctor, who can help you decide if it is safe for you to get vaccinated.
Can I return to normal activities after getting the vaccine?
It takes two weeks after your second dose before you are well protected from getting sick. So continue all of your usual social distancing and mask-wearing behaviors until then.
After that, you need to wear a mask in public spaces because of the potential risk of being a carrier. (It’s being studied whether a vaccinated person can carry and spread COVID-19.)
At home and in social settings where everyone has been immunized, the risk of getting one another sick will be much lower. Until more is known—and most everyone in your daily life has been vaccinated—continue to social distance, wear masks, and follow local guidance.
Is it safe to get the vaccine if I already had COVID-19?
While it’s safe to get the vaccine if you had COVID-19, it’s recommended that you wait until you have recovered and no longer need to isolate. If you were treated with monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma, wait 90 days before getting vaccinated. Check with your doctor about when to get the vaccine.
And you still need to get the vaccine. Experts don’t know how long immunity from COVID-19 lasts after being sick. It is possible to get COVID-19 again if you already had it.
What can I expect when I go to get the vaccine?
You may have to wait in line even if you have an appointment. So you want to make sure you are protecting yourself. Wear a high-quality mask like an N95 or KF94 if you have one. Or double up with two face masks.
It takes just a few seconds for a nurse or other healthcare provider to give you the vaccine. The injection is in your arm. It may pinch, just like any vaccine. You will be told to wait 15 minutes before leaving in case of an allergic reaction—30 minutes if you have a history of allergies to medications. (If you have an EpiPen—epinephrine—bring it with you, though all vaccination sites should be equipped with EpiPens.)
You will be given a card with the date you were vaccinated and the name of the vaccine you received. Put it in a safe place and bring it to your second appointment (take a photo of it in case you lose it). You should make an appointment for your second shot before you leave, if possible.
Is it a problem that they were developed so quickly?
The short answer is no. A number of factors helped speed up the process without sacrificing safety.
The technology behind the two approved vaccines has been studied for more than a decade. And researchers were able to switch gears very quickly to focus on the coronavirus. Called mRNA, this technology makes it possible to produce vaccines much more rapidly than traditional vaccines.
Can children get the vaccine?
Right now, children under 16 can’t get the vaccine outside of a clinical trial. Currently, people ages 16 and up are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine. People ages 18 and up are eligible for the Moderna vaccine. A vaccine for younger children is expected to be available by late 2021.
Can I get the vaccine if I’m pregnant or breastfeeding?
Women who are pregnant have a greater risk for serious illness from COVID-19 and a higher risk of complications. Unfortunately, pregnant and breastfeeding women weren’t included in the first vaccine studies, so experts can’t say for sure if they are safe for a developing fetus. Both Pfizer and Moderna are monitoring people who became pregnant during the clinical trials.
Keep in mind that the vaccines don’t contain the live virus and can’t give you or your baby COVID-19, either from the vaccine or through breast milk. And getting the vaccine might help keep your baby safe after being born.
The World Health Organization recently issued a statement saying that pregnant women may get the vaccine. The CDC recommends that women who are expecting or breastfeeding discuss with their doctor whether they should get the vaccine.
Are companies or businesses allowed to require vaccination?
Possibly. According to legal experts, employers may be able to require employee vaccinations if not vaccinating them could directly threaten other employees in the workplace. Employers would have to make exceptions for workers who can’t get vaccinated because of medical reasons or religious beliefs.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has found that COVID-19 is a direct threat to other employees. But the commission hasn’t announced how it will treat mandatory vaccine policies.
The scientific understanding of COVID-19 as well as guidelines for its prevention and treatment are constantly changing. There may be new information since this article was published. It’s important to check with sources like the CDC for the most up-to-date information.