COVID-19 Vaccines: What You Should Know

There is much conversation going around lately about the COVID-19 vaccines. In this section, we provide information on what you should know about the vaccines as well as CDC answers to frequently asked questions about vaccinations.

As of today, more than 500,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. and more than 20 million cases have been reported. To slow down and hopefully end this pandemic and save more lives from being lost, scientists all over the world believe that vaccines to prevent COVID-19 are perhaps our best hope. To that end, three vaccines have now been given emergency use authorization for use against COVID-19, and many more still undergoing clinical trials.

The three vaccines currently being distributed are the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 vaccines. The Pfizer vaccine has an efficacy (effectiveness) rate of 95%, meaning that about 95% of people who get the vaccine will be protected from getting infected with the COVID-19 virus. This vaccine is for people aged 16 and older and requires two injections to be given 21 days apart. The Moderna vaccine has an efficacy rate of 94.1% and is for people aged 18 and older. Similar to the Pfizer vaccine, the Modern vaccine requires two injections, given 28 days apart. Lastly, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has an efficacy rate of 66.3%. In clinical trials, this vaccine was shown to be highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death in people who did get sick with COVID-19. This vaccine is recommended for people 18 years and older and requires only one injection.

Unlike the flu vaccines which are made from inactivated influenza viruses, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA (mRNA). The mRNA instructs cells on how to make a harmless version of the S protein which coronaviruses have on their surface. After an individual is vaccinated with either of the two mRNA vaccines, your own cells will begin to make the S protein pieces and display them on their cell surfaces. This display will then allow your immune system to recognize that the S protein doesn’t belong there and so it will begin to build an immune response to the S protein and will make antibodies. For more information on how the COVID-19 vaccines work, visit the following CDC website.

The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, unlike the first two vaccines, is a viral vector vaccine. What this means is that this vaccine was created using a modified version of a different virus, in this case an adenovirus which usually causes colds. This modified adenovirus serves as the vector to deliver important instructions to your cells. The vector is not the same virus that causes COVID-19 and instead is a harmless virus that has been modified to have the novel coronavirus’ spike protein. When injected with this vaccine, the modified adenovirus will use your body’s machinery to produce the spike protein so that your body’s cells may display the protein on their surfaces and teach your immune system to recognize the protein, begin to produce antibodies against it and also activate other immune cells to fight it.  For more information about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, visit this website.

Frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccines: 

  • Are COVID-19 vaccines safe? 
    • All three vaccines currently being used have gone through rigorous studies to confirm that they are as safe as possible. Additionally, systems like the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting Systems (VAERS) allow the CDC to maintain watch for safety issues are in place across the entire country.
    • All three vaccines are being distributed now because they received emergency use authorizations from the FDA after showing that they meet rigorous safety criteria and are effective at protecting against COVID-19 following large clinical trials.
    • To learn more about emergency use authorizations, watch the video attached here
  • Do the Covid-19 vaccines protect against the COVID-19 variants?
    • Early research thus far suggests that both all three vaccines can provide protection against the COVID-19 variants that have been identified in the UK and South Africa. Vaccine manufacturers are also now looking into creating booster shots to improve the vaccines’ protection against future variants.
  • Can a COVID-19 Vaccine give you COVID-19?
    • No. The COVID-19 vaccines that are currently being developed and distributed in the U.S. do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19. Instead, these vaccines use mRNA technology or viral vector technology to instruct your cells on how to make antibodies against COVID-19.
  • What are the ingredients in COVID-19 vaccines? 
  • Who is paying for the COVID-19 vaccines? 
    • Vaccine doses that have been purchased with U.S. taxpayer dollars will be given to the American public at no cost
    • Vaccination providers may charge an administration fee for giving someone the shot, but they can be reimbursed for this by the patient’s public or private insurance company
    • Uninsured patients can have their vaccine administration charge paid for by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Provider Relief Fund
    • Ultimately: NO ONE can be denied a vaccine if they are unable to pay the vaccine administration fee
  • How are the COVID-19 vaccines being distributed? 
    • In the U.S., the CDC along with the ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) has recommended that the COVID-19 vaccines be distributed in the following order:
      • Healthcare personnel
      • Adult residents of long-term care facilities
      • Frontline essential workers such as first responders and teachers
      • People aged 75 and older
      • People aged 65 – 74
      • People aged 16 – 64 with underlying medical conditions
      • Other essential workers, such as people who work in food service and construction
    • Although these are the recommendations provided by the CDC, guidelines on who will be vaccinated first may also vary by state in the U.S. so be sure to consult your state and local health departments for the latest information on how and when you can receive a vaccine.
  • What are the possible side effects of a COVID-19 vaccine? 
    • A COVID-19 vaccine can cause mild side effects after the first or second dose. Some of these side effects include:
      • Pain, redness or swelling where the shot was given
      • Fever
      • Fatigue
      • Headache
      • Muscle pain
      • Chills
      • Joint pain
      • Nausea and vomiting
      • Feeling unwell
      • Swollen lymph nodes
    • After you receive your vaccine shot, you will be monitored for about 15 minutes to see if you have an immediate reaction.
    • Most side effects happen within the first three days after vaccination and are reported to last between one to two days.
    • It is important to note that having some mild side effects to the vaccine is not a bad sign. Instead, it just means that your body is reacting how it should (I.e., your body is having an immune response and developing protections against the COVID-19 virus).
  • What are long-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines? 
    • Because all three COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials only recently started in the summer of 2020, it is currently still not clear if these vaccines will have long-term side effects. Still, from past experiences, scientists know that vaccines rarely cause long-term side effects.
  • Is there a risk of a severe allergic reaction if I receive the vaccine? 
    • Serious problems from vaccination can happen, but they are rare
    • The CDC is aware of reports that some people have experienced severe allergic reactions after getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
    • If after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, you think that you may be having a severe allergic reaction, seek immediate medical attention by calling 911 or going to the ER.
    • Additionally, you can report side effects and reactions using either v-safe of the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting Systems linked below:
      • V-safe
        • This is a new smartphone based, after vaccination health checker for people who have received a COVID-19 vaccine. It uses text-messaging and web surveys from CDC to check in with vaccine recipients and also provides second vaccine reminders if needed as well as telephone follow up for anyone who reports that they had a serious side effect to the vaccine.
      • Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)
        • This is the national system that collects reports from healthcare professionals, vaccine manufacturers and the public of terrible side effects that happened after getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
        • Reporting to VAERS allows the CDC to continue their monitoring of the safety of the vaccines.
  • Can I get a COVID-19 vaccine if I have a history of allergic reactions? 
    • If you have a history of severe allergic reactions not related to vaccines or injectable medications, you may still be eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine. You would just need to make sure to tell the person giving you the vaccine ahead of time so that you may be monitored for about 30 minutes after getting the vaccine.
    • If you have had an immediate allergic reaction to other vaccines or injectable medications in the past, you should talk to your doctor to determine if you should get a COVID-19 vaccine.
    • If you have ever had an immediate or severe allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in a COVID-19 vaccine, the CDC recommends that you don’t get that specific vaccine.
    • People who are allergic to polysorbate should not be get an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
    • If you had an immediate or severe allergic reaction after getting the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, it is recommended that you don’t also get the second dose.
  • Can I get a COVID-19 vaccine if I have an underlying medical condition?
    • Currently there is limited information about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines in people who have weakened immune systems or autoimmune conditions, however as long as you have never had a previous allergic reaction to a COVID-19 vaccine or to any of its ingredients, you may still get a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Can I get a COVID-19 vaccine if I am pregnant or breastfeeding?
  • Who should not get a COVID-19 vaccine?
  • If I have already had COVID-19 and recovered, do I still need to get a COVID-19 vaccine? 
    • Yes, you are still advised to get a COVID-19 vaccine even if you have previously had the virus and recovered.
    • Even if you have had COVID-19 before, you should still get vaccinated because of the severe health risks that are associated with COVID-19 and the fact that reinfection is possible.
    • If you had COVID-19 and were treated for symptoms with monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma (blood from people who have recovered from an illness), it is recommended that you wait 90 days before getting a COVID-19 vaccine as reinfection within the first 90 days after initial infection is uncommon.
    • Be sure to talk to your doctor if you are unsure what treatments you received or if you have more questions about getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
    • Another reason why you should still get a COVID-19 vaccine even if you have had COVID-19 is that experts currently do not know how long someone is protected from getting sick again after initial recovery. The immunity that you gain from having an infection (I.e., natural immunity) varies from person to person.
  • Can I stop taking safety precautions (I.e., wearing a mask, staying 6-feet from others) after getting a COVID-19 vaccine? 
    • No, you must continue to take safety precautions even after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
    • According to the CDC, there is currently not enough information available to say if or when the CDC will stop recommending that people wear masks and avoid close contact with others not of their household. Experts still need to understand more about the protection that COVID-19 vaccines provide in real-world conditions before this decision can be made.
    • Other things influencing this decision is that we do not currently know if getting a COVID-19 vaccine stops you from spreading the virus to others, even if you yourself are protected from it.
    • While scientists continue to learn more about the protections that the COVID-19 vaccines provide in real-world conditions, the CDC recommends that everyone, include those newly vaccinated, continue to do the following:

Key Tips:

  • Wear a mask over your mouth and nose
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from others
  • Avoid crowds
  • Avoid poorly ventilated spaces
  • Wash your hands often
  • Stay home if you’re experiencing any symptoms

For answers to more frequently asked questions about COVID-19 vaccines, visit the following link.
For clarification on myths related to the COVID-19 vaccines, visit the following CDC page.