The recent approval of two COVID-19 vaccines offers a glimmer of hope at the end of a difficult year.
But since the pandemic began, there’s been a lot of misinformation floating around about how dangerous the coronavirus is, how safe a vaccine may be, and how quickly it will be administered.
In this blog, Dr. Emilio Dominguez, an infectious diseases specialist and Chief Medical Officer at Florida Medical Clinic, answers 10 of your most frequently asked questions about the new coronavirus vaccine.
1. Is it safe?
Even as health care workers and long-term care facility residents begin to receive the first doses of the vaccine, many people are still left feeling unsure about its safety.
It’s not hard to see why—at the start of the pandemic, Americans received mixed signals from elected officials and health organizations about what to do. Combine that confusion with the fact that the COVID-19 vaccine is the fastest ever to be approved in the US, and you can’t blame people for being skeptical.
While Emergency Use Authorization of a vaccine helps bring it to the public faster, it still needs to undergo rigorous testing before it can be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This infographic from the National Institutes of Health explains the 4-phase process that each COVID-19 vaccine had to go through in order to be approved.
By the end of this multi-phase testing process, the vaccine is tested on thousands of people in randomized, controlled studies that involve broad demographic groups intended to reflect the population that will be receiving the vaccine. These human clinical trials provide critical information on the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.
At the end of the day, the vaccine is only approved if the benefits of receiving it outweigh the risks. And even after a vaccine is authorized for emergency use, health officials continue to monitor the vaccine’s safety to quickly detect problems if they do arise.
2. Are there any side effects?
Potentially, yes. The most common side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine are:
- Redness and swelling at the injection site
- Flu-like symptoms (fatigue, fever, chills, headache)
Don’t panic if you don’t feel well after receiving the shot, as these side effects typically subside on their own after about a day or so. If they last longer than that, contact your doctor.
Some patients have reported rare but serious allergic reactions to the Pfizer vaccine. Your doctor or pharmacist will ask you to wait in the office for about 15 to 30 minutes after receiving your first dose in order to monitor you for signs of a reaction.
If you are allergic to any of the ingredients in either of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, the CDC recommends you do NOT receive either. If you’re concerned about a possible allergic reaction, talk to your doctor about the safest option for you.
3. When will I be able to get the vaccine?
As of December 2020, we do not have enough doses of the vaccine available to immunize every person in the country at once. For this reason, the CDC has proposed a timeline to roll out the vaccine. Phase 1 of the vaccine rollout prioritizes:
- Health care workers
- Long-term care facility residents
- Essential workers (teachers, firefighters, food and agriculture workers, etc.)
- Those with high-risk medical conditions
- Adults over 65
Right now, we don’t know exactly when the vaccine will be made widely available to the rest of the population, but the current projection by the CDC is early-to-mid 2021.
4. Why do I need to get the vaccine twice?
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses to be effective. The two shots of the Pfizer vaccine are given three weeks apart, and the two shots of the Moderna vaccine are given four weeks apart.
Why are two doses needed? Couldn’t we speed up the vaccination process if everyone just got one dose? While the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine does offer some protection, achieving long-term immunity requires two doses. Studies have found that between doses, the vaccine’s efficacy was only 52%—after the second dose, that protection increases to 95%.
Luckily, keeping track of who has received which dose of the vaccine and when shouldn’t be a problem, as doctors will be able to use the same vaccine registries that are already in operation and mostly used for childhood vaccinations, which also commonly require multiple doses.
The local healthcare centers and pharmacies that administer the vaccine will remind patients to come back for the second shot the same way they send regular appointment reminders—through text, email, or by phone call.
5. How quickly does the vaccine provide protection against COVID-19?
In Phase 3 trials of the Pfizer vaccine, 95% immunity was achieved 7 days after the second shot. Phase 3 trials of the Moderna vaccine showed close to 95% efficacy 14 days after the second shot. These numbers may change as more people receive the vaccine and more data is collected.
The CDC recommends that you continue to wear masks and stay socially distant around people outside of your immediate household even after you receive the vaccine. Until infection rates go down and we know more about how well the vaccine works, it is best to be cautious.
6. Are the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine equally effective? Is one better than the other?
Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are around 95% effective at preventing COVID-19. One is not better than the other, though the Pfizer vaccine is approved for use in people 16 and older. The Moderna vaccine is only approved for use in people 18 and older.
Currently, you cannot choose which vaccine you receive, as doses are still in relatively short supply. That may change in the future. If you’re eligible, you should get whichever vaccine is first available for you.
7. Where can I get the COVID-19 vaccine?
As of December 2020, the COVID-19 vaccine is being given to essential health care workers and those at the highest risk of infection, such as nursing home residents.
If you’re an essential worker, your place of employment will contact you with instructions on how to sign up for the vaccine. If you’re a nursing home resident, your care facility will do the same.
Currently, non-essential workers cannot ask for the COVID-19 vaccine through their primary care provider or pharmacy. However, once the vaccine becomes widely available, you’ll be able to request it through your primary care provider’s office or through a local pharmacy, just as you would get your annual flu shot.
The Florida Medical Clinic website will continually post updates as more information becomes available to us.
8. How much will the vaccine cost? Do I need insurance?
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) state that COVID-19 vaccines will be free for all Americans. Whether you have Medicare, private insurance, or no insurance at all, you won’t have to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine.
9. Do I still need the vaccine if I’ve already had COVID-19?
While evidence suggests that people who have already had COVID-19 have some degree of immunity from the virus, more research is needed to understand how long this immunity lasts. For this reason, the current recommendation is that you should get the vaccine even if you’ve previously had and recovered from coronavirus.
10. Will I still need to wear a mask after I get the vaccine?
Yes. The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine is not the end of the pandemic. Epidemiologists predict that even with the successful distribution of the vaccine in early 2021, we won’t achieve herd immunity until July or August of 2021.
Until the virus is under control, it’s important that we continue to use every tool we have to help stop the spread, like wearing a mask, regular hand washing, and staying at least 6 feet away from others.
Once we have more information about how many people are being vaccinated and how the virus is spreading, health organizations may change these recommendations.
Be Notified When the Vaccine is Available in Your Area
Once the COVID-19 vaccine does become widely available in 2021, Florida Medical Clinic will be ready to distribute it at our offices in Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Please refer to our website to receive updates about the vaccines and when it will be available to the public.
In summary, we strongly encourage everyone who is able to receive the vaccine to do so as soon as it is available. Together, we can finally put an end to this pandemic and look forward to a brighter future.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Always talk with your doctor before starting or stopping medications or treatments.