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There's a Coronavirus Vaccine — Now What?

The wait is over. Here's what you need to know and do

spinner image Close up of hands wearing medical gloves holding a coronavirus vaccine vial.
Scotty Perry/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It's here. Less than a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. has authorized the first vaccine to help combat COVID-19, the devastating illness that has so far sickened millions and killed more than 300,000 Americans. Initial doses are limited, but vaccinations have already started nationwide, and additional vaccines could be authorized soon.

What does this mean for you? Plenty. Here are some of the important things you should consider when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine and the concrete steps you can take to prepare.

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Realize your place in line

Vials of vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech — the first companies to receive emergency-use authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — are being delivered to hospitals and medical facilities nationwide, and shots are being administered. But it could be a while before it's your turn for vaccination.

That's because there aren't enough doses for everybody who wants a vaccine to get one right away. And so it's largely up to a group of medical and public health experts, known as the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), to make recommendations on who should receive the vaccine while initial supplies are still limited. The group recently determined that health care workers and staff and residents of nursing homes and assisted living centers should go first. But with more than 18 million health care workers and roughly 1.3 million nursing home residents, according to federal data, that could take some time. (Plus, the government expects to have only enough doses to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of the year.)

It's yet to be determined who will be included in the next wave of vaccination recommendations, but essential workers, people with certain underlying conditions and older Americans — who make up the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. — will probably be toward the front of the line. Final distribution decisions, however, are up to individual states.

So how will you know when it's your turn? Take stock of your personal situation — your profession, your age, your underlying health conditions — and pay attention to the news from health officials in your area, “because this is really going to be kind of a moving target,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University's Center for Global Health Science and Security.

Vaccinating priority populations could happen faster than expected if the FDA authorizes more vaccines in the coming months. (Three other candidates are in late-stage clinical trials, including one that is with the FDA for EUA review.) It could also be delayed, depending on production schedules.

In the meantime, “people can talk with their health care providers, watch the news, check out the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the FDA websites — all of those places will have the latest information on vaccine availability within their own communities,” Rasmussen says. State and local health departments are also great resources.

Start the discussion with your health care provider

Have a history of severe allergic reactions? An immunocompromising condition? A long list of prescription medications that you fear could interact with the vaccine?

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Each vaccine that receives authorization or approval from the FDA will be reviewed by ACIP. The group then makes recommendations on who should — and shouldn't — get the vaccine, based on the data available. If you're confused about where you fit into a vaccine's guidelines, talk with your health care provider “and get a recommendation that's going to be specific” to your medical history, Rasmussen says.

Prepare for your first appointment

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As doses of vaccine become more widely available next year, like health experts expect, doctors’ offices, clinics and pharmacies will start to give the shots. And the CDC has some tips on how you can prepare for your appointment.

First, familiarize yourself with the research. It's likely that only one vaccine will be available in your area at the outset, so read up on how that one will help protect you from COVID-19. It's also important to know that you may have some side effects from the shot, including fever, chills, fatigue, headache and a sore arm.

If you experience flulike symptoms after the vaccine, “it doesn't mean that you got COVID from the vaccine,” Rasmussen explains. “It means that the vaccine has tricked your body into thinking that you've been infected with [the coronavirus]. It's responding, and that is what's going to keep you from getting COVID in the future.”

Over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen or acetaminophen may help alleviate any discomfort you experience; just be sure to check with your doctor before taking anything, and follow up if symptoms don't subside after a few days. Your health care provider may also suggest downloading a smartphone app to report or keep track of any side effects.

Finally, be sure to bring a mask to your appointment so you can cover your nose and mouth while out in public, just as you would for any other trip to the doctor's office or pharmacy during the pandemic.

Make a second appointment

After you are vaccinated, you should get a card that tells you the type of COVID-19 vaccine you received and where you got it, according to the CDC. Your provider may also book a date for your follow-up appointment for the second shot. (Most coronavirus vaccines will require two doses to be effective; only one candidate in late-stage clinical trials is a single-dose vaccine.)

It's important to schedule a time to come back for that second shot, which “is needed to get the most protection the vaccine has to offer,” the CDC explains. Pfizer and BioNTech's vaccine, for example, was found to be about 52 percent effective at preventing COVID-19 in clinical trial participants after their first shot; effectiveness jumped to 95 percent after the second dose.

Cost should not be an obstacle

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The hundreds of millions of vaccine doses that the federal government prepurchased will be free to the public, the CDC confirms. Providers and companies may be able to charge a small fee for giving the vaccine, but this cost should be picked up by private and public insurance. People who don't have insurance will be covered by a relief fund.

Keep up with prevention efforts

While you wait for a vaccine — and even after you get one — continue with prevention efforts such as wearing a mask, social distancing and frequently washing your hands, experts stress. One reason is that it's going to take a while, likely several months, to get a large enough percentage of the population vaccinated to the point where the spread of the virus slows. Another is that while two vaccines so far have proved effective at preventing illness from a coronavirus infection in clinical trial participants, it's unclear whether the vaccines can block transmission of the virus. “There's still a big question about whether people can still get infected after they've been vaccinated” and, without showing symptoms of COVID-19, whether they can pass the virus on to others, Rasmussen says.

Plus, with new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths soaring to record numbers, now is not the time to take the foot off the gas and abandon “the tools that are sitting in front of us” that can slow the spread of the coronavirus, says Michael Mina, M.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

"I think now's the time, more than any time that there has been, to say we have to do everything in our power to figure out how to stop this virus today and set ourselves up for the best success so that as the vaccine continues to be rolled out, we can really give it its best chance to additionally stop the spread,” Mina adds.

Get the facts

There are a lot of COVID-19 vaccine myths and misconceptions swirling around in social circles and on social media, especially given the speed with which the vaccines were developed. (Previously, the fastest vaccine took four years to bring from the lab to the general public.) So it's important to get the facts from reputable sources.

A few tips from the CDC and its partners: Check to see if the health information you're reading was reviewed by health experts before it was posted, and make sure the content is current. Evidence and original sources should be available to back up claims.

And remember, “The internet does not replace a discussion with a healthcare professional,” the CDC cautions.

Stay tuned

When it comes to the coronavirus vaccines, a lot of unknowns remain. For example, experts don't know how long protection from the vaccines lasts and whether the vaccines block virus transmission. It's also unclear how many people need to be vaccinated before we reach so-called herd immunity — the point when enough of the population is immune to a contagious disease, typically through vaccination, thereby slowing its ability to spread. Answers to some of these questions should be available within months; others may take a year or longer.

All of that's to say, advice and guidance could change as the science evolves, so stay tuned. And for now, keep using all the tools that can slow the spread of the virus: Wear a face mask when around people you don't live with, keep a distance of at least 6 feet from others, and wash your hands often.

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