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Your No-Panic Guide to the COVID-19 Vaccine: Is It Safe, and When Can I Get It?

Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Here's what we know about the COVID-19 vaccines and how they are being distributed in L.A. County.
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The following article was originally republished on Dec. 17, 2020 through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist and will continue to be updated as new information becomes available.

Story by Jackie Fortiér

There are currently two COVID-19 vaccines in circulation, one made by Pfizer-BioNTech, and one made by Moderna. The Food and Drug Administration has given both drugs emergency use authorization. Both vaccines are provided to the public for free.

Here's what we know so far:

Are The Vaccines Effective?

In clinical trials, the Pfizer vaccine was found to be 95% effective, and the Moderna vaccine was found to be 94% effective.

Another note on effectiveness: Officials can will be able to distribute the Moderna vaccine to far more facilities, because it can be stored in a typical freezer, while Pfizer's product needs to be kept at a super-cold temperature. In addition, Pfizer's vaccine can be stored in a refrigerator for just five days before it expires; Moderna's can be refrigerated for 30 days before expiring.

Are The Vaccines Safe?

In clinical trials, about 20,000 people aged 16 and older received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine. An FDA analysis found "no specific safety concerns." Some short-term mild to moderate side effects are common -- mostly swelling, pain, redness at the injection site, fatigue and sometimes fever that resolves within about 24 hours.

The Moderna vaccine is for those 18 and older. It has a "favorable" safety profile, "with no specific safety concerns identified," according to the FDA advisory committee. The most common side effects have been injection site pain, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, swollen lymph nodes, chills, nausea and vomiting, and fever. The FDA says these side effects have typically lasted several days, and have occurred more often after the second dose.

Can The Vaccines Give Me COVID-19?

No! They do not contain SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that gives you COVID-19.

How Many Shots Of Vaccine Will I Need?

The Pfizer vaccine is two doses, given three weeks apart. The Moderna vaccine also requires two doses, given four weeks apart.

As of Jan. 21, 2021, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention upgraded its guidance, saying it's OK to wait up to six weeks to get your second shot, in case you can't get it on the recommended timetable because of a shortage or some other reason.

The CDC also updated its guidance to say that in "exceptional situations" -- for example, officials have run out of the vaccine you got in the first round, or you're not sure which shot you got in the first round -- it's OK to mix the two vaccines. That's because they're extremely similar in that they both use messenger RNA to stimulate an immune response to the virus.

The $64,000 question is, how long will they last? Unfortunately, we don't have enough data yet to answer that question. The Food and Drug Administration's fact sheet on the Pfizer vaccine states, "the duration of protection against COVID-19 is currently unknown." The FDA says it doesn't yet have data to determine how long the Moderna vaccine will provide protection; however, on Jan. 11, 2021, Moderna said immunity should last at least a year.

Do I Need To Get Vaccinated If I've Already Had COVID-19?

Yes. Reinfection is rare, but it is possible. When you get COVID-19, your body produces antibodies that protect you from reinfection, but we don't know yet how long that "natural immunity" might last. And it varies from person to person. "We've seen [a durable immune response] persist up to eight months," La Jolla Institute for Immunology's Alexander Sette told Vox. But this is only the case for 90% of people, he said. "For 10% of people, they don't seem to have a good immune response eight months out."

When Will I Get Vaccinated?

We are still in the initial phase of the rollout; L.A. County officials were aiming to finish immunizing everyone who works in the health care industry and residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities by the end of January. (The state has laid out more granular guidelines for dealing with a shortage of doses in health care facilities.)

Then on Jan. 13, 2021, the state said everyone over age 65 is now eligible as well; however, there currently is not enough vaccine to immunize that group and the health workers who have not yet gotten their shots. The Trump administration had promised to release a reserve of vaccine to the states, but it turned it did not have a reserve. The new Biden administration's coronavirus relief bill asks Congress to spend money to speed up production and distribution of vaccines.

Next in line are police officers and firefighters and those who work in education, child care, and food and agriculture.

Next up:

  • Workers in transportation and logistics
  • Industrial, residential and commercial sectors
  • Critical manufacturing workers
  • Incarcerated individuals
  • Homeless individuals

And then:

  • Anyone 50 and older
  • Anyone 16 to 64 years old with an underlying health condition or disability
  • Workers in water and waste management
  • Workers in the defense, energy and chemical sectors
  • Communications and IT workers
  • Financial services and government operations workers
  • Community service groups

But a change is afoot: On Jan. 25, 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state will move to age-based eligibility after it finishes vaccinating health workers, those 65 and older, first responders, teachers, child care workers and those in the food industry.

The state has not finalized exactly how this new approach will work. "The forthcoming age ranges have yet to be announced, and may vary based on the amount of vaccine supply," according to Darrel Ng, spokesman for the state's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. "For example," he told us in an emailed statement, "lots of supply may mean a bigger age range becoming eligible at one time, whereas continued limited supply may mean a smaller age range."

Government officials estimate it will be late spring or early summer before they're able to vaccinate everyone. Another question mark surrounds children. Vaccine trials in kids 12-17 have just recently begun, and there are not yet trials in children under 12.

How Will I Know When It's My Turn?

The state has rolled out MyTurn, a website where you can find out if it's your turn to get vaccinated. (You can also schedule appointments on MyTurn, but for now it will only set up appointments for health care workers and people 65 and older in L.A. and San Diego Counties.)

How Do I Sign Up For A Vaccination Appointment?

There are a variety of ways to get an appointment; unfortunately, because of the supply shortage and the intense demand, it can be extremely difficult to get one. People have reported calls getting disconnected and websites crashing. Here are the local governmental sites:

Los Angeles city As of Jan. 22, it has this message: "We're currently processing existing appointments and not taking new appointments. Please check back at a later time to book new appointments."

Los Angeles County Those without computer access can call (833) 540-0473 between 8 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. for help making an appointment.

MyTurn Besides being able to find out on this new state website if it's your turn to get vaccinated, you can also schedule appointments on it, although for now it will only set up appointments for health care workers and people 65 and older in L.A. and San Diego Counties.

Orange County Those without computer access can call (714) 834-2000. The county says this COVID-19 Hotline will answer "general questions."

Riverside County People 65 and older who need help can call 211.

San Bernardino County Those without computer access can call (909) 387-3911 for help making an appointment.

Ventura County As of Jan. 22, it has this message: "All appointments are now full. Once more vaccines are received more appointments will be made available. Please check back."

Are There People Who Shouldn't Get The Vaccine?

Yes. You should not get the vaccine if you've had a severe allergic reaction to any ingredient in the vaccine (you can find a list of the Pfizer ingredients here and a list of the Moderna ingredients here) or if you had a severe allergic reaction after a previous dose of the vaccine. The CDC's fact sheet on the Pfizer vaccine says before getting your shot, you should tell your vaccination provider about all of your medical conditions, including if you:

  • Have allergies
  • Have a fever
  • Have a bleeding disorder (or you're on a blood thinner)
  • Are immunocompromised (or you're on a medicine that affects your immune system)
  • Are pregnant or plan to become pregnant
  • Are breastfeeding

With regard to the Moderna vaccine, the FDA advisory committee found "the frequency of non-fatal serious adverse events was low."

Can I Stop Wearing A Mask And Social Distancing Once I'm Vaccinated?

No! While both vaccines have been determined to be highly effective in preventing coronavirus infection, the CDC says scientists don't have enough data yet to determine whether they prevent transmission.

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