How to Get the Covid-19 Vaccine
Covid-19 vaccines are rolling out to cities nationwide. Find out how to get yours.
Ready for the Covid-19 vaccine?
Everyone who can safely get a Covid-19 vaccine should receive one as soon as it’s available to them. “It’s important for two reasons, says H. Dirk Sostman, MD, president of the Houston Methodist Academic Institute. “It’ll drastically reduce your chances of becoming ill and dying from Covid-19 and it will help build herd immunity.”
And what, exactly, is herd immunity? In a nutshell, it’s what experts and others are hoping will finally end this pandemic.
“The concept is that with an increasing proportion of people in the population who have immunity [to Covid-19 from the vaccine], that makes it more difficult for this virus to spread to others,” explains William Schaffner, MD, an infectious diseases specialist with Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
How vaccines work
In general, vaccines work by introducing into your body a harmless version of a germ (like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19). Your immune system reacts by producing antibodies to fight off the organism. Your body remembers how to make those antibodies so if the real thing ever invades, your body is ready to neutralize it.
The two vaccines that are now available for Covid-19—one made by Moderna and one made by Pfizer in conjunction with BioNTech—are called messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. This is an entirely new technology which in this case anyway, has produced two highly successful vaccines. Both are about 95 percent effective when two doses are completed. (Moderna vs. Pfizer: here’s what you need to know.)
How Covid-19 vaccines work
“Messenger RNA is like a blueprint to show your body the spike protein of COVID-19, how to destroy it, and then degrade and break it down,” explains Alex McDonald, MD, a practicing family physician in San Bernardino, California. “It’s kind of like Snapchat—the message provides you a blueprint of COVID-19, instructions on how to defend against it, and then the message disappears, but the memory remains.”
The spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 is how the virus pierces and enters cells. No one yet knows how long the immunity provided by the vaccines will last.
(Find out if you need the vaccine if you’ve already had Covid-19.)
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Are the vaccines safe?
The short answer: Yes, but with a couple of cautions.
“The mRNA vaccine does not alter or contain genetic material,” says Dr. McDonald. A few people who have received one of the vaccines have had severe anaphylactic (allergic) reactions to it. Most who reacted to the Covid-19 vaccine had a history of similar reactions, were treated quickly with epinephrine, and are now all fine. But because of that, everyone getting the vaccine is being monitored for 15 to 30 minutes afterward.
If you have a history of allergic reactions to food, medications, or vaccines, you could take it one step further to be safe and get your shot at a clinic associated with a hospital, says Dr. Schaffner. (Does alcohol interfere with Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness? Find out.)
Are there any side effects?
Safety is different from side effects and the answer to this question is yes. Many people getting a Covid-19 vaccine do have side effects. The most common is a sore arm from the needle and sometimes flu-like symptoms such as muscle aches, slight fever, headache, and chills. (Read these Covid-19 vaccine stories from those who say it’s all worth it.)
“These things last for maybe 24 hours,” says Dr. Sostman. “You can treat them pretty effectively with Tylenol or Motrin. They’re manifestations of your body reacting appropriately to the vaccine. They’re not safety issues.” (Though there are many factors at play, there are still a few ways to get Covid-19 after being vaccinated—learn more.)
Who gets the vaccine first?
Right now, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are approved only for adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that the top priority for getting a shot (Phase 1a) are health care workers and people living in long-term facilities.
Next is Phase 1b—frontline essential workers like, firefighters, police officers, food workers, postal workers, people working in grocery stores, as well as people 75 and older. People 65 to 74 years as well as those aged 16-64 with underlying conditions come third in Phase 1c.
“The vaccines are becoming progressively available over time for, first, people at increased risk of severe Covid-19 disease then sequentially to the general population,” says Dr. Schaffner. “Studies are still ongoing in children and we anticipate by late spring/early summer there will be recommendations for children.”
What states are doing
The above recommendations are from the CDC, which is a federal agency. Each state, however, is left to make its own decisions. Many are following the CDC guidelines, but some are not. Check with your local health department to find out what’s happening where you live.
Experts advise getting a vaccine as soon as you can, but remember that rollout of the vaccines is running behind schedule. “If it’s offered to you, take it,” says Dr. Sostman. If it’s not your phase yet, here’s how to get leftover Covid-19 vaccines.
How and where to get a Covid-19 vaccine
In addition to being in touch with your local health department, Dr. Schaffner recommends listening to your local news outlets, which should be providing updated information as it becomes available. In some states, like New Mexico, you can register your name to be notified when you can get a shot.
Also pay attention to local retailers, as multiple chains have been contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services to provide vaccines to the general public. Among them are Costco Wholesale, CVS pharmacies and MinuteClinics, Walmart, Walgreen’s, and Kroger stores in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
(Here’s what you need to know about vaccine passports.)
What is the vaccine process like?
Each site will be a little different but, in general, retailers are requiring appointments to get a Covid-19 vaccine. You can make these online or through the store app.
Some retailers will also be offering clinic days. Check with specific locations to find out hours and availability. Individual jurisdictions decide where vaccines will go so you most likely won’t have a choice. Right now, this doesn’t really matter as the vaccines are equally effective, says Dr. Sostman. You should, however, get both doses from the same vaccine. (If you missed your second dose, here’s what to do.)
You should not have to pay for the vaccine even if you don’t have health insurance. (In fact, some employers like Trader Joe’s, Instacart, and Dollar General are even paying employees to get a shot.)
Next, learn what you should and shouldn’t do with your Covid-19 vaccine card.
- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: "What is Herd Immunity and How Can We Achieve It With COVID-19?"
- H. Dirk Sostman, MD, president, Houston Methodist Academic Institute
- William Schaffner, MD, infectious diseases specialist, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Vaccines: The Basics"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Briefing Document Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine"
- New England Journal of Medicine: "Safety and Efficacy of the BNT162b2 mRNA Covid-19 Vaccine"
- Alex McDonald, MD, practicing family physician, San Bernardino, California
- Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: "Allergic Reactions Including Anaphylaxis After Receipt of the First Dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine — United States, December 14–23, 2020"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "When Vaccine is Limited, Who Should Get Vaccinated First?"
- National Association of County and City Health Officials: "Directory of Local Health Departments"
- Department of Health and Human Services: "Trump Administration Partners with Chain and Independent Community Pharmacies to Increase Access to Future COVID-19 Vaccines"
- New Mexico Department of Health: "Welcome to the NMDOH COVID-19 Vaccine Registration System"
- Commonwealth Fund: "The COVID-19 Vaccine Is Coming, but Will It Be Paid For? Federal and State Policies to Fill Gaps in Insurance Coverage"
- USA Today: "Coronavirus vaccine incentive: Trader Joe's, Instacart and Dollar General to pay workers to get vaccinated"