Your vaccine questions, answered.

When can I get the vaccine? Can my boss require it? Is it safe? And more common vaccine questions.

After months of waiting, the first COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed across the U.S. And a lot of people have questions. When will it be available? Who can get it? Is it safe?

We have answers.

We’ll be adding to this FAQ as new information becomes available. Bookmark it and come back for the latest information.

When will the COVID-19 vaccine be available?

The first doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine became available Monday, Dec. 14 to health care workers across the nation. But widespread public vaccination isn’t expected to start until late winter or early spring, though timelines might shift.

Who gets the COVID-19 vaccine first?

The first doses of COVID-19 vaccine will go to medical employees, from doctors and nurses to those who clean patient rooms, as well as residents of nursing homes. That recommendation came from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a panel that advises the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health-care workers are considered a high priority because of their heightened exposure to the virus and because they need to stay healthy to care for others as cases surge in much of the United States. Nursing home residents have suffered the highest rates of death. There won’t be enough in the first deliveries for even those people, though, so hospital leaders are further refining priorities.

In Pennsylvania, vaccines are being rolled out under a phased approach, following CDC guidelines. The phases are as follows:

Phase 1a: Frontline health workers and nursing home residents and staff

Phase 1b: People who are 75 and older, have high-risk medical conditions, or live in congregate residential settings, and people who work in congregate residential settings, with high-risk populations, in public transit, in food distribution, prep, or service, in childcare or education, in high-volume essential retail, or who manufacture critical goods.

Phase 1c: People aged 65-74 years, and people who work in maintenance/janitorial, utilities, postal and package delivery, higher education, finance, transportation, construction, IT and telecommunications, public health or legal professions.

Phase 2: All individuals not previously covered who are 16 years and older and do not have a contraindication to the vaccine.

Can I sign up to get the vaccine?

It depends where you live. If you live in Philadelphia, you can “pre-commit” to getting a vaccine, which won’t sign you up for an appointment, but will send you an email alert when it’s your turn. Chester and Delaware Counties have also set up a digital portal at www.chesco.org/224/Health. New Jersey has also launched a service to inform residents when and where they can get vaccinated.

When will teachers and other essential workers get the COVID-19 vaccine?

This is the second group currently in line to get the vaccine. The first doses of the vaccine will go to about 24 million health workers and nursing home residents across the country. Next in line: essential workers like police officers and teachers, though no firm date has been set. Members of ACIP, the panel that has been making the recommendations, say that groups disproportionately affected by the virus — especially minorities and lower-income people — should have good access to vaccines, too.

When can the general public get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Probably in late winter or early spring, but it depends on your job, age, health, and exposure risk. The first 100 million doses have been earmarked for frontline health-care workers and nursing homes. The general population could start receiving shots by the end of February if two or three additional coronavirus vaccines are approved, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. But it will be months before widespread vaccination can be achieved. Anthony Fauci, the government’s most prominent infectious disease expert, said the country may be able to accomplish herd immunity by late spring or early summer.

Where can I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

When the vaccine is widely available, it is likely that doses will be supplied by some combination of hospitals, private medical practices, pharmacies, and government-established vaccination centers. Health officials expect to conduct informational outreach and some mobile vaccination clinics, but will be looking to members of the public to be aware of who is eligible for vaccine doses and be proactive about getting involved in the process

Can my employer require that I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Possibly. It depends on several factors, including your employer and your personal situation. Still, it’s likely that more employers will encourage the vaccine rather than require it.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has updated its guidance on vaccines, saying that emergency authorization does not change an employer’s legal ability to require a vaccine. If you don’t want or can’t get the vaccine, your employer might have to accommodate you, depending on your reasons. But if your employer insists, you could get fired. Pennsylvania, like most of the country, is an “at-will” state, so your employer can fire you for any reason at any time, except for certain identity reasons (you can’t be fired for being a woman, for example). (Union members, however, are usually protected by “just cause” clauses, which say that workers can only be fired for cause.)

Should older people get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes, because they are at higher risk of complications. Nursing home and assisted living residents, who make up just 1% of the population, have accounted for 6% of cases and 40% of deaths.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?

The vaccine has been approved as safe for most people. The FDA granted emergency authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for people ages 16 and up. Documents published by the FDA show that the vaccine is about 95% effective at preventing infection with the coronavirus, even for those at highest risk of severe COVID-19 because of their age, weight, race, or chronic medical conditions. The Moderna vaccine has also been approved. It is similar in effectiveness and is also a two-dose vaccine, but can be kept at normal freezer temperatures, unlike the Pfizer vaccine, which requires special freezers for longer-term storage.

Who should and shouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The CDC recommends that most people 16 years and older get the vaccine. (The Moderna vaccine was tested in people 18 and older.) But there are some exceptions. People with a history of life-threatening allergic reactions are advised to not get the shots because two health-care workers in the UK suffered such reactions. (Both have recovered.) The COVID-19 vaccine was not tested in pregnancy, but experts say it’s still worth considering if you’re expecting. A CDC committee has recommended that pregnant health care workers decide with their doctors whether to receive the vaccine.

Why does the COVID-19 vaccine require two shots?

It isn’t unusual for a vaccine to require multiple doses to provoke the immune system to respond most effectively. It’s possible that as more data is collected, a single shot proves sufficient, but for now the data indicates an average of 52% effectiveness after the first shot, and peak protection after two injections.

How effective is the COVID-19 vaccine?

In trials, the Pfizer vaccine was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 after receiving both doses, and the Moderna vaccine stands at 94%, both significantly more effective than many scientists anticipated.

Does the COVID-19 vaccine protect me immediately?

No, the vaccine doesn’t protect you immediately, because it takes time for the body to react to the vaccine and mount its defenses. The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses, spaced three weeks apart, and it takes one to two weeks after the second dose before you’re considered fully vaccinated. But data indicates that some protection begins within 10 days of the first shot.

What are the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?

The vaccine can cause side effects, but experts say you shouldn’t let that stop you from getting it if it’s considered safe for you to do so. For most people, if symptoms appear, they will be mild or moderate, and disappear within a day or two. The most commonly reported side effects include pain and swelling around the injection site, headache, fatigue, fever, and muscle pain. Serious adverse reactions are rare. Discomfort from fever or pain is normal. You may feel like you have the flu for a couple days, and that’s OK. But if redness or tenderness where you got the shot increases after 24 hours, or the side effects are worrying you or aren’t going away after a few days, call your doctor. If you experience side effects after the first shot, you should still get the second shot, unless a vaccination provider or your doctor tells you otherwise.

Which country developed the COVID-19 vaccines?

Researchers in multiple countries have worked on vaccines. Pfizer is based in the U.S., while BioNTech is based in Germany. Moderna is based in the U.S.

Why does the COVID-19 vaccine have to be kept so cold?

Because of their ingredients. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit because of its delicate key ingredient: messenger RNA, which degrades if it’s not kept cold. The doses arrive packed in dry ice and then need to be transferred to an ultracold freezer. The freezers, which are rare outside of research hospitals, have inner doors for each shelf and contain digital thermometers to make sure they stay at the proper temperature. Smaller facilities that receive partial shipments of vaccine can keep it cold on dry ice for up to 20 days. Before use, the vaccine must be thawed for half an hour at room temperature or three hours in a refrigerator.

What about people who don’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

The short answer: If people refuse to get the vaccine, it will take longer for the pandemic to end. Experts estimate that around 70% of the population — more than 200 million people — in the U.S. need to gain immunity, either from coronavirus infection or a vaccine, for the pandemic to end. But national polling shows that many Americans will be reluctant to get COVID-19 vaccines, at least at first. Not all health workers are expected to want them either, but some experts suspect that people who have witnessed COVID-19’s worst symptoms will be especially interested. Though health experts consider vaccines to be among the greatest public health achievements, some people have doubts for various reasons. Of greatest concern in the pandemic is whether minority communities, which have been hit hardest by COVID-19, will hesitate to be vaccinated because of negative interactions with the health care community they've experienced personally, or know of historically.

Do I still have to wear a mask after I get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes. No vaccine is perfect, and experts say the pandemic won’t be over until about 70% of the population has immunity. It is possible, though rare, that you could get the vaccine and still contract or spread the virus. The general public is not expected to have widespread access to the vaccine until the late winter or early spring. So mitigation efforts, including masks and social distancing, are likely going to be around for a while. By mid-2021, experts predict we’ll know enough about how well this vaccine blocks infections at a population level to determine when we can start scaling back on mitigation measures. So don’t throw out your masks just yet.