Your Top Coronavirus Vaccine Questions, Answered
How soon after your vaccine will you be protected from COVID-19? Do you still need a vaccine if you’ve already had COVID? A top expert addresses your most pressing vaccine concerns
Now that the new coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are reaching the public, many are breathing a sigh of relief. But along with the hope comes questions and concerns. And that’s a good thing: It’s a sign that more Americans are taking an active role in their health care decisions. Health professionals don’t want those worries to keep you from receiving a vaccination that can help everyone get back to normal faster.
That’s why we sat down with a member of the National Vaccine Advisory Committee, Robert Hopkins, M.D., to help sort fact from fiction when it comes to this lifesaving immunization. As a professor of internal medicine, Dr. Hopkins knows how to translate complex medical facts into practical advice. See for yourself below.
Q: Once I get the shot, how soon will I be protected—and for how long?
Dr. Hopkins: You likely develop some degree of protection within a couple of weeks of getting the first dose of the vaccine. If you receive either the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, both of which require two shots, you will not develop the high degree of protection reported in clinical trials until about two weeks after the second dose. We don’t know yet how long that protection will last. What we have seen so far in trials is that levels of antibodies appear to be higher in people who’ve been vaccinated than in people who had severe coronavirus disease. So that’s a good indicator that what you get from the vaccine is going to be a “durable” protection. But we'll continue to learn more about the vaccines’ effectiveness over time.
Q: Why do I need a second dose of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines? What happens if I forget to get it?
Dr. Hopkins: Unlike the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer require two doses: The first dose delivers messenger RNA (mRNA) that instructs the immune system to start making antibodies, and the second shot makes that response stronger and longer lasting. You will not receive the reported benefits of the vaccine if you do not get both doses.
Also, the second dose should be given on time, which means 21 days after the first dose for the Pfizer vaccine and 28 days after the first dose for the Moderna vaccine. The CDC recommends giving the second dose within four days of that interval, but if you're late, just schedule it as soon as possible. The concern with being very late on your second dose is that the protective benefits of the vaccine may be reduced.
Q: What if I already had COVID-19? Do I still need to get the shot?
Dr. Hopkins: Yes. The immunity you get from the vaccine appears to be stronger than what you have if you were infected with the virus.
In people who had COVID, the level of immunity that develops and how long it lasts is still unknown, but it appears to be at least 90 days. For this reason, many experts recommend that you wait 90 days after being infected to receive the vaccine. Doing so could give you a longer period of immunity.
People who have received monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma should also wait about 90 days after the treatment so the antibodies they were given do not interfere with the vaccine-related immune response.
Q: Could the virus mutate and become resistant to the vaccine?
Dr. Hopkins: Viruses mutate or change all the time. While some recent COVID mutations, including the strain first seen in the United Kingdom, seem to have made it more easily transmitted from person to person, they do not appear to have made it more deadly or severe. So far, it does not appear that these changes have reduced the effectiveness of the vaccine, either.
Q: Who’s qualified to give me the vaccine?
Dr. Hopkins: Any health care provider who has been trained in vaccine administration (that is, how to give a shot safely) is qualified to give you the immunization. The greatest challenge at present is having enough vaccine and vaccine sites to meet the needs of all who want the vaccine. Many vaccine sites will be staffed by physicians, pharmacists, nurses, physician assistants, medical assistants, and students of various health professions. The CDC also recommends that vaccination sites have medical equipment at the ready, including blood pressure cuffs, EpiPens, and stethoscopes.
Q: How much will it cost? Or can I get it for free?
Dr. Hopkins: The COVID vaccines will be free for everyone in the U.S. For people who are uninsured or underinsured, the cost of the vaccine is covered under the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act. For those with private insurance, insurance will likely be billed for the costs of administering the shot, and it should not result in any out-of-pocket costs to the patient.
Q: Do I still have to wear a mask after I get the COVID vaccine?
Dr. Hopkins: We absolutely need to continue wearing a mask. Follow the Centers for Disease Control’s most recent guidance, which now recommends sticking to masks with a nose wire, adding a mask fitter over your mask, or layering a cloth mask over a disposable surgical mask for better protection. And we’ll still need to social distance, wash hands, and avoid crowds following vaccination. I think of vaccines as an additional layer of protection. These public health measures are particularly important in winter, when we are more likely to be indoors with others, which can increase the risk of transmission. Remember that the vaccines are about 72 to 95 percent effective in the U.S., meaning there's still a chance that some vaccinated people will get the virus. It's possible that those people won’t have symptoms and could spread the virus—we simply don't know yet if the vaccine stops the transmission of COVID-19 to other people.
We cannot drop our defenses until we have enough people vaccinated for us to develop community immunity. That may be 70 to 75 percent of the population.
Hang in there: Taking all these steps plus vaccinating is what will allow us to get back to (what we used to call) normal, so we can enjoy our favorite activities once again.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time and posting. To limit the spread of the coronavirus, it’s important to continue practicing social distancing (keeping at least 6 feet away from people outside your household) and washing your hands frequently. You should also be appropriately masked any time you’ll be in public. According to the CDC’s latest guidance means layering a disposable surgical mask underneath a snug-fitting cloth mask or placing a mask fitter over your cloth mask to ensure a tight fit. Because the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, we encourage readers to follow the news and recommendations for their own communities by using the resources from the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department.