The data is in, and Covid-19 vaccines are working. They’ve been injected in tons of people around the world beyond the initial trials and found to be safe and effective. Each of the three vaccines available use unique technologies to stimulate an immune response in your body, but none of them involve injecting a live virus into your arm. In short, they cannot get you sick with Covid-19.
Vaccines, along with social distancing, masks, and smart policy decisions regarding reopening businesses, will be our ticket out of this hellish mass experience. But getting a vaccine is tricky, and how to do it varies widely by where you live.
States, territories, and our one state-like district (DC) all have wide latitude to set their own Covid-19 policies and procedures. Advice and paths to a Covid-19 vaccine are going to differ based on which part of the US you live in, but we’ve put together a guide that should give you an accurate overview of how to get the jab.
- Figure Out Your Place in Line
- Check Your State’s Rollout Process
- Find Places You Can Get Vaccinated
- What to Bring to Get Vaccinated
- Getting Your Vaccine
- Not Yet Eligible? Show Up Late
- A Few More Things to Know
Certain people are eligible to receive a vaccine sooner than others. The CDC issued guidelines on prioritizing certain groups by age and profession, but they are suggestions, not federal law. States have the final decision and are prioritizing groups of people slightly differently. You will need to check your own state’s guidelines, but we’ve summarized the CDC’s breakdown below, which should provide some rough guidance. In order from front of the line to back of the line:
- First Group (1a): Health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes.
- Second Group (1b): People 75 years old and older, if they’re not already in a long-term care facility. Also, frontline essential works, such as firefighters, educators (including teachers, day care workers, and support staff), grocery store employees, public transit workers, postal workers, food and agricultural workers, manufacturing workers, police officers, and corrections officers.
- Third Group (1c): People 65 to 74 years old, if they’re not already in a long-term care facility. People 16 to 64 years old with underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk for Covid-19. Also, non-frontline essential workers, such as “people who work in transportation and logistics, food service, housing construction and finance, information technology, communications, energy, law, media, public safety, and public health,” according to the CDC.
- Fourth Group: Everyone else.
Absent from any CDC-sourced guidance is mention of prisoners, who due to close quarters are ripe for Covid-19 outbreaks.
There’s no federal or nationally centralized list onto which you sign up for a vaccine. Each state, territory, and freely associated state has sign-up information available on their health department websites.
Some health department sites are more helpful than others, offering telephone hotlines, statewide sign-up lists, and eligibility checkers that will tell you whether you can get a vaccine yet, if you answer a few questions about your age, gender, profession, and health conditions. Other states merely direct you to a list of vaccination providers to call yourself.
- Doctor’s offices, hospitals, and urgent care centers
- A local community health center
- State and local health departments. Find yours on the CDC’s health department’s Vaccine Finder or this list of links. Vaccination sites run the gamut: They could be MLB and NFL stadiums, mobile clinics, convention centers, or cities’ public health clinics.
- CVS, Walgreens, Costco, Walmart, Rite Aid, Kroger, Publix, Safeway, Albertsons, and other pharmacies, retail stores, and grocers may offer vaccinations via their own websites and processes. Texas-based H-E-B will also receive more doses. Target (in partnership with CVS), Winn-Dixie, and Hy-Vee are also on the list to begin offering vaccinations.
Many vaccination sites work by appointment. If there are sites that will send you texts or emails when appointments are available, sign up for one or more of them.
A government-provided vaccination site, such as a community health center or public health department, may be a safer bet if you’re worried about surprise medical bills or don’t want to reveal your citizenship or immigration status. They tend to be free too. In our research for this article, we found that many of them say on their websites that they don’t ask for health insurance information, proof of insurance, or immigration status. Check with your local facilities to make sure.
Vaccines are typically covered by your health insurance, but it pays to check with your insurance provider and the office before you commit to an appointment. Surprise bills are a problem in this country. If your profession is what grants you eligibility, bring proof of employment, such as a work ID, letter of employment, or pay stub. If you’re eligible because of underlying health conditions, you may need proof of your medical condition, such as a letter from your doctor.
Private practices and retail locations, such as pharmacies, usually require you to bring an ID and health insurance card and may ask for the name of your primary care physician. Vaccination sites run by government services, such as at community health centers and public health departments, don’t typically ask for health insurance info, but you’ll likely need proof of state residency. Depending on your state, school records, samples of mail addressed to you, or a statement from another person may substitute for a government-issued ID. Check with the specific vaccination site you’ve decided upon.
In the United States, the three vaccines available to the public right now via emergency authorization by the FDA are from Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson Janssen. The mechanisms by which they work differ, and two of them require second doses at different times.
- Moderna: Requires two doses. The second shot should be given four weeks after the first (six weeks maximum).
- Pfizer-BioNTech: Requires two doses. The second shot should be given three weeks after the first (six weeks maximum).
- Johnson & Johnson Janssen: Requires one dose. There’s no need for a second shot.
In its clinical trial, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had a lower overall efficacy than the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, but all three are great at preventing severe cases of Covid-19 that would lead to hospitalization or death.
Protection isn’t immediate after a shot. It takes about two weeks after the Moderna’s and Pfizer-BioNTech’s second shot and two weeks after the single Johnson & Johnson shot for your body’s immune system to reach its maximum strength against the virus. Johnson & Johnson is currently testing a two-dose version of its vaccine, but the findings aren’t ready yet, and so it’s only being given as a one-dose shot at this time.
The CDC also offers advice on what to expect at your vaccination appointment. You may get asked if you’ve been exposed to Covid-19 or shown any symptoms lately, and the facility should ask you to sit and wait for a period of 15 minutes after getting your vaccine to ensure you don’t have a severe reaction, or 30 minutes if you’ve had a reaction to a vaccine or injection before. You should also be given a card that tells you the vaccine you got and the date (keep it).
After your vaccination, you can sign up for V-safe, the CDC’s Health Checker website. It will send you phone notifications to fill out an easy survey in the days andweeks after getting your vaccine, asking about any symptoms you’ve experienced and notifying you when you should get your second dose.
Don’t get any other vaccinations in the 14 days before or after your Covid-19 vaccination. Don’t preemptively take new medications before vaccination, even over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen, or stop taking your normal medications before your appointment; talk to a doctor before the appointment and tell them what you’re on, though. They may have some advice for you.
As the day draws close to the close, vaccination sites are sometimes left with extra vaccines that will go to waste by the day’s end. Due to the specific precautions taken to keep vaccines fresh and usable before they expire, if people don’t show up for their appointments, the facility may prepare more doses than they end up needing.
Even if you’re not in one of the eligible groups, you can show up and ask a provider for one of the leftover doses. Few providers advertise these extra doses because they don’t want a stampede of people showing up for a small number of available extra doses, but they’d rather stick ’em into whoever shows up than throw unused vaccines in the trash.
Check if your local or state health department offer a standby list for extra vaccinations. Not all health departments are compiling standby lists. Retail stores are also places to check. If you call the pharmacy of some Walmart locations, they may have an organized standby list system to notify you if vaccines become available at the end of the day.
There are some side effects, but allergic reactions are rare. If you’ve had allergic reactions to vaccines before, tell the person giving the vaccination as soon as you arrive. They’ll probably ask you to hang around for a little while after the shot, just to make sure.
Even if you’ve already had Covid-19, your antibodies won’t last forever. You should still get vaccinated when you can. I know I will. I was a healthy guy who hit the gym regularly and had no existing health conditions, but Covid knocked me flat on my ass for five weeks last year when I was 31. If you’re cavalier about it and get Covid now, you might still be knocked out of commission by the time the rest of us are having fun again.
The vaccines also don’t alter your DNA or make it unsafe for you to have a baby one day. Here’s a list of myths and facts that slaps down the persistent lies floating around social media and conspiracist websites.
Even after you are fully vaccinated, keep wearing a mask in public (or get one). Studies are ongoing, but scientists are still trying to determine whether vaccinated people can still catch mild or undetected forms of Covid-19 and spread it to others. Masking up keeps everybody—even you—safer.
Finally, if there are folks in your life who might need help getting on a list in your state, share the knowledge and give them a hand. Every vaccination makes us all a little bit safer.
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