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Your No-Panic Guide To The COVID-19 Vaccine: Is It Safe, And When Can I Get It?


There's currently one COVID-19 vaccine in circulation, made by Pfizer-BioNTech, and hopes are high that a Moderna vaccine will receive an emergency use authorization as early as this week.

Shortly after the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization on Dec. 11 for the Pfizer vaccine, the hotly anticipated first doses started arriving at nine hospitals in Los Angeles County. The large hospitals have the deep-freeze capacity that the Pfizer vaccine needs, and they will be distributing it to a limited number of smaller hospitals and clinics for frontline health care workers, who along with residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are first in line. More on that below. Here's what we know so far:

Is The Pfizer Vaccine Safe?

In clinical trials, about 20,000 people aged 16 and older received at least one dose of the 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.

Can the Pfizer Vaccine Give Me COVID-19?

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

How Many Shots Of The Pfizer Vaccine Will I Need?

The Pfizer vaccine is 2 doses, given 3 weeks apart. It only comes in the form of a shot. The $64,000 question is, how long will it 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."

Who Gets The Vaccine First?

The coveted first batch is reserved for health care workers directly caring for COVID-19 patients in hospitals. Also at the front of the line are residents of nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other long-term care settings for older or medically vulnerable people. L.A. County's vaccination priorities align closely with those of a federal advisory panel.

If supplies are limited during the first phase of vaccination, the state has laid out these tiers to guide who should get vaccinated first:

Tier 1

  • Acute care, psychiatric and correctional facility hospitals
  • Skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, and similar settings for older and medically vulnerable people
  • Paramedics, EMTs and others providing emergency medical services
  • Dialysis centers

Tier 2

  • Intermediate care facilities
  • Home health care & in-home supportive services
  • Community health workers
  • Public health field staff
  • Primary Care clinics, including Federally Qualified Health Centers, Rural Health Centers, correctional facility clinics and urgent care clinics

Tier 3: Other settings and health care workers, including:

  • Specialty clinics
  • Laboratory workers
  • Dental/oral health clinics
  • Pharmacy staff not working in settings at higher tiers

The state has laid out more granular guidelines for dealing with a shortage of doses in a tier, a category of facility, or at a particular facility.

Who Comes Next?

The CDC has indicated that the next category of people in line will be "essential workers." There's a lot of jockeying to be considered essential, but it would most likely include people who work in food preparation and service, law enforcement, emergency response, education, transportation, and manufacturing and corrections, among others. The next two groups the CDC has mentioned are people at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness due to an underlying medical condition, and people 65 and older.

Government officials have estimated that it will be late spring or early summer before they are 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.

Are There People Who Shouldn't Get The Pfizer Vaccine?

Yes. You should not get this vaccine if you had a severe allergic reaction to any ingredient in the vaccine (you can find a list of the ingredients here), or if you had a severe allergic reaction after a previous dose of this vaccine. In addition, 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

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

No! While the Pfizer vaccine has been determined to be highly effective in preventing coronavirus infection, the CDC says scientists don't have enough data yet to say with certainty that it prevents transmission.

My Mom Is In A Nursing Home In L.A. County. How Will She Get Vaccinated?

Los Angeles County public health officials have decided that the county's 385 nursing homes will administer vaccines directly to residents and staff, rather than relying on a federal program that puts CVS, Walgreens, and other pharmacies in charge.

The county has also decided to have nursing homes use the Moderna vaccine, on the assumption that it will receive emergency use authorization from the FDA as early as this week. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine doesn't require extremely cold storage.

Once it's authorized, the Moderna vaccine will be shipped directly to county nursing homes. County Public Health Department Director Barbara Ferrer said she hopes to have Moderna vaccinations begin as early as Dec. 21.

This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio.

© 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.

This article was written and edited by the Tayo editorial desk and has been reviewed by an independent panel of subject matter experts.

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