When can I get a COVID-19 vaccine? Is it safe? Experts answer top questions

·8 min read

Late Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory committee granted emergency use authorization to Pfizer to distribute its COVID-19 vaccine nationwide but many Americans still have concerns and questions.

While much is still unknown about how quickly the vaccine can effectively be distributed, many experts have shared advice for Americans about what to expect in the coming months. Here is what you need to know now.

When can I get a COVID-19 vaccine?

The goal of Operation Warp Speed is to produce and deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective vaccines, with initial doses available by Jan. 2021. These first doses (enough for 20 million people), could be distributed as early as mid-to-late December, and will be prioritized for health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. The FDA reviewed data on two leading vaccine candidates, made by Pfizer and Moderna.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel, because we will really be seeing vaccines soon. Likely, almost certainly, are going to be vaccinating a portion of the individuals in the first priority before the end of December," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on "Meet The Press" recently. "Then as we get into January, February, March, more and more (people).”

When will the vaccine be available for the general population?

It's merely speculation at this point, but many experts have suggested vaccines could be available in late spring, early summer. In September, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield supported that idea.

“If you’re asking me when is it going to be generally available to the American public so we can begin to take advantage of the vaccine to get back to our regular life, I think we’re probably looking at third ... late second quarter, third quarter 2021,” he told a senate subcommittee.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?

NBC News medical correspondent Dr. Kavita Patel shared her view about the safety of Pfizer's vaccine on Weekend TODAY Saturday. "Here's why I feel it's safe. It's really because of the transparency around the data. The shortcut, so to speak, really, in terms of time, was not from safety. It was from combining and running Phases 1 and 2 essentially in parallel, where normally they would be contiguous," she said.

"Phase 3, the most important, because it had up to 44,000 people enrolled across the world in this trial, was not shortcut and the FDA was really clear that they wanted to see follow-on data and incredibly detailed statistics which were fully produced in the New England Journal of Medicinem as well as the FDA's advisory packet," she continued.

Former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama vowed to take the COVID-19 vaccine on camera when it's available to them, to ensure the public that they believe in its safety and trust the science.

Fauci has said the same thing, and has routinely stressed his confidence in the approval process.

"... The FDA of the United States is the gold standard for regulatory (approvals) looking at things like drugs and devices and vaccines, there's no question about that," Fauci said on TODAY recently. Fauci explained that more than 90% of adverse events related to new vaccines occur between 30 and 45 days of taking them, which has been factored into the testing process for their approval.

A portion of Americans remain hesitant about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, though it seems that confidence is rising. In the latest Gallup poll, 58% of Americans say they would get a vaccine, which is up from 50% in September.

How many shots is the vaccine?

According to the CDC, all but one of the COVID-19 vaccines currently in large-scale clinical trials in the U.S. need two shots to be effective. Pfizer's vaccine requires two doses, with the second booster shot administered 28 days after the first injection.


I had COVID-19. Should I get vaccinated?

"The answer is very likely yes," said Fauci. "... Since we don't know the durability of protection from someone who has already been infected, how long that protection lasts, it would not be surprising that we would be vaccinating people who have recovered from COVID-19."

What are the COVID-19 side effects?

"The side effects have been minor ... Injection site soreness, or redness in the arm, maybe a little lump where you get the shot, fatigue, headaches. Those are the ones the majority of people had, some people complained of muscle aches. But everyone said it went away within a day and a half," NBC News senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres explained on TODAY.

A Kaiser Health News story reported that scientists anticipate that the shots (specifically the vaccine produced by Pfizer) will cause flu-like side effects — including sore arms, muscle aches and fever — that could last days.

Will kids be able to get a vaccine?

As of late fall, Pfizer had enrolled a portion of kids between the ages of 12 and 17, but it is too soon to know the results of the immune response and safety in kids.

Torres said on Weekend TODAY, "That's the big question. Right now, the emergency use authorization: 16 years old and above. They're studying 12-17 year olds — Pfizer is. Moderna is going to start studying them as well. Until we get more information on this, they won't start really studying the 0-4 year olds at this point.

"What they're trying to do is schoolkids, get the shot to them this summer so when they go back to school, they're protected. It's going to be a little bit longer for those 1-4 year olds though."

Fauci recently said that a new round of trials in pediatric populations will "very likely" begin in January, but it could still be "months" until it's available for children. In late October, Dr. Robert Frenck, director of the Vaccine Research Center at trial site Cincinnati Children's, told TODAY there was a "good chance" that a vaccine would be available "at least for kids 12 years of age and above" by the start of the 2021 school year.

Will pregnant people be able to get a vaccine?

Pregnant people have been excluded from large-scale clinical trials, so when vaccines do become available for the general population, there will not be sufficient data to support a formal recommendation for pregnant women to become vaccinated. Yet experts stressed to TODAY the need for pregnant people to be provided the opportunity to be vaccinated, as the pregnant population faces more severe outcomes of COVID-19.

How does the COVID-19 vaccine work?

To date, there are three main types of COVID-19 vaccines that are in large-scale clinical trials. The two leading vaccine candidates, Pfizer and Moderna, use messenger RNA, or mRNA, to trigger the immune system to produce protective antibodies without using actual bits of the virus, NBC News reported. If these vaccines are approved, they'll be the first-ever vaccines to use mRNA.


The others are either protein subunit or vector vaccines, the CDC details how they work here. It's important to note that none of these types of vaccines can give you the coronavirus.

Will the vaccine be mandatory?

Most likely no. “You don't want to mandate and try and force anyone to take the vaccine. We've never done that. You can mandate for certain groups of people like health workers, but for the general population you cannot,” Fauci said in August.

“We don't want to be mandating from the federal government to the general population. It would be unenforceable and not appropriate.”

Though there are ways the government could encourage vaccination by imposing it as a condition of getting a passport, for example. Could your employer mandate it? Read more about what the law says here.

How much will the vaccine cost?

Operation Warp Speed is committed to providing free or low-cost COVID-19 countermeasures to the American people as fast as possible. Any vaccine or therapeutic doses purchased with U.S. taxpayer dollars will be given to the American people at no cost, the government site for the initiative states.

There may be a fee associated with administering the vaccine, NBC News consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen explained on TODAY.

How will the vaccine be distributed?

The federal government will oversee distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The CDC is working with state, tribal, territorial and local jurisdictions on vaccination plans for their areas. They are also working with chain pharmacies like CVS Health.

The CVS Health CEO appeared on TODAY this week to comment about vaccine distribution at CVS locations across the country.

"What we're doing is, we're going to use our digital interface to make it simple, easy and seamless for our customers," Larry Merlo told Sheinelle Jones. "They'll go to the CVS pharmacy app and they'll actually be able to schedule a COVID vaccine appointment."

Will I need to get a COVID-19 vaccine every year?

Torres explained, "We think it's going to last a few years. It's not going to be like the flu shot at least initially but researchers have to look at it. They have to follow people who got the shot. They have to follow the virus to make sure it hasn't changed. But so far, since the beginning, the virus has not changed that much, which means researchers think it can last a few years, hopefully even longer."

Until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available, the best thing to do is to continue to follow mitigation methods that are proven to work like mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing.