What You Need to Know about the COVID-19 Vaccines

Information from the National Council on Aging (NCOA)

Senior woman getting a vaccine

[Editor's note: this article was created before the approval of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The new vaccine has now been approved; click here to find information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about this third type of vaccine.]

The past year has been historic for many reasons, including the development and launch of COVID-19 vaccines. Importantly, older adults and individuals from diverse backgrounds have been considered at every step during the research and development process. Here are common questions and answers about the COVID-19 vaccines.

What vaccines are currently available?

Two COVID-19 vaccines have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Results from large-scale clinical trials from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna showed 94-95% effectiveness in preventing illness. These results are remarkable and much better than expected. We can be assured the vaccines are effective, but experts are still reviewing how long they will last.

How are the vaccines similar and different?

Both vaccines use novel mRNA vaccine technology to give our cells instructions on how to make a harmless protein that is unique to the coronavirus. Our cells make copies of that protein, which our bodies recognize as foreign, prompting an immune response. This immunity then fights the virus that causes COVID-19 if we are infected.

Both vaccines require two shots or doses. Neither includes live virus. This vaccine technology is new, but it has been rigorously studied for decades and the research was used to speed vaccine development.

One difference is that the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine requires very cold temperatures of -94° F. Moderna's vaccine requires storage at regular freezer temperatures. Depending on where you live, the Moderna vaccine may be the only option available.

Why are two shots needed?

The first dose readies your immune system to respond. It provides some protection from the coronavirus within a couple of weeks. The second dose is the booster that provides optimal protection against the virus. The FDA approved the vaccines using the two-dose regimen.

The second dose of Pfizer's vaccine must be administered 21 days after the first shot, and Moderna's second dose is administered 28 days after the first. You should get your second shot as close to the recommended time as possible.

The two vaccines are not interchangeable, so you must remember which one you received first. Vaccine sites are providing cards as a reminder. Bring your card with you when you receive your second dose.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe and are there side effects?

The vaccines were evaluated through the same process as all other vaccines approved by the FDA. Drug companies were required to provide extensive safety data from clinical trials involving tens of thousands of people.

Side effects are normal signs that our bodies are building protection. They may affect your ability to do daily activities, but they should go away in a few days. The most common side effect reported so far is pain and swelling at the injection site or upper arm. Others may include fever, chills, tiredness, and headache.

When you receive your vaccine, you will be required to wait at least 15 minutes to check for an allergic reaction, which is rare but may occur in some people, especially those with a history of anaphylaxis. If you fall into this category, speak with your doctor about the vaccine.

Will I need a vaccine every year?

It's still unclear how long the vaccines will provide protection and whether they will be needed every year like the flu vaccine. For older adults, these questions are very important because as we age, our immune systems weaken. Experts are studying the long-term response to the vaccine.

What will the vaccines cost?

The federal government has announced that the COVID-19 vaccine will be free for people with Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance and for those with no insurance. Vaccine providers can bill insurance companies for the cost, so bring your Medicare or other insurance card with you when you get vaccinated.

Be aware of scams! The federal government has provided the following information:

  • You likely will not need to pay anything out-of-pocket to get the vaccine during this public health emergency.
  • You cannot pay to put your name on a list to get the vaccine.
  • You cannot pay to get early access to the vaccine.
  • You will not be solicited door-to-door to receive the vaccine.
  • No one from Medicare or the health department will contact you.
  • No one from a vaccine distribution site or health care payer, like a private insurance company, will call you asking for your Medicare number, Social Security number, credit card, or bank account information to sign you up for the vaccine.

Where can I get the vaccine?

Vaccines have been distributed across the U.S. since mid-December. In general, state and local health departments are responsible for the rollout. To learn more:

  • Start with your local health department. Many communities are setting up vaccine clinics, including drive-through sites. You may be required to register online and schedule a time. Some communities are also using mobile units to bring the vaccine to hard-to-reach individuals.
  • Talk with your local pharmacist about when they will be giving shots. Some pharmacies have already started. You may have to schedule a time due to high demand. Your pharmacist also can answer your questions.
  • Check with your doctor or hospital, as they are also receiving the vaccine to administer. Your doctor should be aware of vaccine sites in your community. If you receive care through a health clinic or home health, check with them for the latest information.
  • Contact your Area Agency on Aging or senior center. To find yours, contact the Eldercare Locator (1-800-677-1116).
  • If you need assistance getting the vaccine, seek help from family, friends, or neighbors.

Will I still have to wear a mask and take other precautions after I'm vaccinated?

Although the vaccines are more than 94% percent effective at reducing illness, we don't yet know whether they reduce the likelihood of contracting the coronavirus and being an asymptomatic carrier and unknowingly infecting others. It also will take some time to vaccinate most of the population.

That's why it's important to continue following the very important safety precautions issued by the CDC, states, and localities:

  • Wear a face mask at all times in public and when around people not in your household.
  • Keep 6 feet apart from people not in your household.
  • Wash hands frequently.
  • Avoid crowds.

The bottom line…

Getting vaccinated is one of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. For many older adults and those with ongoing conditions like heart disease and diabetes, the vaccine can prevent severe illness or death from the coronavirus.

Vaccination will get us back to normal, something we all want as soon as possible!

Source: Kathleen Cameron, BSPharm, MPH, Senior Director of NCOA's Center for Healthy Aging and Jeremiah McCoy, NCOA's Senior Regulatory Policy Specialist. The National Council on Aging (NCOA) is a respected national leader and trusted partner to help people aged 60+ meet the challenges of aging. The NCOA's mission is to improve the lives of millions of older adults, especially those who are struggling. Through innovative community programs and services, online help, and advocacy, NCOA is partnering with nonprofit organizations, government, and business to improve the health and economic security of 10 million older adults by 2030.