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What to expect after the coronavirus vaccine: Q&A with a pharmacist
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What to expect after the coronavirus vaccine: Q&A with a pharmacist

Who can get the coronavirus vaccine? | What to expect after vaccination | Do I really need two doses? | Infection after vaccination | Face masks and social distancing | Travel restrictions | Seeing family and friends

Since the COVID-19 virus began spreading in the U.S., health experts have stressed the importance of a vaccine for COVID-19. Clinical trials were fast-tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and there are now two vaccines available in the States: the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. While this is a great step forward in stopping the spread of the pandemic, does it mean you can go mask-less and re-join social gatherings once you’re vaccinated? Not quite. Here’s what you need to know about getting vaccinated.

Who can get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Aside from rolling up your sleeve to get the shot, there isn’t much you need to do prior to getting the COVID-19 vaccine—besides avoiding over-the-counter pain relievers just before getting vaccinated. There’s some evidence that Tylenol or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (like ibuprofen) can decrease the efficacy of the shot. However, if you take these regularly, check with your doctor before skipping.

However, you will need to make sure you’re able to get the vaccine. There are several phases to the vaccine being distributed. While the CDC outlined recommendations for distribution, exact details vary based on your state, county, and local supply. Once you see what phase you are in, check your state health department and/or local pharmacies for vaccine availability.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot help you get the vaccine. This organization is only responsible for approving the drug, not distribution. If you receive an email from someone who says they are from the FDA about a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, it is a scam.

Even if you already had COVID-19, you should still receive the coronavirus vaccination. The CDC recommends it as reinfection is possible. However, if you were treated with monoclonal antibodies such as bamlanivimab, or convalescent plasma, you will need to wait 90 days before getting the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Similarly, if you have had any other vaccine (such as the flu shot or shingles vaccine), you will need to wait 14 or more days before getting the COVID-19 vaccine. And following your COVID-19 vaccine, you’ll need to wait 14 days or more to get other vaccines.

Your doctor can help you determine when it’s safe to get the COVID-19 vaccine. As research is ongoing about the coronavirus vaccines, these recommendations may change. 

What can I expect after getting vaccinated?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), side effects from both the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are generally mild and include:

  • Injection site reactions like pain, redness, or swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle ache
  • Joint pain

More people experience side effects after the second dose of the vaccine. You can sign up for the CDC’s V-Safe After Vaccination Health Checker program, where you can use your mobile phone to check in and report side effects.

Depending on your medical history, you will be observed for at least 15 to 30 minutes after receiving your vaccine. When you get home, plan to get some rest and drink plenty of fluids. Apply a cool compress if your arm is sore. Talk to your healthcare provider before taking any pain medication.

You will receive a vaccination card that contains information about the vaccine, such as the lot number and expiration date. Bring the card back for your second dose, and the completed card will serve as a record of your coronavirus vaccine. 

Do I need the second shot?

Even if you do experience side effects, you should still get the second shot—unless you had a very rare, serious allergic reaction to the first COVID-19 vaccine and your healthcare provider advises you not to. The second shot is required to ensure you have the most protection against COVID-19.

Schedule your second vaccination immediately, so you will be sure to complete the two-dose series on time. If you receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, you will get the next dose in approximately 21 days. If you receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, the next dose will be in about 28 days. You cannot get your second dose across manufacturers. Meaning, if your first dose is the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, you cannot get Moderna for the second shot, and vice versa.

Can I still get COVID-19 after being vaccinated?

According to the CDC, the vaccine cannot give you the coronavirus. While traditional vaccines use inactivated viruses, these two COVID-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines. They work by teaching our cells to make a protein—called a spike protein—and build an immune response to the coronavirus.

However, some people do get COVID-19 after the vaccine, but this is not because of the vaccine. This is because these people may have caught the virus right before or after vaccination. It takes a few weeks for the body to build immunity against coronavirus, so if you get infected before the vaccine has a chance to “kick in,” you can still get sick. 

Do I still need to wear a face mask after getting the vaccine? Do I need to social-distance after being vaccinated?

After getting the vaccine, it’s just as essential to continue to mask up, keep your distance, avoid crowds, sanitize frequently, and disinfect surfaces. Although the vaccines are quite effective (about 95%) after the second dose (about seven days after the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, and 14 days after the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine), there is still a small chance you can get infected. There is also still not enough information about transmission and herd immunity, so it is best to do our part to try to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Am I exempt from quarantine orders when traveling after I get vaccinated? Do I need to quarantine if I’ve been exposed after getting the vaccine?

With new mutations of the coronavirus, there is still a lot that is unknown and changing. It’s a good idea to check the CDC’s website on travel recommendations by destination. Because the risk of travel is still very high, the CDC recommends delaying travel and staying home.

If you do travel, check the CDC recommendations for quarantine based on where you’ve traveled and follow local guidelines.

When can I see friends and family who have been vaccinated?

After many long months of missing your friends and family, it’s understandable you’d want to gather again after your (and/or their) coronavirus vaccine. Unfortunately, it’s still not safe to reschedule that big party you canceled a year ago. The vaccines are about 95% effective, but researchers are still studying whether vaccinated people can continue to spread COVID-19. Until we know more, it’s best—for yourself and others—to stay safe and avoid gatherings.

As we approach spring, we can keep our hopes up for less illness with COVID-19. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently speculated that we could approach herd immunity by the end of the summer and “normality that is close to where we were before” by the end of 2021.