The COVID-19 Vaccines: FAQs

Table of Contents:

  1. How Do Vaccines Work?
  2. Are More Vaccines in Development?
  3. Have There Been Any Side Effects to the COVID-19 Vaccines?
  4. Will Medicare Cover the COVID-19 Vaccines?
  5. What Is Emergency Use Authorization?
  6. When Can I Get Vaccinated?
  7. Do I Still Need to Wear a Mask After Getting Vaccinated?
  8. Where Can I Find More Information About the COVID-19 Vaccines?

An unprecedented public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated an unprecedented response. Fortunately, that’s what we’ve seen from researchers around the globe. Their tireless efforts to create vaccines against COVID-19 have commanded the world’s attention since the virus reached pandemic status last year. Now, all that effort looks to have paid off.

In December, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved vaccines from both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for emergency distribution throughout the United States. As of January 4th, around 4.5 million citizens have been vaccinated.

Given all the confusion we’ve seen over the last year, it’s no surprise that many Americans have questions about these vaccines, their approval and distribution processes, and what they could mean for the future of the pandemic.

Here are answers to frequently asked questions about the COVID-19 vaccine:

How Do Vaccines Work?

Vaccines work by activating the immune system, the human body’s natural defenses against infection and illness. The most common confront the immune system with a weakened or incomplete version of a pathogen. These viruses, bacterium, and other toxins are typically no match for the body in their diminished states. The immune system quickly learns how to combat them and builds up a resistance against future infection. Some vaccines — including all of those approved to treat COVID-19 — require multiple doses for maximum effectiveness.

Distributed widely, vaccines can do much more than support individual immune systems. When enough of a population is vaccinated against an illness, it can become nearly impossible for an outbreak to occur. After enough time has passed without an outbreak, experts may rule that the disease has been effectively eradicated altogether. The phenomenon is known as herd immunity and it’s one of the reasons many vaccinations are required for all individuals who can safely receive them.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has suggested that 75-80% of Americans will need to get vaccinated in order for the country to reach a state of herd immunity. He has optimistically remarked that this may be achieved by the end of summer 2021.

Are More Vaccines in Development?

Yes, numerous teams across the globe are at work developing more COVID-19 vaccines. Vaccines from AstraZeneca, NovaVox, and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen have all reached Phase 3 clinical trials in the U.S. and AstraZeneca’s vaccine is already being administered in the United Kingdom.

Have There Been Any Side Effects to the COVID-19 Vaccines?

Mild side effects are normal after a vaccination. Typically, they’re a sign that the immune system is beginning to do its job and they’ll go away within a matter of days. The trials for both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines identified potential adverse reactions including:

  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Pain and/or swelling at the injection site

If swelling continues for more than 24 hours or flu-like symptoms persist for multiple days, contact your doctor.

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Will Medicare Cover the COVID-19 Vaccines?

Nearly all Medicare beneficiaries face an elevated risk of contracting COVID-19 and experiencing severe reactions. As a result, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has taken steps to mitigate the financial impact of a diagnosis and ensure seniors have access to a suitable level of care. One update included making it easier to get tested for COVID-19. Prior to an April 30th ruling, beneficiaries could only get tested for free with a referral from their primary care physician. Now, both Original Medicare and Medicare Advantage enrollees can more easily access testing centers in their communities. They have also been exempt from any cost-sharing requirements associated with COVID-19 diagnoses.

The vaccine and related costs are covered as well. Back in the pandemic’s early days, the passage of the CARES Act ensured that all future vaccines receiving full FDA approval would be available to Medicare beneficiaries free of charge. CMS later went a step further by announcing that Medicare would expand to cover any vaccines approved through the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) process.

What Is Emergency Use Authorization?

In the event of a public health emergency, issuing an EUA makes it quicker and easier to produce medicine and make it widely available. When Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar first announced that COVID-19 had evolved into a national emergency, he opened the possibility of EUAs on new and existing drugs.

An emergency alone — even one as bad as COVID-19 — is not enough to justify issuing an EUA. The FDA would never want to expose the public to untested drugs, least of all during a global health crisis. One important requirement is that there are no suitable, available alternatives for the drug being authorized. The struggles of taking on an unfamiliar virus have resulted in several EUAs in addition to those for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Last year, promising trials encouraged the FDA to authorize the use of well-known drugs including remdesivir (an anti-malarial medication) to treat certain COVID-19 patients.

While the FDA has rigorously assessed the safety and efficacy of the available vaccines, they haven’t offered their official seal of approval. They’ve merely authorized its use until the national emergency has ended. The final approval process will take more time, but the FDA fully expects the various pharmaceutical industry titans to continue collecting data, conducting trials, and working to save lives.

When Can I Get Vaccinated?

As of the first week of 2021, the United States has only 100 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine and 200 million doses of Moderna’s. Both vaccines are administered in two doses several weeks apart. America’s supply of both vaccines is expected to grow over the coming weeks and months, but the current scarcity has demanded a phased rollout plan. Throughout December, the CDC offered recommendations for prioritizing vaccine distribution in such a way as to serve the highest-risk populations first and best keep society functioning.

Phase 1 of the CDC’s plan prioritizes the following groups, in this order:

  • Phase 1a: Healthcare personnel and residents of long-term care facilities
  • Phase 1b: Frontline essential workers and people aged 75 and older
  • Phase 1c: People between the ages of 65 and 75, people between the ages of 16 and 65 with pre-existing conditions, and other essential workers

Both the availability of the vaccine and your place in line will also depend on where you live. While states and cities are generally adhering to CDC’s recommendations, the specifics may vary. These AARP resources can help you learn when and how you can get vaccinated.

Do I Still Need to Wear a Mask After Getting Vaccinated?

Yes, for now. The vaccines being distributed throughout the U.S. are confirmed to protect against COVID-19, but other questions remain unanswered. Notably, experts do not know whether an immunized person can still spread the virus or how long their immunity will last. Answers should be coming in the coming weeks, but it’s best to continue following health and safety guidelines even after you’ve received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Where Can I Find More Information About the COVID-19 Vaccines?

The CDC has published a comprehensive guide to the COVID-19 vaccines, addressing everything from their approval process to the ongoing rollout. Similar resources from organizations including the FDA may also provide useful information and answers to burning questions.

Don’t forget to visit Senior Life Advisor as well. As health officials continue to develop, deliver, and administer COVID-19 vaccines, we’ll continue to update you on the evolving situation.