When Can I Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Table of Contents:

  1. When Can I Get Vaccinated?
  2. Rolling Out the Vaccine
  3. Getting Vaccinated
  4. After You’ve Been Vaccinated

COVID-19 vaccines have arrived and with them comes hope that 2021 will be the year we beat the virus and return to lives of relative normalcy. So far, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use in the United States: one developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and the other by Moderna. The federal government has purchased 100 million doses of the former (enough to vaccinate 50 million people) and 200 million doses of the latter (enough to vaccinate 100 million people).

Three additional vaccines — from NovaVox, Janssen, and AstraZeneca — have reached Phase 3 trials in the US. AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been approved by regulators in the United Kingdom and the first doses were administered on January 4th.

On New Year’s Eve, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it has approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine for emergency use across the globe. CNN notes that this is major news for developing countries without strong regulatory bodies or the means to quickly and safely assess vaccines on their own. The decision should also help address concerns about lopsided vaccine availability. An Emergency Use Listing (EUL), WHO’s statement reads, “enables UNICEF and the Pan-American Health Organization to procure the vaccine for distribution to countries in need.”

When Can I Get Vaccinated?

America’s current crop of COVID-19 vaccine doses is limited. While supplies are expected to increase in the near future, the vaccine is currently being distributed in a series of phases based on recommendations from the CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP).

The phases are designed to achieve these three goals as effectively as possible:

  • Reduce serious illness and death
  • Reduce disruption to society as a whole
  • Reduce the additional burden COVID-19 places on the vulnerable

So far, the CDC has broken the populace into three high-priority groups, representing just one phase of vaccinations. They plan to publish additional guidance as more Americans are vaccinated and supply levels shift throughout the coming weeks and months.

Phase 1a

The CDC revealed its Phase 1a recommendations on December 3rd:

Healthcare personnel: Healthcare personnel face an elevated risk of exposure to COVID-19 and play a crucial role in combating it. When the CDC first made this recommendation, the virus had already infected nearly 250,000 of these essential workers. Prioritizing healthcare personnel will have the added benefit of ensuring healthcare facilities are capable of maintaining operations throughout the ongoing public health emergency. After all, there are no healthcare facilities without healthcare personnel.

Residents of long-term care facilities: All Americans — particularly seniors — are at risk of contracting COVID-19 and suffering potentially deadly side effects. Perhaps no population lives with more daily risks than residents of long-term care facilities. Due in large part to their advanced age, high rate of pre-existing conditions, and communal living spaces, this group has represented an outsized portion of the country’s total death toll. These facilities had already seen 100,000 deaths by December, accounting for around 40% of nationwide fatalities.

Phase 1b

On December 22nd, the CDC offered guidance for the next two round of vaccinations:

Frontline essential workers: While millions of Americans tried out remote work for the first time this year, millions more didn’t have the same opportunity. For much of the frontline workforce, even an unprecedented public health emergency couldn’t interrupt business as usual. We thanked teachers, postal carriers, transit employees, fire fighters, and other essential workers for their efforts throughout 2020. In 2021, the CDC suggests offering this more substantive thank you.


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People aged 75 years and older: Generally speaking, the older a person is the greater their risk of COVID-19 infection, serious symptoms, and death. What’s more, social distancing requirements have forced many American seniors to contend with loneliness and a decreased standard of living — particularly those living alone. For seniors, early vaccinations could mean a return to all the things that make retirement worth waiting and saving for in 2021.

Phase 1c

People between the ages of 65 and 75: Taking their elevated risk into account, the CDC recommends prioritizing this group of seniors.

People between the ages of 16 and 65 with pre-existing conditions: Numerous medical conditions can increase a person’s likelihood of suffering a severe or deadly COVID-19 infection. Per CDC guidelines, people with pre-existing conditions, including asthma, coronary artery disease, and cystic fibrosis, should be next in line after seniors.
Other essential workers: The CDC lists professionals in sectors including food service, energy, and law among this group.

Just Recommendations?

While these phases are simply intended to guide the actions of state and local health officials, they appear to have set a nationwide standard. Philadelphia is just one major city whose leaders have opted to largely follow the CDC’s lead. Dr. Tom Farley, the city’s Deputy Mayor for Public Health, revealed a six-tiered vaccination plan last month.

Philadelphians can expect vaccinations to be doled out in the following order:

  1. Healthcare professionals who routinely work with COVID-19 patients
  2. Residents and employees of long-term care facilities
  3. “Critical infrastructure workers” who are regularly exposed to the virus
  4. Residents and employees of other congregant living spaces like homeless shelters
  5. People with pre-existing medical conditions
  6. The remaining population

Rolling Out the Vaccine

Federal officials had hoped to vaccinate around 20 million people by the end of December. As of January 21st, the New York Times reports that just over 15 million Americans have received shots. Additional reporting confirms that the vaccine rollouts have not only been slower than anticipated, but disorganized altogether. From coast to coast, seniors remain uncertain if, when, and how they can get vaccinated — or even book an appointment to do so. In Washington D.C., for example, the very-small print on an online COVID-19 questionnaire left residents of all ages confused as to who was eligible to receive vaccinations.

Check out these resources from the American Association of Retired Persons to learn more about your state’s distribution plan and local options for obtaining the vaccine.

Getting Vaccinated

As noted above, the exact process for getting vaccinated will depend on where you live and where you sit within the phase structure. Your age, underlying conditions, and daily risk of infection will all play a role in determining when you’ll be eligible for treatment.

On the day of your appointment, remember to follow all instructions carefully and adhere to relevant health guidelines. These may vary based on local regulations, but expect to wear a mask and stand a safe six feet apart from anyone else who’s waiting to be vaccinated. Before administering your first dose, your doctor will provide a fact sheet (or electronic fact sheet) detailing the benefits and risks of vaccination, as well as any potential side effects you may experience. Next, you’ll schedule an appointment for your second dose in several weeks. Different COVID-19 vaccines require different waiting periods and your doctor will offer the necessary information to get your final dose on the calendar.

After You’ve Been Vaccinated

These vaccines could represent a light at the end of the tunnel, but remember that there’s still a lot of tunnel ahead of us. Even after you’ve received both doses of your COVID-19 vaccination, you still have a role to play in mitigating its spread and getting the country back on track.

It’s not yet clear whether or not vaccinated individuals can spread infection or how long COVID-19 immunity will last. For this reason, the CDC and other public health organizations encourage everyone to continue following their guidelines for cleanliness and respiratory hygiene while adhering to all social distancing regulations.