The data is in, and Covid-19 vaccines are working. They’ve been injected into tons of people around the world beyond the initial trials and have been found to be safe and effective. The three vaccines available use unique technologies to stimulate an immune response in your body, but none of them involve injecting a live virus into your arm. In short, they cannot get you sick with Covid-19.
Vaccines, along with social distancing, masks, and smart policy decisions regarding reopening businesses, will be our ticket out of this hellish mass experience. But getting a vaccine is tricky, and how to do it varies widely depending on where you live.
States, territories, and our one state-like district (DC) all have wide latitude to set their own Covid-19 policies and procedures. Advice and paths to a Covid-19 vaccine are going to differ based on which part of the US you live in, but we’ve put together a guide that should give you an accurate overview of how to get the jab.
Updated April 30: We added details on the resumption of administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and new rules on expanded eligibility. We also added a section on what to do (and not do) with your vaccination card.
All adult Americans, regardless of age or preexisting health conditions, are now able to sign up for a vaccination appointment. President Biden has also said that 90 percent of people in the US will have a vaccine site within 5 miles of where they live. At the moment, only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is authorized in the US for use with 16- and 17-year-olds.
There’s no federal or nationally centralized list onto which you sign up for a vaccine. Each state, territory, and freely associated state has sign-up information available on respective health department websites.
Some health department sites are more helpful than others, offering telephone hotlines, statewide sign-up lists, and eligibility checkers that will say whether you can get a vaccine yet if you answer a few questions about your age, gender, profession, and health conditions. Other states merely direct you to a list of vaccination providers to call yourself.
Doctor’s offices, hospitals, and urgent care centersLocal community health centersState and local health departments. Find yours on Vaccine Finder or the CDC’s list of links. Vaccination sites run the gamut: They could be MLB and NFL stadiums, mobile clinics, convention centers, or cities’ public health clinics.CVS, Walgreens, Costco, Walmart, Rite Aid, Kroger, Publix, Safeway, Albertsons, Winn-Dixie, Hy-Vee, Texas-based H-E-B, and other pharmacies, retail stores, and grocers may offer vaccinations via their own websites and processes. They will also receive more doses. Target has begun offering vaccinations in partnership with its in-store CVS locations.
Many vaccination sites work by appointment. If there are sites that will send you texts or emails when appointments are available, sign up for one or more of them.
As of yet, states don’t have completely centralized appointment websites. Each state is a mashup of several appointment scheduling websites, both government-run and private. You have to check all of them to maximize your chances of finding an appointment. Private companies, such as pharmacies and grocery stores, use their own independent scheduling websites, with close to zero exceptions.
A government-provided vaccination site, such as a community health center or public health department, might be the safest option if you’re worried about surprise medical bills or don’t want to reveal your citizenship or immigration status. They tend to be free, too. In our research for this article, we found that many say they don’t ask for health insurance information or immigration status on their websites. Check with your local facilities to make sure.
Most states also run mobile vaccination units, a broad catch-all term for pop-up tents, buses, and trailers that are regularly driven to different locations. They typically show up in areas where residents have limited ability to go to a vaccination site, such as low-income neighborhoods, nursing homes, and rural areas.
While a state or city’s website for government facilities might only drop new appointment openings on certain days or at certain times, private companies operating in those states aren’t held to the same schedule. Each company seems to have a different time at which they drop new appointments, so openings are scattered across the day.
Most of the following information is anecdotal, although this anecdotal evidence has been getting stronger recently as people across the country, and even some trade groups, post their experiences of having luck at particular times.
CVS, for example, seems to prefer adding more appointments between 1 am to 5 am local time after many people have gone to bed and site traffic lessens.Walgreens seems to drop openings around 5 am local time.For most states that Safeway and Albertsons operate in, their appointment scheduling website is updated in 30-minute intervals throughout the day, although new openings aren’t necessarily released at each update. For Pacific Northwestern states, they drop appointments every Thursday at 5 pm local time.
For private company websites, keep searching throughout the day for the occasional openings that may become available, but make an effort very late or very early, as companies seem to be favoring times between midnight and sunrise.
Showing up without a preregistered appointment is increasingly being allowed, particularly at government-run vaccination sites. With every state having its own rapidly changing rules, and each private company running its own scheduling, double-check everything before you show up to attempt a walk-in.
Vaccines are typically covered by your health insurance, but it pays to check with your insurance provider and the office before you commit to an appointment. Surprise bills are a problem in this country.
Private practices and retail locations, such as pharmacies, usually require you to bring an ID and health insurance card and may ask for the name of your primary care physician. Vaccination sites run by government services, such as at community health centers and public health departments, don’t typically ask for health insurance info, but you may need proof of state residency. Depending on your state, it may be possible to use school records, samples of mail addressed to you, or a statement from another person as a substitute for a government-issued ID. But be sure to check with the specific vaccination site you’ve decided upon.
In the United States, the three vaccines available to the public right now via emergency authorization by the FDA are from Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson Janssen. The mechanisms by which they work differ, and two require second doses at different times.
Moderna: Requires two doses. The second shot should be given four weeks after the first (six weeks maximum).Pfizer-BioNTech: Requires two doses. The second shot should be given three weeks after the first (six weeks maximum).Johnson & Johnson Janssen: Requires one dose. There’s no need for a second shot.
In its clinical trial, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had a lower overall efficacy than the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, but all three are great at preventing severe cases of Covid-19 that would lead to hospitalization or death.
On April 25, the US resumed administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after pausing it on April 13 to investigate a possible link between it and a rare type of blood clot that can appear within two weeks of being given the shot. There have been half a dozen or so reported cases out of the 7 million doses administered in the US.
Protection isn’t immediate after a shot. It takes about two weeks after the Moderna’s and Pfizer-BioNTech’s second shot and two weeks after the single Johnson & Johnson shot for your body’s immune system to reach its maximum strength against the virus. Johnson & Johnson is currently testing a two-dose version of its vaccine, but the findings aren’t ready yet, and so it’s only being given as a one-dose shot at this time.
The CDC also offers advice on what to expect at your vaccination appointment. You may get asked if you’ve been exposed to Covid-19 or shown any symptoms lately, and the facility should ask you to sit and wait for a period of 15 minutes after getting your vaccine to ensure you don’t have a severe reaction, or 30 minutes if you’ve had a reaction to a vaccine or injection before. You should also be given a card that tells you the vaccine you got and the date (keep it).
After your vaccination, you can sign up for V-safe, the CDC’s Health Checker website. It will send you phone notifications to fill out an easy survey in the days and weeks after getting your vaccine, asking about any symptoms you’ve experienced and notifying you when you should get your second dose.
A few warnings: Don’t get any other vaccinations in the 14 days before or after your Covid-19 vaccination. Don’t preemptively take new medications before vaccination, even over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen, or stop taking your normal medications before your appointment; talk to a doctor before the appointment and tell them what you’re on, though. They may have some advice for you.
As the day draws to a close, vaccination sites are sometimes left with extra vaccines that will go to waste at day’s end. Due to the specific precautions taken to keep vaccines fresh and usable before they expire, if people don’t show up for appointments, the facility may prepare more doses than it ends up needing.
Even if you are having trouble getting an appointment in your area, you can show up and ask a provider for one of the leftover doses. Few providers advertise these extra doses because they don’t want a stampede of people showing up for a small number of available extra doses, but they’d rather stick ’em into whoever shows up than throw unused vaccines in the trash.
Check if your local or state health department offers a standby list for extra vaccinations. Not all health departments are compiling standby lists. Retail stores are also places to check. If you call the pharmacy of some Walmart locations, it may have an organized standby list system to notify you if vaccines become available at the end of the day.
The Dr. B standby list is another option. It alerts you to leftover vaccines. You provide your phone number, name, zip code, date of birth, and email address. If a leftover vaccine becomes available near you, it’ll send you a text. You’ll then have 15 minutes to confirm whether you can make the appointment, which is typically within two hours. It’s not a guarantee of getting a vaccine—there are still people ahead of you on the website—but it takes some of the guesswork out of finding one.
Save your vaccination card. Before you leave your first vaccination appointment, they’ll hand you a card with your name, date of birth, vaccination site, date, time, brand of vaccine, and details on the production batch of vaccine you received. You need to bring this card with you when you return for your second dose, if you are getting a two-dose Moderna or Pfizer shot.
Keep it safe, but don’t laminate it yet. They’ll need to write the details of the second dosage on that card when you return, and they can’t do that if you coat it in plastic. Stick it in a Zip-Loc if you’re worried about keeping it safe, and put it somewhere you know you’ll be able to find it in three or four weeks when you’re due for your second dose. If you lose your card, you can go back to the site and get another one printed off. But don’t lose it. Take a picture of it so that you have the information as a backup, just in case.
Keep your card after your second dose, too. Authorities are still sketching out the details, but depending on where you live and where you’ll travel, you may need to use it as proof of vaccination to go certain places and do certain things. It’s an important document you’re going to need for the near-future. After your final dose, feel free to laminate it to make it a little more durable.
There are some side effects to the vaccines, but allergic reactions are rare. If you’ve had allergic reactions to vaccines before, tell the person giving the vaccination as soon as you arrive. They’ll probably ask you to hang around for a little while after the shot, just to make sure.
Even if you’ve already had Covid-19, your antibodies won’t last forever. You should still get vaccinated when you can. I was a healthy guy who hit the gym regularly and had no existing health conditions, but Covid knocked me flat on my ass for five weeks last year. (I was only 31.)
Here’s a list of vaccine myths and facts that slaps down the persistent lies floating around social media and conspiracy websites. For example, the vaccines will not alter your DNA or make it unsafe for you to have a baby.
Even after you are fully vaccinated, keep wearing a mask in public (or get one). Studies are ongoing, but scientists are still trying to determine whether vaccinated people can catch mild or undetected forms of Covid-19 and spread them to others. Masking up keeps everybody—even you—safer.
Finally, if there are folks in your life who might need help getting vaccinated, share the knowledge and give them a hand. Every vaccination makes us all a little bit safer.
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