The COVID-19 vaccine basics: Here’s what you need to know

The COVID-19 vaccine basics: Here’s what you need to know

Updated Dec. 3, 10 p.m.

As news about the coming COVID-19 vaccines seems to change every day, it can be hard to keep all of that information straight.  

We asked Dr. Robert Citronberg, Advocate Aurora Health Executive Medical Director of Infectious Disease and Prevention, to help make sense of it all. This article will be updated occasionally as news changes.

Most importantly for now, a COVID-19 vaccine isn’t available yet, and the coronavirus continues to infect thousands of people per day in Illinois and Wisconsin. So for now, it’s important to wear a mask, avoid large gatherings, keep your distance from others, and wash your hands.

What is the COVID-19 vaccine?

A vaccine gives your body immunity to a disease without having to get the disease first. The first COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use will be messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “mRNA vaccines take advantage of the process that cells use to make proteins in order to trigger an immune response and build immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Where will it come from?

There are several clinical trials in progress for COVID-19 vaccines including ones from AstraZeneca, Janssen, Moderna, Novavax, and Pfizer. The Pfizer vaccine is likely the first that will be authorized for FDA emergency use in the United States. Moderna’s is likely to quickly follow, which means people will be able to get vaccinated soon.

“It is right around the corner,” Dr. Citronberg says. “We expect that there may be vaccines available to some people even as soon as ten to 14 days.”

Is it safe?

I think it’s encouraging that none of the companies so far have reported any serious side effects. Every vaccine has side effects. In fact, minor side effects like low grade fever, chills or muscle aches means that your immune system is responding to the vaccine, which is exactly what you want,” explains Dr. Citronberg. “We haven’t seen all the safety data yet but we will likely get more details when the vaccine is approved for use.”

According to the CDC, mRNA vaccines must follow “rigorous and effective safety standards.” The COVID-19 vaccines working towards authorization will meet these standards even though they were created rapidly.

“People have this perception that the safety process was cut short. I don’t think that’s the case. They were able to follow patients for at least two months after getting the vaccine and they determined that no serious side effects had occurred,” says Dr. Citronberg.

How will it work?

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which will likely be the first two released, both require two shots, 3-4 weeks apart depending on which vaccine is given. Both doses are necessary to be fully immunized.

Who will get the shots first?

It’s really important to prioritize for those people who are most likely to get infected,” explains Dr. Citronberg. “Right now, that’s health care workers on the front lines and the staff and residents of long-term care facilities.”

However, this doesn’t mean others won’t be able to get vaccinated as well. Dr. Citronberg says people will need to practice patience. 

“It will take several months with distribution. By next spring, we might even have 4, 5, or 6 different vaccines to choose from,” he says. “It probably won’t be until May or June of next year when everyone in this country who wants a vaccine will be able to get one.”

What can you do if you can’t get a vaccine right away?

It’s important to continue to do what science shows works in reducing the spread of COVID-19: social distance, avoid large gatherings, wash your hands, and wear a mask.  Even if you do receive a vaccine, we strongly recommend you continue all of these safety measures. 

When will things return to “normal”?

“We generally look at the number of about 70% for herd immunity, which is a combination of people who have had the disease and also to get the vaccine,” Dr. Citroberg says. “Hopefully by about next summer we’ll achieve herd immunity. I think the second half of next year looks very promising for starting to be able to relax some of the restrictions that we have in place right now and for life to begin looking like normal again.”

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  1. While people are waiting for the vaccine (if they choose to get it), it’s also important to educate people about strengthening their body and immune system which can be done through nutrition, hydration, supplementation and exercise. The stronger our immune system is and the healthier we are, the more likely we can get through and recover from Covid-19 if we get it. That is something we are not talking about enough. Yes we should distance, mask and wash our hands, but there’s something to be said for being proactive with our health. Our bodies are amazing when we give them more of what they need and less of what they don’t need. I would love to see our organization be more vocal about strengthening our immune system in addition to the other protection measures. I lean towards eating more plant based foods to get the nutrients I need. I avoid processed food. I drink enough water for my body weight. I won’t go a day without probiotics, isotonic vitamin C, isotonic vitamin D and immune/zinc. I get some sort of exercise at least 6 days per week. Wellness works. Let’s promote it along with masking, distancing and hand hygiene. 🙂

  2. This article only addresses basics, as the title states. I really would like more in-depth knowledge of how a mRNA vaccine works.
    How does this vaccination differ from coronavirus flu vaccines currently used? Is it made from coronavirus infected blood or is ut totally synthetic? What does it do to enable the immune system to attack the vaccine? Does it cause any cell changes?
    I hope to take the vaccine as soon as it is approved, but I would like answers beyond what the side effects are.

  3. Will this be a one-time (two doses) vaccine or a yearly one like the flu? Is it necessary to get the vaccine if you have already contracted Covid in the past?

About the Author

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LeeAnn Betz

LeeAnn Betz, health enews contributor, is a media relations manager for Advocate Aurora Health. She is a former TV news executive producer with a background in investigations, consumer news and in-depth storytelling. Outside of work, she enjoys CrossFit, baking, finding a good cup of coffee and being a mom.