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FAQ City: Your COVID-19 Vaccine Questions Answered

Atrium Health

Across North Carolina, health care workers are rolling up their sleeves to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The first shipments of vaccine doses arrived at hospitals this week after being developed and approved in record time. So how does the vaccine work? And when can you expect to get a shot? FAQ City answers your questions.

There are dozens of COVID-19 vaccines in development right now. The two we’ve heard about most recently are manufactured by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna. The Pfizer vaccine was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The Moderna vaccine is on track for FDA authorization later this week.

How Do The COVID-19 Vaccines Work?

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA, called mRNA, to turn your cells into factories that make one particular coronavirus protein. That protein tricks your body’s immune system into thinking there’s a coronavirus infection.

“The vaccine imitates the infection so our bodies think a germ like the virus or COVID is attacking,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina’s Health and Human Services Director. “This creates the antibody defenses we need to fight off COVID if and when the real germ attacks.”

The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at minus-94 degrees. The Moderna shot must be kept cold, too, but at roughly minus-4 degrees, more like a regular freezer.

Both vaccines require a second shot: about three weeks after the first for Pfizer and four weeks later for Moderna.

What Do Pfizer, Moderna And The FDA Say About The Safety Of These Vaccines?

The FDA has said both vaccines have “no specific safety concerns.” Pfizer’s clinical trials included 44,000 people and Moderna’s had at least 30,000.

“The people who make the decisions about whether or not to authorize the use of these new vaccines are FDA scientists. And they’re career scientists, not political appointees,” Cohen said.

Some side effects are possible with both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, like a sore arm, fatigue, headache, chills or a fever.

When Can You Get A Vaccine?

North Carolina’s health department developed a four-phase plan of who can get vaccinated when. Health care workers are first, in Phase 1a, along with people who live and work in long-term care facilities like nursing homes.

“It all starts with health care workers that are working directly with folks who have COVID-19,” Cohen said. “...The clinical staff, the cleaning staff, anyone that’s coming into contact with folks who have this virus.”

Cohen has said she expects this initial round will last into January. Next, comes Phase 1b, which includes adults with two or more chronic conditions like cancer, COPD, serious heart conditions, sickle cell disease and Type 2 diabetes. Cohen said people with two or more chronic conditions are more likely to get seriously ill if they contract COVID-19. Phase 1b also includes people who work in prisons, jails and homeless shelters.

In Phase 2, people who are 65 or older, essential frontline workers or adults with one chronic condition can get a COVID-19 vaccine. Then comes Phase 3, which includes college students and children (when there’s an approved vaccine for children), along with any remaining critical workers.

Everyone who wants a vaccine can get one in Phase 4, the final phase.

It’s unclear exactly how long this whole process will take because it depends on how many vaccine doses the state receives and how quickly it receives them.

When Can Children Get Vaccinated?

Anyone 16 years and older can get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine but younger kids will have to wait a while. Kids under 16 weren’t included in the original vaccine trials by Pfizer or Moderna and they can’t get vaccinated until those trials ensure it’s safe.

Pfizer is now studying its vaccine in children as young as 12 and Moderna recently announced it would enroll about 3,000 children ages 12 to 17 in its vaccine trial, according to The New York Times.

What If You’re Pregnant Or Breastfeeding?

According to NPR, COVID-19 vaccine studies with pregnant people aren’t expected to start until 2021.

North Carolina’s health department said if you’re pregnant, you should talk to your doctor before choosing to get the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The agency said the vaccine is not thought to be a risk to a baby who is breastfeeding.

Where Can You Get A Vaccine?

Fifty-three North Carolina hospitals expect Pfizer vaccine shipments this week, including eight Atrium facilities, three Novant Health sites and Catawba Valley Medical Center in Hickory.

The state health department said it chose those hospitals because they have the highest number of health care workers.

North Carolina is also expecting to receive about 175,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine as early as next week. Since that shot doesn’t need to be kept as cold, Cohen said the state can then start sending shipments to smaller hospitals and local health departments.

How Much Will It Cost?

Cohen has said vaccines will be free for everyone in North Carolina.

Do You Still Have To Wear A Mask And Social Distance?

Cohen said that until the state has many more vaccine doses, people need to keep doing things that keep the coronavirus from spreading, like wearing masks, staying six feet away from other people and washing or sanitizing their hands often.

On Tuesday, 2,735 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 in North Carolina and the state reported more than 5,200 new daily cases.

“We have so much work to do right now to protect each other and slow the spread of this deadly virus. We are experiencing a staggering increase in our pandemic trends and I am particularly worried about our hospital capacity,” Cohen said at a press conference this week.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official, said this week that if everything goes as planned with the vaccines, the U.S. could start to achieve early stages of herd immunity by late spring or summer.

Do you have more questions about the coronavirus or anything else related to the Charlotte area? Share it with us in the box below. The WFAE newsroom is continuing to report on how the virus is impacting the Charlotte region, and your questions and story ideas keep us going.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.