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COVID-19 Vaccinations

How do the COVID-19 vaccines work?

The COVID-19 vaccines are made differently from traditional vaccines. They don’t expose you to any real virus. They’re not made with dead or weak virus. Instead, they’re made from messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). This is a type of molecule that gives instructions about how to make different kinds of proteins. The mRNA in the vaccines tells your cells how to make a harmless piece of a protein called a spike protein. This protein is found on the outside of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Your immune system sees this spike protein as a threat, and creates antibodies against it. It will help your body’s immune system recognize to fight the real virus if it ever shows up. Your body is then prepared to spot COVID-19 and fight it off before it grows in your body’s cells.

How are the COVID-19 vaccines approved for safety?

The vaccines were tested first in animals. They were then tested in a series of clinical trials that included thousands of people. All of the data from these tests is collected and submitted to the FDA and other scientific groups. These committees of scientists and public health experts carefully look at the data to see if a vaccine is safe and effective. If the vaccine meets the FDA’s strict standards of safety and quality, the agency tells the vaccine company it can make the vaccine for emergency use.

Vaccines have typically taken longer to be approved and come to market. But over many years of creating vaccines, research groups and public health agencies have been making the vaccine process work faster. For COVID-19, a special program called Operation Warp Speed (OWS) was created to help get COVID-19 vaccines ready even more quickly. OWS is a partnership of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Defense, and many medical research and manufacturing groups. These organizations agreed to work together as closely as possible to communicate and move through a robust process to develop safe COVID-19 vaccines more quickly. 

How can a vaccine be safe when it was developed so quickly?

Previous work to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus diseases SARS and MERS established knowledge about the structure and function of coronaviruses, which accelerated development during early 2020 of varied technology platforms for the COVID-19 vaccine. It also helped that billions of dollars were provided by the government, agencies and individuals to fund the research and development through Operation Warp Speed

How might the COVID-19 vaccines help?

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine can help protect you from getting ill with the disease. But the vaccines may also cause more widespread changes. The more people who get the COVID-19 vaccine, the more local and regional policies may change about what types of businesses can be open and how people can gather together. Schools may be back in session in person faster. Workplaces may reopen. Events may be allowed, travel may resume for many people, and it may be easier to see family and friends.

There will be more than one vaccine on the market. Many companies have been working on creating vaccines. Several companies in the U.S. have gotten far enough in the process that they will be able to offer a vaccine in the coming weeks or months. You may not be able to choose which vaccine you can get. It will likely depend on what is available locally.

You might need two doses. The earliest vaccines will be given in two doses, spaced a few weeks apart. You’ll need both of these doses to get the best COVID-19 protection from the vaccine. As you get your first dose, a second appointment will be made for you to receive the final dose in either 21 or 28 days depending on the vaccine manufacturer.

Not everyone can get a COVID-19 vaccine right away. It will take several months for the vaccine to be available to everyone. The first doses will be available to healthcare workers, other essential workers, older adults, and people with high-risk health conditions. But you should keep in touch with your healthcare provider and your local pharmacies to see when it’s available in your area.

The vaccine will have side effects for some people. A vaccine activates a person’s immune system. It causes the immune system to create antibodies to fight off a specific virus or bacteria. When your immune system goes into action, you may feel your immune system kick into gear as though it’s fighting an illness. People who have been part of the COVID-19 vaccine trials have reported headaches, body aches, fever, and chills, especially after the second dose. These are signs that your immune system is working on its defense. You can get these kinds of side effects after many kinds of vaccines. But these symptoms likely last a short time – around one to two days. In comparison, COVID-19 symptoms can be severe and last much longer, and cause complications, long-term illness, and death. The FDA approval process makes sure that the discomfort and risks of a vaccine outweigh the risks and complications of the illness it helps prevent.

What happens if I have side effects?

Most side effects have been reported to be manageable, but you should still report them as the manufacturer continues to collect data on the vaccines. After receiving the vaccine, you will receive a fact sheet about the immunization which will provide additional information.

I’ve had COVID-19. Do I still need the vaccine?

Research is inconclusive as to how long immunity might last. It is still important to get the vaccine.

Should you get the COVID-19 vaccine?

People have a lot of questions about the vaccine for themselves. Should you get it? If so, when? What are the possible risks and benefits to you? The best way to answer these questions is to talk with your healthcare provider. They can let you know when and what kind of vaccine is available, and what you should consider.

If I get two doses of the vaccine, do I still need to wear a mask?

Unfortunately yes. Everyone should continue to wear a mask and social distance until enough of the population receives the vaccine to create herd immunity. Herd immunity is a term used to describe when enough people have protection—either from previous infection or vaccination—that it is unlikely a virus or bacteria can spread and cause disease. Experts do not know what percent of the population will need to be vaccinated to provide this immunity as it varies by disease and it is too early to know. 

Where can I find more information?