We spoke with CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, for guidance on how to plan for taking care of ourselves and our loved ones as more people get vaccinated.
CNN: Do I need to do anything to prepare for getting the vaccine?
Dr. Leana Wen: With vaccines in short supply, the biggest challenge that people are facing is getting an appointment for vaccination. Depending on where you are, you may be able to sign up with your local city or county health department, a local pharmacy, your doctor’s office or a local hospital.
Once you have the appointment, make sure to follow all instructions. Complete paperwork if there is any that you need to do in advance. Bring all required documentation; some places ask for identification or proof of residency, so know what you need and make sure you have it.
If you know of others who received a vaccination at that same location, you can ask what their experiences are like — for example, how long the wait was. Keep in mind that there is a lot that’s evolving as sites figure out how best to do mass vaccinations, so someone’s experience from a couple of weeks ago might look different now.
I would also urge that you get any questions you have about the vaccines answered in advance. You want to minimize your time at the vaccination site, and the people there are likely to be very busy and may not have the time to answer your questions in-depth. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a great website of FAQs. You can also ask your doctor questions specific to your medical health. When you show up for your appointment, you should be certain that you want to be vaccinated and have had all your questions answered.
CNN: Should people wear masks when they go to get vaccinated?
Wen: Absolutely. The protection from the coronavirus vaccine isn’t immediate. Sites will require that you are masked, and you will want to minimize your exposure to coronavirus while waiting in line.
If this is a drive-thru test, the risk of coronavirus exposure is minimal. It’s a little higher if you have to wait indoors with others for a prolonged period of time. In that circumstance, I’d recommend a second mask, a well-fitting cloth mask, over the three-ply surgical mask, or you could wear an N95 or KN95 if you have access to one. Try to keep physical distance from others — ideally 10 feet, but at least 6 feet, if you are indoors.
CNN: Assuming I get one of the two-dose vaccines already being used, what’s it like? Will I feel anything after the first shot?
Wen: You feel the shot itself, of course, just as you would with any injection. You could have a bit of soreness in the location where you get injected.
Many people have no symptoms beyond that. Some develop side effects in one of two categories. First, they could have more soreness, redness and swelling at the site of the injection. Second, they could have what we call systemic symptoms, meaning that they feel something throughout their body. They may develop headache, fever, fatigue and muscle aches. These could last hours and usually go away after a day.
Most people with these symptoms find them to be a minor inconvenience. They can go to work and go about their day. Some people may feel the symptoms a bit more. Rest usually takes care of the symptoms, and people can also take ibuprofen or Tylenol to help with aches and fever.
CNN: Really? Side effects don’t sound so good.
Wen: If you develop these side effects, you should know that this is normal and expected. And that these symptoms are actually good! It means that the vaccines are working. This is your body’s reaction. The vaccine is stimulating your immune system to produce antibodies that will protect you against coronavirus infection in the future.
It’s important to note that people react differently to vaccines. There are some people who have minimal or no side effects. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them, either. The vaccine is also working in them, but their bodies are just reacting in a different way.
CNN: I’ve heard some people feel more side effects after the second shot.
Wen: Anecdotally, this seems to be true. Many people feel very little after the first shot, but have more side effects after the second coronavirus vaccine shot. A hypothesis is that the first shot, the primer, gets your immune system ready. The second shot, the booster, is when your body is already primed and that’s why you have stronger response. Remember that the response is a good thing and evidence that the vaccine is working!
Because some people have this stronger reaction the second time around, it’s a good idea to try to schedule the shot when you have the ability to rest if needed. Some people schedule the second shot when they are off or at least are able to work from home. If you can’t do that, you may want to let your employer know that you’re getting the vaccine in case you need to take time off that day or the next.
CNN: Why do people have to wait 15 to 30 minutes after they get the shot?
Wen: The waiting time is just in case someone develops an allergic reaction, which is very rare and on the order of two to six per million people. If a serious allergic reaction were to develop, it would happen very soon after the vaccination.
People should wait 15 minutes just in case. If this is a drive-thru vaccination, they can wait in their cars; otherwise, there is an area where people can sit or stand and be observed just in case they have a reaction. In the very rare circumstance they develop a reaction, this can easily be treated by the nurses and doctors at the site.
Those with a history of very severe allergic reactions to other medications or foods are asked to wait 30 minutes. Note that those individuals can still get the vaccine — the only reason not to get the vaccine is if they have a known allergy to a component of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine itself.
One more thing: After you get vaccinated, please register for the CDC’s V-Safe program. You can quickly enter any side effects you may have, and depending on your answers, someone from the CDC may call to check on you. Side effects are to be expected, and the government still tracks them as part of routine monitoring after a vaccine or medication is released.
CNN: I’ve heard that one shot gives you some protection. Can I skip the second shot?
Wen: No. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are studied as two-dose vaccines. You may get some degree of protection after the first shot, but you won’t receive the optimal protection unless you get two shots.
The second shot should be taken in the time period that’s approved: three weeks after the first dose for Pfizer and four weeks after the first dose for Moderna. The CDC has said that in exceptional circumstances, you could still get the second shot up to six weeks later, but this should not be the norm.
CNN: How long does it take for me to have full immune protection after getting the second shot? Can I hang out with family and friends after that?
Wen: It takes about two weeks to develop the optimal immune protection after the second shot. The vaccine is about 95% effective, meaning that you are very well protected from having coronavirus.
That’s great — but it’s not 100%. You must still use caution when around others, and keep up masking and avoiding crowded indoor settings. Remember, too, that we don’t know yet whether getting the vaccine means that you are protected against being a carrier for coronavirus. You may not get sick, but you could still infect others if you’re a carrier.
All this means that you are better protected against this deadly virus, but you need to still use caution. I know that grandparents have been so eager to see their grandkids. You can do this more safely now, but I’d still try to see people outdoors when possible, with everyone wearing masks, unless everyone has quarantined for seven days and gotten tested. But maybe you can go in for that hug that you’ve been waiting for. And if you have friends who are also fully vaccinated, it’s probably pretty safe to see them.
We will get to the point where most of the population is vaccinated and we can finally put an end to the pandemic. Until then, let’s please keep safe — and get vaccinated when it’s our turn!