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Health Team

Answers to your questions about the COVID-19 vaccine

Posted January 22, 2021 11:38 a.m. EST
Updated January 27, 2021 12:12 p.m. EST

Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, North Carolina state health director and chief medical officer, answered common questions about the COVID-19 vaccine.

What’s in the vaccine?

You cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines give your body instructions to make a kind of protein. This protein safely teaches your body that the virus is attacking. Your body then strengthens itself to fight off the real COVID-19 if it ever tries to attack you. Your body gets rid of the small protein naturally and quickly. There are no egg, gelatin, latex or preservatives in the vaccine.

Is the vaccine safe?

Yes. Two vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have proven to prevent COVID-19 illness with no safety concerns in the clinical trials. They are 95% effective.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) makes sure all food and drugs are safe.

The COVID-19 vaccines must pass clinical trials like other drugs and vaccines. The FDA checks the work and authorizes vaccines only if they are safe and effective.

The FDA can get them to people faster through an Emergency Use Authorization. Like all vaccines, the FDA keeps checking safety through the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS). Health care providers are required to report serious side effects, or if someone gets seriously ill with COVID-19. There is also a smartphone-based health checker called V-SAFE that uses text messaging and web surveys to do health check-ins after people receive a COVID-19 vaccination. People can report any problems they may have with a vaccine through V-SAFE.

Who can get the vaccine?

To save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19, independent state and federal public health advisory committees recommend first protecting health care workers, people who are at the highest risk of being hospitalized or dying, and those at high risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Any health care worker with in-person patient contact may now be vaccinated. Staff and residents of long-term care facilities are also in the first group who will receive a vaccine. Most vaccinations at nursing homes, adult care homes and other long-term care settings are being managed by the federal government. However, the vaccines used in long-term care will come from North Carolina’s supply.

COVID-19 vaccinations are now available to people 65 and older. There is no requirement to have certain qualifying chronic conditions.

Because vaccine supplies are still limited, anyone eligible for vaccination will likely have to wait.

How will I know when I am eligible?

YourSpotYourShot.nc.gov is updated regularly with information about who can currently get vaccinated.

Talk with your health care provider or employer about where your spot is based on your health and job status. How quickly North Carolina moves through each phase will depend on the available vaccine supply. Currently, supplies are very limited.

The federal government notifies states weekly of how much vaccine they will receive. We find out the week before how many doses of each vaccine we will receive for the following week. This makes it difficult to know when we will move to the next phase.

Where can I get the vaccine?

Currently, supplies are very limited. Right now, very few vaccine doses are available. If it is your turn, your local health department or hospital can help you get your shot.

Because supplies are very limited, most doctors cannot provide vaccinations in their offices.

As vaccines become more widely available, vaccinations will be offered to everyone who wants one in clinics and pharmacies, as well as vaccination events in communities.

We will continue to expand the available sites so that people have a spot where they can easily get their vaccine. Information on where to take your shot against COVID-19 is available at YourSpotYourShot.nc.gov.

When it’s your turn, you can get your shot from any local health department in the state, no matter where you live.

Coronavirus vaccinations in NC

Are there side effects?

No serious side effects were reported in clinical trials.

Temporary reactions after receiving the vaccine may include a sore arm, headache, or feeling tired and achy for a day or two. These temporary reactions were more common after the second vaccine dose. In most cases, these temporary reactions are normal, which are good signs that your body is building protection.

You can take medicines like Tylenol or ibuprofen to help with these temporary reactions.

While extremely rare, there have been a few cases of severe allergic reaction to the vaccines outside of the clinical trials, and vaccine providers are prepared with medicines if they need to treat these rare allergic reactions.

How quickly am I protected?

The vaccine does not provide full protection until 1-2 weeks after the second dose. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots a set number of days apart. You need two doses to build up strong immunity against COVID-19. The second shot will come about 3-4 weeks after the first. It is important to get two doses of the same vaccine.

While other countries may take a different approach to vaccinations, the FDA and CDC continue to recommend that everyone get two shots. Currently there is not enough data to suggest that one shot offers enough protection against COVID-19. With two shots, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine are 95% effective in preventing COVID-19.

Since the Pfizer and Moderna trials just ended, we know that the vaccines can protect people from COVID-19 illness for at least two months. We’ll know even more about how long the immunity from the vaccines lasts as people have been vaccinated for a longer period of time.

Can I go unmasked once I am vaccinated?

Continue practicing the 3 Ws – wearing a mask, waiting 6 feet apart, washing your hands – as well as limiting gatherings. The vaccine does not provide full protection until at least a week after the second dose.

The vaccine is very effective at keeping people from becoming ill from COVID-19, though scientists are still studying how often vaccinated individuals can become infected with the COVID-19 virus or pass the virus to others.

Vaccinated people need to still think of themselves as potential virus spreaders.

What can I do once vaccinated that I can't do without the shot?

Continue practicing the 3 Ws – wearing a mask, waiting 6 feet apart, washing your hands – as well as limiting gatherings. The vaccine does not provide full protection until at least a week after the second dose.

The vaccine is very effective to prevent becoming ill from COVID-19, though scientists are still studying how often vaccinated individuals can become infected with the COVID-19 virus or pass the virus to others.

Vaccinated people need to still think of themselves as potential virus spreaders.

Who should NOT get the vaccine?

Children will not receive vaccines until clinical trials are completed to ensure the vaccines are safe and work to prevent COVID-19 illness in children. The Pfizer vaccine can be given to teenagers ages 16 and up, and they are doing additional studies with children ages 12 and over.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women may choose to receive the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. Pregnant women can talk with their doctors before making the choice.

You do not need to take a pregnancy test before you get your vaccine.

Women who are breastfeeding may also choose to get vaccinated. The vaccine is not thought to be a risk to a baby who is breastfeeding. The CDC has additional information for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

People who have had severe allergic reactions, also called anaphylaxis, to any ingredient in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines should not receive that vaccine. People who have had this type of severe allergic reaction to any vaccine or treatment that is injected should talk with their health care provider about the risks and benefits of vaccination. People with allergies to foods, animals, environmental triggers (such as pollen), latex, or medications taken by mouth, or who have family members with past severe allergic reactions, can be vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Severe allergic reactions to the vaccines have been very rare and mostly occurred in people who have had previous severe allergic reactions.

Vaccine providers will watch patients for 15-30 minutes after vaccination to ensure the patient’s safety. Additional information can be found here for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

What is herd immunity?

The CDC defines herd immunity as a situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely. Even individuals not vaccinated (such as newborns and those with chronic illnesses) are offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community.

How many need to get the vaccine for herd immunity?

The percent of the population that needs a vaccine for herd immunity varies by how contagious the disease is. Because COVID-19 is a new disease, we do not know what percent of the population needs to get the vaccine for herd immunity.

Current estimates are that at least 70% of the population would need to get the vaccine for herd immunity, but the CDC and other experts are studying herd immunity and will provide more information as it is available.

When will the vaccine be available to anyone in North Carolina who wants it?

NCDHHS is working together to make sure the vaccine gets into arms as quickly, efficiently and equitably as possible, while staying prepared to receive and distribute new vaccine allocations as they come in. The vaccine prioritization is designed to save lives and prevent spread while vaccine supplies are limited.

For future phases, supplies are very limited and will likely continue to be for the next several months. States are informed about their allocations weekly, so we cannot predict the timeline for each phase.


The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has additional questions and answers, including details about vaccine development, shipping and storage.

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