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Have coronavirus vaccine questions? We have answers, Florida.

Submit your questions and the Tampa Bay Times will take them to health experts. We’ll keep updating as we learn more.

Last updated: Thursday, Jan. 14

Coronavirus vaccines have arrived in Florida, making their Tampa Bay debut at Tampa General Hospital on Monday, Dec. 14.

There are many questions surrounding these drugs, and the Tampa Bay Times is working to answer some of them here by talking with doctors and public health experts. We’ll cover inquiries about the vaccines themselves, like how they were developed and will be stored, how they might be distributed and their effects on the body.

What are you wondering? Tell us below, and we’ll try to find answers. (Already had a vaccine or having trouble finding a dose? Tell us about your experience here.)

Why should I be vaccinated?

Vaccines protect you and those around you, said Michael Teng, an associate professor at the University of South Florida who is an expert in immunology and vaccine development.

The drugs help your body fight off disease, so you don’t get sick or infect others. The more people who get vaccinated, the fewer hosts there are for a disease.

“We want to create herd immunity, which is a protective bubble around ourselves and our community,” said Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at USF. “We can only do that when enough people have gotten vaccinated or actually gotten the disease.”

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How are the vaccines stored?

The COVID-19 vaccine created by drug manufacturers Pfizer and BioNTech must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit), which, according to NPR, is “colder than winter in Antarctica.” The vaccine created by drug manufacturer Moderna must be chilled, too, but only to about minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 Fahrenheit), which is closer to the temperature of a household freezer.

In Florida, five hospitals were chosen to receive the vaccine first, including Tampa General, Tampa Bay’s largest hospital. The others are AdventHealth Orlando, UF Health Jacksonville, Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood and Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

The first shots in the Tampa Bay area were administered Dec. 14 at Tampa General, with a dose that went to 31-year-old nurse Vanessa Arroyo. AdventHealth Tampa started vaccinating its staff on Dec. 16. Each hospital has freezers that can hold tens of thousands of vials of vaccine.

Pharmacist Maureen Lavin talks about the Ultra Cold freezer at Tampa General Hospital that will be used to store the COVID-19 vaccine is pictured on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 in Tampa.
Pharmacist Maureen Lavin talks about the Ultra Cold freezer at Tampa General Hospital that will be used to store the COVID-19 vaccine is pictured on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

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Who is getting the vaccines first?

In Florida, health care workers and people who work and live in long-term care facilities were the first to receive vaccines starting in December. Since then, Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered that people 65 and older would be the next group to be vaccinated based on their particular vulnerability to the virus.

As of early January, those three groups were slowly being vaccinated as more doses were being shipped to the state.

The governor’s order on people 65 and older went against the federal government’s recommendation that frontline workers should be next in line — people like teachers, law enforcement officers, restaurant workers, store clerks and certain manufacturing employees. But on Jan. 12, the federal government changed its recommendation, which now aligns with what Florida is doing.

The federal government made another change on Jan. 12, ordering that all available vaccine doses be shipped immediately instead of holding doses back to make sure there was enough in storage for people to get their required second dose. Officials said the supply chain was reliable enough to make that change.

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How many people have been vaccinated in Florida?

About 770,000 people in Florida had received their first dose as of Friday, Jan. 15, and nearly 80,000 people had received their second dose. The number is growing every day. The Times keeps a running count in its daily coronavirus reports, which are found on this page.

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What is Florida’s distribution plan?

The state submitted a draft vaccine distribution plan to the federal government in October. The final version was due Dec. 4, but DeSantis’ office had not released it to the public as of early January.

The 51-page draft plan shed some light on the state’s direction, listing the following groups as priorities for getting the drugs first: health care personnel, essential workers, persons with medical conditions that place them at high-risk for COVID-19 complications, adults 65 and older.

It said first responders — described as “law enforcement officers and essential employees” — would be next in line after frontline health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. But DeSantis changed course Dec. 23, breaking with federal recommendations by ordering that independent seniors 65 and older would get the vaccine before those groups.

According to the draft plan, those 65 and older in the general population were not set to get vaccines until Phase 2 of Florida’s distribution, when the state had adequate supply for the demand from that group. Instead, seniors across the state have scrambled to find shots.

Related: Florida's vaccine rollout so far: Not enough doses, 'no real plan'

Phase 2 also is when primary care providers and pharmacies are expected to receive doses for their patients, and when doses should be more widely available at state-managed vaccination sites, hospitals and local health department clinics.

Though vaccines will be more prevalent in Phase 2, prioritization of doses will still be important, the state’s plan suggests. Local health departments “will screen people who seek vaccination and limit administration to established priority groups. ... Since COVID-19 has had a disproportional impact on minority groups, minority populations will also be a focus of these efforts.”

Phase 3 is when the vaccine is expected to be in sufficient supply and widely available to everyone. “The state will transition to providing the vaccine through routine health care delivery systems, including commercial pharmacies” and “continue to offer vaccine clinics that are open to all members of the public.”

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When can the average Floridian expect to have access to the vaccines?

No one knows for sure. The state’s plan does not include a specific timeline.

Teng estimates May if all goes well, though Floridians in rural areas, like the Panhandle or communities in the middle of the state, may have to wait longer.

Wolfson’s bet is “late spring or early summer.” It depends on a lot of factors, namely how quickly drug manufacturers are able to make and ship vials. His hope is that Florida will have at least half the population vaccinated by the fall.

AdventHealth announced Jan. 12 that it would begin vaccinating patients 65 and older within its primary care network. Tampa General took that step Dec. 30.

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What about seniors and those at high risk who live independently?

Seniors started getting shots in late December, following DeSantis’ Dec. 23 order that Floridians 65 and older would be the first in the general population to be vaccinated.

Demand for doses shot up, forcing seniors to contend with busy phone lines and downed registration websites to get an appointment.

So far, about half of Florida’s vaccines have gone to people 65 and older, with about 7 percent of that population receiving shots. County health departments have urged patience as they await more doses from the state.

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Will Floridians be forced to get vaccinated?

Gov. DeSantis has repeatedly said that the state will not require residents to take a coronavirus vaccine, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, has urged against that sort of mandate.

It would be “foolhardy” for the governor to require vaccination, said Wolfson, the USF professor. “What that’s going to do is create more pushback, and we don’t need that.”

In fact, because the vaccines will be under emergency use authorizations, they can’t be mandated by governmental entities, Teng said. That could only happen sometime next year, after the drugs have gone through a “safety monitoring period” and been licensed.

Related: Will Floridians be forced to get a coronavirus vaccine? No.

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Will snowbirds have access to vaccines if they aren’t Florida residents?

Florida has not made residency a requirement of being vaccinated as of early January.

Though the state has not released any official guidance on the issue, Florida Division of Emergency Management director Jared Moskowitz told the Miami Herald that one does not have to be a resident of the county that is administering the vaccine to receive it there.

Some South Florida hospitals have turned away non-Florida residents trying to get vaccinated, the Herald reported. Following the story, reporter Ben Conarck tweeted that Moskowitz said the state would tell those hospitals to end that practice.

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Can employers make vaccines mandatory?

Yes, according to the Associated Press, though employees can request exemptions for medical or religious reasons.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has allowed companies to mandate the use of the flu and other vaccines, and has indicated they can also require COVID-19 vaccines.

That doesn’t necessarily mean one would be fired for refusing to be vaccinated, but they might need to sign a waiver or agree to work under specific conditions to limit any risks posed to themselves or others.

Even though employers can require vaccinations, there are reasons they might not want to. Tracking compliance and managing exemption requests would be administrative burdens, said Michelle S. Strowhiro, an employment adviser and lawyer at McDermott Will & Emery.

As a result, many employers will likely strongly encourage vaccinations without requiring it.

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Will there be a cost? What if I don’t have insurance?

The federal government has purchased millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines, making them free to consumers, Teng said. He and Wolfson expect that investment to continue.

“I’d like to think the federal government is going to see it as a public health necessity to make sure vaccines are available, and that insurance companies will cover what the government doesn’t,” Wolfson said.

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Why do I need two doses? What if I don’t get the second dose? Who will keep track?

The coronavirus vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna each require two doses per person. That’s fairly normal for vaccines, including those for polio, hepatitis A and hepatitis B.

The first dose will teach your immune system to recognize what is called the “spike protein,” which is responsible for the virus getting into the cell, Teng said. The second dose will amplify that recognition so that it happens faster.

Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must happen three weeks apart, while doses of the drug made by Moderna must happen four weeks apart. The second dose must be from the same manufacturer as the first.

It’s not advisable to get only one dose, as it provides a low level of immunity, Teng said. “For me, it’s almost not worth getting the first dose if you don’t get the second. Especially when the vaccine is limited, you’d have just wasted a dose.”

The federal government is establishing a database to keep track of who is vaccinated, when and with which drug, Wolfson said. And there’s still lots of logistics to sort out.

Each of the hundreds of millions of vials manufactured will be labeled with a barcode and placed into a container for shipment, which will also get a barcode and be tracked to wherever it goes. That information will be uploaded alongside names and information in the database, so people can be contacted for their second dose.

“Compliance around something like this is going to be a huge challenge,” Wolfson said. “Getting people to come back three, six or eight weeks later for anything in health care is always a huge challenge.”

A view of the Pfizer Manufacturing plant in Puurs, Belgium, on Dec. 4. British officials administered the first batches of the company's coronavirus vaccine on Dec. 8, a major step toward eventually ending the pandemic.
A view of the Pfizer Manufacturing plant in Puurs, Belgium, on Dec. 4. British officials administered the first batches of the company's coronavirus vaccine on Dec. 8, a major step toward eventually ending the pandemic. [ OLIVIER MATTHYS | AP ]

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How effective are the vaccines?

Until this month, little data had been made public about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that was first sent to Florida on Dec. 14.

The data comes from 38,000 drug trial volunteers, 95 percent of whom produced enough antibodies to protect them against COVID-19 within seven days of their second dose. Results were consistent across races, ethnicities and age groups, a Pfizer-BioNTech report said.

Trial volunteers showed some immunity to the virus after a first dose, but research shows the vaccine’s effectiveness falls to about 50 percent without a second dose.

Will the vaccines protect me from the variant strain of the coronavirus?

Yes, according to experts.

While researchers have found the variant strain of COVID-19 to be more contagious than the original, it will not make you more sick, and the approved vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna should protect you from it.

As of Jan. 15, 22 people in Florida were infected with the variant — the second-highest count to California, which reported 32 cases. That number is expected to grow significantly, with the variant becoming the country’s dominant strain by March, the CDC predicted Friday.

“We have to continue to be really vigilant about the things we all know we should be doing, like wearing masks, avoiding crowds and social distancing,” said Dr. Nicole Iovine, an infectious disease expert at the University of Florida.

“And now, the addition is getting the vaccine as soon as it is available to you.”

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What are the potential side effects? Could it cause me to get a mild case of COVID-19?

The COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any of the actual virus, so there’s no chance that taking one could infect you with the disease, Teng said. But it could cause some mild symptoms that are typical of other vaccines.

Symptoms are more likely with a second dose than a first, and they might include fever, chills, headache, fatigue and soreness at the injection site. “Anything more that comes up later would be a pretty rare event,” Teng said.

According to the Pfizer-BioNTech report, about 84 percent of patients experienced pain at the injection site. About 63 percent reported feeling fatigue, 55 percent had headaches, 38 percent had muscle pain, 32 percent had chills, 24 percent had joint pain and 14 percent had fevers.

Severe adverse reactions affected fewer than 5 percent of participants, the report said.

How can I prepare for vaccination? Anything I should do afterward?

There’s really nothing you need to do to prepare for a coronavirus vaccine, said Dr. Nicole Iovine, an infectious disease expert at the University of Florida. But you might need some Motrin afterward.

The most common side effect she has seen as UF Health has administered nearly 20,000 shots is soreness at the injection site. Some have reported a fever or feeling ill, and over-the-counter pain relievers should take care of all those symptoms.

“Motrin is really helpful,” Iovino said. “Benadryl is good if you’re having a reaction that seems more allergic, but you should really talk to your doctor if that happens.”

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Has anyone died from the coronavirus vaccines?

No.

A handful of people out of 250,000 doses experienced severe allergic reactions, but those are “easily recognizable and easily treatable,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Four individuals in the Pfizer and Moderna clinical trials died, but none of those deaths were linked to the vaccine, said Dr. Ricardo Izurieta, an expert in global communicable diseases at USF. Instead, the deaths were the result of heart attack, suicide and other unrelated causes.

Do the two doses need to be administered in the same arm?

It doesn’t matter in which arm people receive the shots.

Once someone gets an immune response from a vaccine, it’s distributed through the entire body, said Offit, the doctor at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. In fact, the shots don’t have to be in the arm at all, as long as they are put into a muscle. That’s why the arm is easy.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mention the shots should be given either in the deltoid muscle or the anterolateral part of the thigh.

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After the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, what others are on the horizon?

The vaccine developed by drug manufacturer Moderna received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday, Dec. 18 and shipments began Dec. 20.

By Dec. 22, Florida had received 180,200 Moderna doses and is expecting to receive a total of 367,000, according to the state Division of Emergency Management. The allocations will be sent directly to 173 hospitals across the state for health care workers.

Johnson & Johnson also is working on a vaccine, and DeSantis has said approval for that is expected sometime in January. He said earlier this month that the drug should allow for “widespread vaccination” in the state.

There are multiple other vaccines in production at companies across the globe. Their progress can be tracked here.

On Dec. 23, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they will supply the U.S. with an additional 100 million doses of their vaccine under a second agreement worth $2 billion. The first agreement committed the companies to providing 100 million doses to the U.S.

The companies will deliver at least 70 million additional doses by June 30, with the remaining 30 million to be delivered no later than July 31. The government also has the option to acquire up to an additional 400 million doses.

What ingredients are in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine?

The FDA has published an ingredients list for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and it’s been met with assurance by experts. A specialist at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine was recently quoted by Health.com saying nothing on the list was shocking.

Along with the messenger RNA, it includes: lipids, or fats, that keep the mRNA stable on its way to the cell; sucrose, which is a form of sugar that also acts as a stabilizer; potassium chloride, monobasic potassium phosphate, sodium chloride and dibasic sodium phosphate dihydrate, all of which are used to maintain pH levels.

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How old do you have to be to get a COVID-19 vaccine? Will there eventually be an option for younger children?

Currently, you must be 18 or older to take a coronavirus vaccine. Moderna just announced it is starting trials involving children as young as 12, but those won’t be done until the spring at the earliest. Pfizer started that work in October, according to the New York Times.

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What is an mRNA vaccine and how does it work?

The vaccines created by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are considered messenger RNA vaccines, a new type of drug that triggers an immune response in the body without introducing actual virus.

Instead, mRNA vaccines teach the body’s cells how to make a protein, or even just a small piece of a protein, that activates the immune system. That activation produces antibodies, which protect against infection.

The technology is new and unlike other vaccines, such as the flu shot, which introduces living virus into the body. The protein created by the mRNA vaccine, called the “spike protein,” is harmless, according to the CDC.

The protein will be displayed on a cell in the body, and the immune system will recognize it as something new that doesn’t belong. That’s when the body will start building an immune response and making antibodies.

“At the end of the process, our bodies have learned how to protect against future infection,” the CDC states. “The benefit of mRNA vaccines, like all vaccines, is those vaccinated gain this protection without ever having to risk the serious consequences of getting sick with COVID-19.”

Can the vaccines change my DNA?

No. The RNA in the vaccine never makes its way to the nuclei of your cells, where your DNA resides, explained Michael Teng, the USF immunologist.

“The RNA doesn’t get made into DNA,” he said. “There is no mechanism in your cells to do that.”

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Should I quarantine after I am vaccinated? Will I be contagious?

Because there is no virus in the vaccine, those who receive it will not be infected or become contagious, Teng said. Still, it’s important to maintain public health measures, like wearing masks and social distancing, until more of the community is vaccinated.

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How long will protection last?

Experts say they aren’t sure. Some have suggested at least 90 days, but others say it’s likely more. Only time will tell.

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Should you get the vaccine if you’ve already had the virus?

Yes, according to the CDC. It’s still unknown how long someone is protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19. The immunity we gain from having an infection is called “natural immunity,” and the amount we get varies from person to person.

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Should you get the vaccine if you’re pregnant? What about people who are immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions?

The best answer is, check with your doctor.

The CDC recommends that women who are pregnant talk with their physician about getting the vaccine and make the best decision for their situation. While experts believe the drugs are unlikely to pose a risk to these patients, there have not been enough studies on the population to know for sure.

The same is true for those with pre-existing conditions, including immunodeficiencies. Neither the CDC nor the FDA has made recommendations against these populations taking vaccines. That’s because, unlike other vaccines, the leading ones for COVID-19 aren’t live, meaning they don’t contain any actual virus.

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Could the vaccines affect fertility?

No. Neither does COVID-19, said Offit, the vaccine education director at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Experts would not expect the vaccine to do something the natural virus does not. There were no reports of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines affecting fertility in men and women in the clinical trials, said Izurieta, the USF expert on global communicable diseases.

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When I get the vaccine, should I still wear a mask and social distance, or can I resume to normal life?

The vaccines set to be approved have about 95 percent success rates, so it’s possible the drug could be ineffective for some people. For that reason, USF immunologist Michael Teng recommends that everyone continue taking precautions to decrease transmission of the coronavirus, even after receiving a vaccine.

“If you’ve been good enough to wear your mask and do physical distancing all this time, just continue to do it until we really get this under control,” he said. “There is so much virus out there. ... It doesn’t make sense to take the chance.”

A cautionary tale comes from the recent experience of Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, who tested positive for COVID-19 and became ill after his first dose of vaccine and before his second dose.

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What happens if I decide not to get a vaccine?

You’re simply more at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. The more people who do not get the vaccine, the more cases, hospitalizations and deaths we will see, experts say. And the longer it will take to get back to what has been referred to as “normal.”

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How will the vaccines get to residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities?

Florida started delivering vaccines to nursing homes in mid-December, and long-term care and assisted living facilities soon followed.

The drugs are being administered by employees from CVS and Walgreens pharmacies, as well as strike teams made up of members of the Florida National Guard and Department of Health. All residents must sign a consent form or have a family member do it if they are unable.

Like others in the state, staff and residents of these facilities will not be required to take the vaccines. Many are hesitant and worried about the unknowns associated with the drugs, said Scott Elsass, administrator of Grand Villa of St. Petersburg, a 192-bed assisted-living facility

As of September, Florida had 145,563 residents and 222,541 staff members in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, according to the state Department of Health. The virus had killed more than 19,000 Floridians by Dec. 3, and about 40 percent of them were residents of long-term care facilities, a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation found.

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When can I get a coronavirus vaccine if I get my health care through a veterans hospital?

The Tampa and Bay Pines VA healthcare systems, as well as major outpatient clinics in the region, were expected to receive COVID-19 vaccines and begin vaccinations the week of Christmas, according to Mary Kay Rutan, spokeswoman for the Veterans Affairs network that oversees medical centers in Florida.

Vaccines will first be offered to health care workers and veteran inpatients in VA nursing homes, spinal cord injury disorder units and other group living facilities. As vaccines become available for more groups of veterans, care teams will reach out to eligible veterans to schedule those vaccinations, Rutan added.

Veterans Affairs vaccinations began in Florida on Dec. 16 at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, which was one of the initial 37 sites nationwide selected by the federal agency. The agency has since announced a list of hundreds more medical centers and outpatient clinics that are expected to receive vaccines, including: the New Port Richey VA Outpatient Clinic; the South Hillsborough VA Outpatient Clinic; the Lee County VA Health Care Center; and The Villages VA Outpatient Clinic.

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When will first responders, like police and emergency response workers, get vaccines?

Rollout to first responders is ongoing, according to interviews with local police and fire leaders. Some have had access to the vaccine while others are still waiting.

About 100 Tampa firefighters got shots Jan. 4. Occupational Health Nurse Tiffany Kline told the Times many were interested in receiving vaccines so they could continue service to the public while making sure they and their families are safe, too.

Some first responders from several agencies in Pinellas started receiving vaccinations during Christmas week, but the circumstances were unusual. Pinellas health officials had doses on hand that originally were intended for nursing homes, but everyone in those facilities who wanted to be vaccinated had been received a shot.

That left Pinellas with a large of number of doses that had been thawed and had to be used before they spoiled. So officials began rounding up first responders to get vaccinated before that happened. Pinellas even shared some of its doses with first responders in neighboring Manatee County.

Times Staff Writers Allison Ross, Ileana Najarro, Lawrence Mower, Kathryn Varn, Caitlin Johnston, John Martin and Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report, which also includes information from The Associated Press.

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