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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.
Published Dec. 8, 2020
Updated Apr. 15

Last updated: Thursday, April 15

Coronavirus vaccines made their Tampa Bay debut on Dec. 14, 2020 at Tampa General Hospital.

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.”

For the country to reach “herd immunity,” or widespread resistance against COVID-19, 70 to 85 percent of the population must be vaccinated.

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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 coronavirus 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.

Storage requirements for Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine, which was approved for emergency use on Feb. 27, are much less stringent and more in line with standard drug storage. That will allow doses to be shipped using the same cold chain technologies already used for cancer treatments and other medicines, the company said.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will remain stable for two years if stored at minus 4 degrees Celsius (25 degrees Fahrenheit), and for about three months at regular refrigeration temperatures, or 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (36-46 degrees Fahrenheit).

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 ]

How are the vaccines prepared for use?

Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines must be thawed for use, and that can be done either in a refrigerator or at room temperature.

Both can be ready for use after two or three hours if left in the fridge, according to Michael Teng, an immunologist at USF. But the thawing process varies a bit otherwise.

At room temperature, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires about two hours to thaw, while the Moderna vaccine takes only 30 minutes.

The Moderna vaccine will last about 12 hours if left out and about 30 days in the refrigerator, Teng said. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can be stored for six hours at room temperature, and it must be reconstituted with preservative-free normal saline, or salt water that’s concentration is similar to tears, blood and other bodily fluids, before being administered.

Both vaccines go bad just six hours after a vial, which contains multiple doses, is punctured, Teng said. In comparison, some flu shot vaccines stay good for up to a month, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on national health issues.

Neither of the drugs should ever be refrozen, Teng said. And both should be off-white in color and not have any particulates when administered.

Because the vaccine by Johnson & Johnson can be stored at normal refrigeration temperatures, it does not need time to thaw. But like the other vaccines, it also should not be refrozen, the company said.

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Who is getting the vaccines first?

In Florida, as of April 5, 2021, all people 18 and over are eligible to receive any of the three vaccines approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration. Those who are 16 and 17 are eligible to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only one approved for that age group.

Getting to that point was a months-long process.

Under a Dec. 23 <a href="https://ahca.myflorida.com/Executive/Communications/Press_Releases/pdf/Governor_Ron_DeSantis_Announces_Executive_Order_Prioritizing_Vaccination_for_Individuals_65_and_Older.pdf" target=_blank>order</a> by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the first people eligible to receive doses were residents and staff at long-term care facilities, anyone 65 and older, and frontline health care workers.

As of March 22, any Floridian age 50 and over was eligible to be vaccinated. This included teachers, sworn law enforcement officers and firefighters in this age group, who were made eligible under a previous order. Also eligible were people deemed medically vulnerable who have a signed form from a doctor.

The eligibility age was lowered to 40 on March 29.

Check out the <a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2021/03/18/a-guide-to-finding-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-tampa-bay-and-florida/" target=_blank><i>Times</i> comprehensive guide</a> for vaccination site rules and contact information.

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How many people have been vaccinated in Florida?

As of Tuesday, April 13, nearly 2.9 people in Florida had received their first dose and more than 4.5 million people had received their second dose. In the four-county Tampa Bay area, just over 1 million people had received at least one dose.

Florida is making inroads when it comes to the task of vaccinating the state’s 4.3 million residents age 65 and over, a vulnerable group that has been prioritized by Gov. Ron DeSantis. About 81 percent of residents in that age group had been vaccinated as of Tuesday.

These numbers are changing 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 that Gov. Ron DeSantis quickly diverted from when he gave residents 65 and older access to vaccines before any other members of the general public.

His office has repeatedly declined to share more information about the state’s distribution schedule, and DeSantis in late February said Florida was better off without a detailed plan.

The draft plan said essential workers, including law enforcement, and people with medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 would be among the first prioritized for shots. It said people 65 and older wouldn’t be vaccinated until Phase 2, when the state had adequate supply for the demand from that group.

But DeSantis changed course Dec. 23, signing an executive order placing people 65 and up first in line, and seniors across the state <a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2021/01/04/vaccine-train-wreck-leaves-tampa-bay-seniors-scrambling-for-shots/" target=_blank>scrambled to find shots</a>.

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

DeSantis announced his next major expansion of access to vaccines on March 1, saying K-12 school staff, firefighters and sworn law enforcement ages 50 and older could be vaccinated starting March 3.

He has since lowered the eligible age to 60, then 50, then 40. The eligibility age dropped to 18 on April 5, with a provision that 16- and 17-year-olds could receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine only.

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. But the process has smoothed out since then, and the state has added more access points for vaccination, like pharmacies and pop-up vaccination sites.

As of Tuesday, April 13, about 47 percent of Florida’s administered vaccines had gone to people 65 and older, with about 81 percent of that population receiving shots.

Why has the vaccine rollout been so slow?

The rollout of vaccines got off to a slow start not just in Florida, but across the country. There are lots reasons why, according to Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit focused on national health issues.

First is that the federal government pushed responsibility onto states to decide how to distribute and administer the drugs, creating confusion and a patchwork of varied systems across the country.

Meanwhile, there’s a shortage of health care workers who can facilitate vaccinations, and social-distancing requirements limit the number of people who can be vaccinated in a single location at once. Those issues are compounded by the fact that the country’s public health systems were stressed even before the coronavirus pandemic, according to Kaiser.

The overarching issue is logistics. The country has never embarked on such a massive vaccination effort, and there are considerable hurdles — even up to the point of injection.

Unlike flu vaccines, for example, those for COVID-19 don’t arrive to hospitals and health departments ready for use. They come with specific instructions for storage and administration that slow down the process, resulting in fewer vaccinations.

“This is very different, administering this vaccine,” Heather Suri, a registered nurse in Virginia, told Kaiser. “The process, it takes a whole lot longer than any mass vaccination event that I’ve been involved with.”

Despite early problems, increased production and the availability of a third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson started to speed things up by early April. However, federal officials recommended a “pause” in the administration of Johnson & Johnson shots on April 13 to investigate after six women had serious blood clots after receiving the vaccine.

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Will Floridians be forced to get vaccinated?

Gov. DeSantis has repeatedly said 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.”

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

Will I need proof of vaccination?

If you’ve been vaccinated, it’s important to keep a copy of your CDC vaccination card handy, as proof of inoculation that may be required for some activities, like traveling and events.

The Miami Heat basketball team, for example, already has sections of its arena reserved for fully vaccinated fans, and other sports franchises may be considering similar moves. In South Florida, the South Beach Food and Wine Festival planned to require proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test.

One caveat, at least in Pinellas County: <a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2021/04/01/thinking-of-laminating-that-vaccine-card-pinellas-take-a-picture-instead/" target=_blank>Officials there say not to laminate your card</a> because heat from the lamination process can obscure some of the information on it.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has come out strongly against required proof of vaccination, or “vaccine passports.” He issued an executive order April 2 that prohibits businesses from requiring customers to provide documentation that they’ve gotten a COVID-19 vaccine in order to gain access or service. Those that do will not be able to get state grants or contracts, the order said.

You can read the full story on the order <a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2021/04/02/desantis-businesses-requiring-vaccine-passports-cant-get-state-money/" target=_blank>here</a>. An explanation from PolitiFact on how vaccine passports might work can be found <a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2021/04/01/how-might-vaccine-passports-work-politifact-explains/" target=_blank>here</a>.

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Will snowbirds have access to vaccines?

Yes. But only if they can prove at least part-time residency, according to an advisory Florida issued Jan. 21.

The advisory <a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2021/01/21/is-florida-vaccinating-non-residents-or-not-its-hard-to-get-an-answer/" target=_blank>limits the state’s vaccines</a> to people who are permanent or seasonal residents of Florida, reversing a previous policy of not restricting doses based where a person lives.

The decision, announced by Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, followed reports of out-of-state and foreign visitors coming to Florida to get shots because of its policy of offering doses to people 65 and older.

The advisory states that only those who can prove residency using a state driver’s license or other official documents, such as a deed, rental agreement or utility bill, will be permitted to receive shots.

Out-of-state health care providers who come to Florida to work with patients can also be vaccinated, according to the advisory.

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Can employers make vaccines mandatory?

Generally, the law says they can. But all three coronavirus vaccines available in the country are currently under Emergency Use Authorization, which means they have been preliminarily, but not fully, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Final approval, or licensure, of the drugs will come when additional data is available from ongoing clinical trials, according to federal guidelines. But even then, it’s unclear whether employers will require shots.

The Tampa Bay Times asked three experts specializing in health policy and employment law what this means for employees. All had slightly different answers but agreed that most businesses are unlikely to require coronavirus shots, opting to avoid pushback and legal issues by strongly encouraging them instead.

See our full story here.

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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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Do I need two doses?

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

Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus vaccine, however, requires just one shot, and it’s the world’s only one-dose regimen against COVID-19. (In Florida and across the nation, the Johnson & Johnson shots were “paused” on April 13 while federal officials investigate the cases of six women, ages 18 to 48, who suffered blood clots after taking the vaccine.)

For the others, a 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.

Under current guidance, 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.

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?

Experts agree that all three vaccines are highly effective and safe based on data from clinical trials.

Those by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna provide about 95 percent protection against symptoms caused by COVID-19. There is some debate about whether that level of protection is achieved with two doses or just one.

The one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is slightly less effective against symptoms, providing 72 percent protection against moderate to severe illness and 85 percent protection against severe illness in U.S. trials. But it provides complete protection from hospitalization and death from COVID-19, data shows, including against stronger variants of the virus. (In Florida and across the nation, Johnson & Johnson shots were “paused” on April 13 while federal officials investigate the cases of six women, ages 18 to 48, who suffered blood clots after taking the vaccine.)

Experts say comparing the drugs is an apples-to-oranges situation, because trials happened at different stages of the pandemic, according to the Washington Post.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has defended the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, saying it’s just as effective as those developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. In fact, he said that he would take the drug himself when his age group became eligible. “I’m just going to get one shot and be done,” the 42-year-old governor said.

DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice confirmed on April 7 that DeSantis received a Johnson & Johnson shot. But he did so out of the public’s view, even as governors elsewhere from both political parties have been vaccinated publicly to reassure Americans that the shots are safe.

Related: While more governors are publicly vaccinated, DeSantis mum on his shot

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

So far, experts have said all three approved coronavirus vaccines will protect you from the variant strain first reported in the United Kingdom, known as the B.1.1.7 variant, which is growing ever more prevalent in the United States and Florida.

Though the drugs might not provide quite as much protection against two other strains first found in South Africa and Brazil, which are less prevalent, they are still highly effective, according to the University of Maryland Medical System.

The antibodies created by the vaccines did not block those strains as well. But there are other parts of the vaccines that make them work against the variants, the university said.

“These vaccines provoke such a powerful immune response ... so that they remain highly protective even if there’s a drop in antibody strength,” its website reads. “Even if the vaccines are less effective against a particular strain, they still protect quite well against hospitalization and death from the virus in these new strains.”

While the variant strains have been found to be more contagious than the original, they will not make you more sick, according to experts.

As of April 12, nearly 22,000 people in the United States had been infected with variant strains, according to this CDC data set. Nearly 3,700 were in Florida, the most in the nation.

All but 153 of the variant cases in Florida were the B.1.1.7 strain from the U.K.

But the true number of variant cases is undoubtedly far greater. Researchers are examining only a fraction of the cases because gnomic sequencing, or the process of examining a virus for mutations, is expensive and time-consuming.

“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?

None of the three vaccines approved in the U.S. contain the actual coronavirus, so there’s no chance that taking one could infect you with the disease. But the drugs could cause some symptoms that are typical of other vaccines, and are mild in the vast number cases.

With the shots by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, 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.

Related: Concerned about coronavirus vaccine side effects? Here's what to expect.

According to a trial report by Pfizer-BioNTech, about 84 percent of 38,000 participants 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.

A report by Moderna said 92 percent of about 30,000 trial participants reported pain at the injection site — by far the most-reported symptom. About 69 percent were fatigued, 63 percent had headaches, 60 percent had muscle pain, 45 percent reported joint pain and 43 percent experienced chills.

Severe adverse reactions affected fewer than 5 percent of Pfizer-BioNTech participants, and fewer than 10 percent of Moderna participants, the reports said. Side effects were generally more common among participants 65 and older.

Side effects from the Johnson & Johnson vaccines were similar in the vast majority of cases, according to the FDA. However, one cause for concern arose on April 13, when federal officials recommended a “pause” in the administration of Johnson & Johnson shots while they investigated the cases of six women, ages 18 to 48, who suffered blot clots after taking the vaccine.

Related: I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Am I going to be okay?

Gov. Ron DeSantis urged Floridians not to worry, citing the small number of blood clot cases.

“You also have to balance that against how many people are alive today because they had the J&J vaccine,” he added. “There’s no question that it’s saved lives already.”

Besides the isolated number of blood clot cases, the most common reported side effects reported in Johnson & Johnson’s trials were pain at the injection site, headache, fatigue, muscle aches and nausea. Most said they were mild to moderate and lasted only one or two days.

Dr. Kami Kim, director of the infectious diseases and internal medicine division at the University of South Florida medical school, who also practices at Tampa General Hospital, said in early February that she hadn’t seen anything surprising so far.

She got both doses of vaccine herself and experienced body aches and some swelling near the injection site after the second. She took ibuprofen for the next 36 hours, then was back to normal, she said.

A couple colleagues “felt bad enough that they went home or took it easy for the day,” Kim said. Some reported dizziness or racing heartbeats. But there have been no severe allergic reactions to her knowledge.

All known side effects from the vaccines should resolve within a few days, Kim said, adding that the symptoms are a small price to pay for near-guaranteed protection from the coronavirus.

The vaccines “work spectacularly well, and none of the side effects are serious,” she said. “From a public health point of view, it’s totally worth it.”

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.

Federal officials announced April 13 that six women had suffered blot clots, and that one of them had died, after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine recently. But, as of April 14, those cases were still being investigated and the death had not been directly attributed to the vaccine.

In the vaccine trials, 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.

Will the vaccines keep me from getting the coronavirus?

There’s not enough data to answer this question yet, said Michael Teng, the USF immunologist. But the vaccines will almost surely keep you from developing severe symptoms that could land you in the hospital if you do catch COVID-19.

“The whole point of the vaccine is, really, we don’t like people dying from disease,” Teng said. “These vaccines are really great at preventing people from dying ... and getting severe COVID.”

According to clinical trial data, two of the vaccines approved in the U.S. so far provide upward of 90 percent protection against symptomatic coronavirus. A third provides a bit less protection against symptoms, but is 100 percent effective against hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

If you or someone you know feels ill after a vaccine, it’s likely the immune response the drug creates in the body. It’s a sign the vaccine is working, Teng said. It could also be another virus, like the flu, that has symptoms that are similar to the coronavirus.

Teng said he expects that we’ll soon know how well the vaccines protect against transmission. His bet is that the drugs will block some, “but they’re not going to be as effective against transmission as they are against symptoms.”

Does it matter which vaccine I get?

Experts say there is no need to be picky about which coronavirus vaccine you get. You should simply take the first that’s offered to you.

“It’s a bit like, do you want a Lamborghini or a Chevy to get to work?” said Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. “Ultimately, I just need to get to work. If a Chevy is available, sign me up.”

Related: A third vaccine is almost here. Any one of them will do, experts say.

Dr. Norman Hearst, a family doctor and epidemiologist at the University of California-San Francisco, shared a similar sentiment: “The best advice for now is to get whatever you can as soon as you can get it, because the sooner we all get vaccinated the better off we all are.”

All three vaccines protect against hospitalization and death, trial results show. However, as is noted elsewhere in this Q&A, administration of Johnson & Johnson shots has been “paused” in the U.S. while federal officials investigate the cases of six women who suffered blood clots after receiving the vaccine.

What ingredients are in the vaccines?

The FDA has published an ingredients list for all three approved coronavirus vaccines, and they’ve been met with assurance by experts. None of them contain the actual coronavirus.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are similar but differ slightly. Both include messenger ribonucleic acid, or mRNA, which is a molecule that carries the code that trains your body to build immunity against COVID-19.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine also 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; and potassium chloride, monobasic potassium phosphate, sodium chloride and dibasic sodium phosphate dihydrate — all of which are used to maintain pH levels.

The Moderna vaccine also contains lipids and sucrose, as well as tromethamine and tromethamine hydrochloride, which regulate acidity levels, and acetic acid and sodium acetate, which maintain pH levels.

Johnson & Johnson’s coronavirus shot is different and known as an adenovirus vector vaccine.

It introduces a harmless cold virus into the body that enters cells, prompting them to follow genetic instructions to create a replica of the coronavirus spike protein. The immune system then recognizes the replica and learns to respond to the real thing, according to the Washington Post.

The Johnson & Johnson ingredients include the recombinant gene that mimics the spike protein; citric acid monohydrate, which carries the gene; trisodium citrate dihydrate; ethanol; 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin; polysorbate-80 and sodium chloride.

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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 the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. You must be 16 or older to take the vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech.

Officials expect to lower the age ranges as more data becomes available on how the vaccines affect children.

Moderna announced trials involving children as young as 12 in December, but those won’t be done until the spring at the earliest.

Johnson & Johnson is beginning trials among children ages 12 to 17, and it will eventually test the drugs in infants and newborns, the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/28/world/johnson-and-johnson-vaccine-testing-children.html" target=_blank><i>New York Times</i></a> reported.

Pfizer, which in January announced a trial of 12- to 15-year-olds, said on March 31 that its vaccine is safe and strongly protective in kids as young as 12, based on a study of 2,260 U.S. volunteers.

“We’re in the process of starting clinical trials in what we call age de-escalation, where you do a clinical trial with people 16 to 12, then 12 to 9, then 9 to 6,” Fauci said told ProPublica in early February, adding that students as young as first grade could have access to vaccines by September.

But, ProPublica reports, only Pfizer has pediatric vaccine trials far enough along to potentially have data on elementary school children by the end of the summer.

Children will be an important part of the vaccination equation. They represent about one-fourth of the population, and for the U.S. to reach “herd immunity,” 70 to 85 percent of the population must be vaccinated.

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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, it will not cause those who receive it to be infected or become contagious, Teng said. Still, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccinated people should continue to wear well-fitted masks, avoid large gatherings, and physically distance themselves from others when out in public. The CDC also advised vaccinated people to get tested if they develop symptoms that could be related to COVID-19.

But the CDC is also recommending ways vaccinated Americans can start gathering again as more people receive doses.

In guidance issued on March 8, the agency said fully vaccinated Americans can gather with other vaccinated people indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing. The agency also said vaccinated people can come together in the same way — in a single household — with people considered at low-risk for severe disease, such as in the case of vaccinated grandparents visiting healthy children and grandchildren.

<a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2021/04/02/fully-vaccinated-can-travel-again-says-new-cdc-guidance/" target=_blank>On April 2</a>, the CDC updated its <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-during-covid19.html">guidance</a> to say fully vaccinated people can travel within the U.S. without getting tested for the coronavirus or going into quarantine afterward.

Still, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky urged caution and said she would “advocate against general travel overall” given the rising number of infections.

“If you are vaccinated, it is lower risk,” she said.

The guidance is designed to address a growing demand, as more adults have been getting vaccinated and wondering if it gives them greater freedom to visit family members, travel, or do other things like they did before the pandemic.

Officials say a person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the last required dose of vaccine. About 63 million Americans — or about 19 percent of the U.S. population — have been fully vaccinated with a federally authorized COVID-19 vaccine so far, according to the CDC.

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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.

Pfizer has offered an update, saying its vaccine continues to be effective against COVID-19 up to six months later. Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech, announced these updated results April 1 from their ongoing late-stage study of more than 44,000 volunteers.

The companies said the vaccine was 91 percent effective against symptomatic disease and was even more protective in preventing severe disease.

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

The best answer, experts say, is to check with your doctor to determine what is best for your particular situation.

The World Health Organization put out new guidance on Jan. 26, recommending against pregnant women taking the Moderna vaccine, unless they are at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to their job or other circumstances. That echoed guidance from Jan. 8, in which WHO recommended against pregnant women taking the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine due to lack of study on that population.

“Pregnant women are at higher risk of severe COVID-19 than non-pregnant women, and COVID-19 has been associated with an increased risk of pre-term birth,” WHO said. “However due to insufficient data, WHO does not recommend the vaccination of pregnant women at this time.”

Vaccine studies among people with pre-existing conditions, including immunodeficiencies, have also been limited. But WHO does not recommend against that population receiving vaccines.

“The interim recommendation is that immune-compromised persons who are part of a group recommended for vaccination may be vaccinated, though when possible, not before receiving information and counseling,” the organization said.

Recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are similarly cautious.

“Based on how these vaccines work in the body, experts believe they are unlikely to pose a specific risk for people who are pregnant,” the CDC said in guidance that was updated on March 18. “However, there are currently limited data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in pregnant people.”

The agency said clinical trials and animal studies are under way regarding the vaccines and pregnancy and will be closely monitored. It also says pregnant people can help out in the quest for information by joining v-safe, the CDC’s smartphone-based tool that uses text messaging and web surveys to provide personalized health check-ins after vaccination.

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Could the vaccines affect fertility?

No, according to multiple experts, the CDC and three leading professional organizations focused on fertility and reproductive medicine.

“If you are trying to become pregnant now or want to get pregnant in the future, you may receive a COVID-19 vaccine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in March.

Three leading professional organizations put out a similar statement a month earlier, assuring that “there is no evidence that the vaccine can lead to fertility.” The joint affirmation was issued by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

Related: Confronting the myth: COVID vaccines don't affect fertility, experts say

Originating in Europe, misinformation on the topic has spread widely across the United States since the vaccines started rolling out. The A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 13 percent of unvaccinated Americans had heard that “COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to cause infertility.”

But there is no evidence to support that, said Dr. Katherine Apostolakis-Kyrus, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

She shared four reasons why the claim is false, which you can read <a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2021/04/09/confronting-the-myth-covid-vaccines-dont-affect-fertility-experts-say/" target=_blank>here</a>.

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

Even after vaccination, you should continue to social distance and wear a mask. There are plenty of reasons why, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on national health issues.

But, as is addressed in another question in this Q&A, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also recommending ways vaccinated Americans can start gathering again as more people receive doses.

In guidance issued on March 8, the agency said fully vaccinated Americans can gather with other vaccinated people indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing. The agency also said vaccinated people can come together in the same way — in a single household — with people considered at low-risk for severe disease, such as in the case of vaccinated grandparents visiting healthy children and grandchildren.

<a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2021/04/02/fully-vaccinated-can-travel-again-says-new-cdc-guidance/" target=_blank>On April 2</a>, the CDC updated its <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-during-covid19.html">guidance</a> to say fully vaccinated people can travel within the U.S. without getting tested for the coronavirus or going into quarantine afterward.

Still, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky urged caution and said she would “advocate against general travel overall” given the rising number of infections.

“If you are vaccinated, it is lower risk,” she said.

The guidance is designed to address a growing demand, as more adults have been getting vaccinated and wondering if it gives them greater freedom to visit family members, travel, or do other things like they did before the pandemic.

Officials say a person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the last required dose of vaccine. About 63 million Americans — or about 19 percent of the U.S. population — have been fully vaccinated with a federally authorized COVID-19 vaccine so far, according to the CDC.

The new guidance also says nothing about going to restaurants or other places, even though governors are lifting restrictions on businesses. And it does not speak to people who may have gained some level of immunity from being infected, and recovering from, the coronavirus.

As for why people should continue to wear masks and maintain social distance, the first thing to consider is that not all vaccines are 100 percent effective, the Kaiser foundation notes. The approved coronavirus vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have about 95 percent success rates, meaning one in 20 people are left unprotected, Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the CDC told Kaiser.

Next, vaccines don’t immediately provide protection. It takes about two weeks for the immune system to produce enough antibodies to block infection after inoculation, Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan, told Kaiser. And full protection won’t happen until weeks later, when you receive the second of the two doses required for each of the approved vaccines.

Even with full protection, you could still spread the coronavirus, experts warn. While researchers know the coronavirus vaccines prevent illness, they are still trying to determine whether the drugs prevent transmission, too.

That means even after vaccination, you could still contract COVID-19 but not experience symptoms, increasing the chance of spreading disease unknowingly.

Related: Five reasons to wear a mask even after you're vaccinated

Another consideration is that some people aren’t able to be vaccinated, either because of particular health conditions or because they don’t yet have access. Masks can help keep them safe while others get inoculated and communities work toward herd immunity.

Lastly, masks protect against genetic mutations of the coronavirus. Florida is leading the country in the number of cases of one variant that was first reported in the United Kingdom.

While the new strain won’t make you more sick, experts have found it to be about 50 percent more contagious than the original. Studies suggest the approved vaccines will protect you from the strain. But others could still develop, and masks protect against all viruses.

The best hope for ending the pandemic isn’t to choose between masks, physical distancing and vaccines, Dr. Paul Offit, who advises the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration on COVID-19 vaccines, told Kaiser.

“The three approaches work best as a team.”

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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 for communities 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 <a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/florida-politics/2020/12/11/pinellas-nursing-homes-to-receive-first-doses-of-coronavirus-vaccine-likely-next-week/" target=_blank>started delivering vaccines</a> 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.

The number of coronavirus cases in Florida nursing homes and assisted-living facilities is down dramatically since their peak in January and after nearly a year of deadly outbreaks and resident isolation.

On March 24, the state Agency for Health Care Administration <a href="https://www.tampabay.com/news/health/2021/03/24/florida-long-term-care-residents-can-enjoy-family-visits-complete-with-hugs/" target=_blank>announced that it was removing restrictions</a> on residents of long-term care who want to visit with their loved ones.

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

The Bay Pines VA health care system is offering coronavirus vaccines to all veterans and their families, regardless of whether they are enrolled in Veterans Affairs medical care, thanks to a bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in March.

The Strengthening and Amplifying Vaccination Efforts to Locally Immunize All Veterans and Every Spouse Act, or the SAVE LIVES Act, expanded the Department of Veterans Affairs’ legal authority to provide vaccines to all veterans, their spouses, caregivers and some beneficiaries.

“The SAVE LIVES Act increases the number of individuals who are eligible to get lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines from VA from 9.5 million to more than 33 million,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in a statement.

Those seeking vaccines within the Bay Pines system can make an appointment or walk in to the C.W. Bill Young Medical Center in Pinellas County, the Lee County VA Healthcare Center in Cape Coral and all of its community-based outpatient clinics between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, according to spokeswoman Anna Hancock.

Those interested in making an appointment can call 727-395-2400.

As of Thursday April 15, the Tampa VA system is vaccinating all veterans and their spouses regardless of whether the veteran is enrolled in VA medical care at outpatient clinics listed here. Locations and availability change weekly.

Additionally, all veterans and their family members are eligible at the drive-thru clinic at the Yuengling Center, Tuesday through Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to noon at 12499 USF Bull Run Drive in Tampa. Those eligible can register for an appointment here.

Times Staff Writers Allison Ross, Ileana Najarro, Lawrence Mower, Kathryn Varn, Caitlin Johnston, John Martin, Thomas C. Tobin, Anastasia Dawson and Bailey LeFever contributed to this report, which also includes information from The Associated Press, Kaiser Health News and the Miami Herald.

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