What You Need to Know About the COVID-19 Vaccines


March 9, 2021

As the country settles into year two of pandemic living, you’re probably anxious to get back to life in the Before Times. Understandable. Most people have hit an emotional wall — or several — over the course of the last year.

And thanks to vaccines, we’re edging ever closer to what we consider “normal” existence.

But before you ditch your masks and start hugging your neighbors, there are some important things to know as more people become eligible for vaccines nationwide. 

First, it’ll take some time for herd immunity to develop, and experts aren’t exactly unified on when that time will. The consensus on how many people need to be immune to the virus lands somewhere between 70 and 95%.

That means that 70 to 95% of people will need to get vaccinated (or get COVID and recover) for the country to achieve herd immunity. It’s a tall order, for sure. It also depends on widespread cooperation.

But there’s cause for optimism, even if it’s the cautious variety.

As more people get vaccinated, scientists will be better able to figure out how many people need to be immune in order for us to achieve herd immunity. And once we achieve herd immunity, we’ll be well on our way to life as we knew it before 2020.

Confused about the COVID-19 vaccines?

Wondering when we can all resume our pre-2020 lives?

Be patient, friends. That time will come. Until then, here’s what you need to know right now about the coronavirus vaccines.

Disclaimer: the following is for informational purposes only. Please contact your doctor or health department if you have questions or concerns about COVID-19 and/or vaccines.

What kind of vaccines are available right now?

There are currently two COVID-19 vaccines widely available, though a third was recently authorized and began shipping nationwide last week.

The two that have been around since December are one from Pfizer-BioNTech (authorized December 11th) and one from Moderna (December 18th).

Both of these vaccines use mRNA technology to teach the body how to recognize and develop antibodies against the novel coronavirus. It’s the same intent as a traditional vaccine, but it doesn’t actually use a virus itself to get the message to your body.

Instead, it’s essentially a piece of code. This new technology allowed researchers to develop these vaccines at lightning speed without skipping any critical safety tests.

For a handy breakdown of how mRNA vaccines actually work, check out this video from Vox. (And for a really technical breakdown of what went into development and how mRNA works, here’s an in-depth video from Ninja Nerd Lectures.)

The most recent vaccine to get FDA authorization is one from Johnson & Johnson. It was authorized on February 27th. Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the J&J COVID-19 vaccine was developed with a more traditional approach, using a disabled adenovirus to get your body the information it needs to develop antibodies.

Here’s a quick summary of the differences between the three available vaccines.

As for who can get a vaccine right now, that depends on where you live. States set their own guidelines and phases for distribution.

Skip down to the end of this article for a list of resources on vaccines by state.

Are the vaccines FDA approved?

This might surprise you, but no. None of the available COVID-19 vaccines have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as of March 2021. They’ve been authorized instead.

The FDA granted something called “Emergency Use Authorization” (EUA) to these vaccines. It means that the benefits of this vaccine outweigh the risks of getting sick. Plus, there’s no current alternative treatment available.

Straight from the Pfizer fact sheet:

  • “FDA may issue an EUA when certain criteria are met, which includes that there are no adequate, approved, available alternatives. In addition, the FDA decision is based on the totality of scientific evidence available showing that the product may be effective to prevent COVID-19 during the COVID-19 pandemic and that the known and potential benefits of the product outweigh the known and potential risks of the product. All of these criteria must be met to allow for the product to be used in the treatment of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.” (emphasis ours)

Now, that doesn’t mean these vaccines aren’t safe or that the process to get them to market has been rushed (more on that in a sec). It just means that the available vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and, most recently, Johnson & Johnson have not gone through the same approval process that new drugs typically go through.

But these are not normal times. The FDA looked at the science, weighed the benefits against the risks, and granted emergency use authorization based on what they saw.

It’s a little fishy to me how fast these vaccines came about. What gives?

That’s an understandable reaction. By typical standards, it certainly seems like these vaccines appeared out of nowhere. A typical vaccine can take 5-10 (or more) years from production to FDA approval.

But actually, researchers have been studying coronaviruses for decades, and they had a head start on COVID-19 due in part to a SARS epidemic in 2002 and the emergence of MERS in 2012.

It only took 10 days from the first reported pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, for scientists to make the coronavirus genome sequence publicly available. That means that in just over a week, researchers worldwide had access to a vital piece of information about this new virus to get started on a vaccine.

Between a head start using existing research and worldwide cooperation — not to mention the added pressure of being crunched for time — more than one vaccine has been developed in less than a full year.

Plus, two of the now-available vaccines in the U.S. use mRNA technology, which allowed researchers to shorten some elements of the development and testing phases without sacrificing safety protocols.

It’s not fishy. It’s science. And it’s amazing.

But I’ve heard some rumors about these new vaccines . . .

Listen. The internet is full of rumors about, well, everything. If you look hard enough — and sometimes, not even that hard — you’ll find a variety of voices saying some pretty (ahem) interesting things.

That’s not new or unique to the internet, though. Conspiracy theories have existed probably for as long as people have.

Still, it’s worth talking about, not to give credibility to rumors but to understand people’s fears about a new piece of medical technology.

It’s okay to ask questions.

As a patient and a person, you do have a right to decide what treatments you want and what to put into your body.

But if you’re on the fence or you’re worried over rumors about what these COVID-19 vaccines do (and don’t do), then take some time to research them. Here are a few resources to get you started, all from credible sources:

You might have heard things like the vaccine causes infertility or mRNA technology is really just code for DNA-altering control. Or you might even have heard the old standby of vaccines, that getting the shot will give you the virus it’s trying to prevent.

These are all false. (For full explanations, check out some of those links above.)

The COVID-19 vaccines have so far proven safe and effective at preventing people from getting severely sick with COVID-19. In fact, Pfizer has an efficacy rate of 95% while Moderna’s is 94%. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a lower efficacy rate of 72%. But even at this lower rate, it’s still far more effective at preventing severe illness from COVID-19 than the seasonal flu shot is at doing its job (usually).

Scientists did not rush this process, though it might seem like it given the timeline.

Each stage of vaccine trials has to meet rigorous safety (and efficacy) standards before moving to the next. Phase III trials included tens of thousands of people, with little to no adverse effects (and no deaths). The fact that the FDA authorized these vaccines for emergency use means they thought the benefits outweigh the risks.

It’s your choice whether to get a vaccine.

Just know that the data show, to date, that these vaccines are safe and highly effective.

Can everyone get a vaccine?

Most adults (and teens 16+) can get the new COVID-19 vaccines. The vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are authorized for adults aged 18 and up. The Pfizer vaccine is available for people aged 16 and up.

But there are some people who will need to check with their doctors first. If you fall into one of these categories, you may need to hold off on the vaccine or take some special precautions:

  • You’re allergic to anything in the vaccines;
  • You have a history of allergic reactions to vaccines;
  • You’re pregnant or breastfeeding;
  • You have COVID-19 right now or have received antibody therapy treatment recently;
  • You’ve got certain underlying medical problems; or
  • You’re under 18 (or under 16 for the Pfizer vaccine)

Here’s a nice roundup from Healthline of why certain groups might need to wait on a COVID-19 vaccine.

Note that you may not have to wait, even if you’re pregnant or have a medical condition. The point here is to check with your doctor first.

In fact, even if you don’t fall into any of those categories, go ahead and ask your doctor if you’re hesitant. It’s always good to be sure.

Otherwise, most adults (and 16+ if it’s the Pfizer vaccine) can get a vaccine with no issues.

What about my kids?

The current vaccines are authorized for 16+ in the case of Pfizer and 18+ in the case of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. None of the clinical trials for these vaccines — from any manufacturer — included children.

Both Moderna and Pfizer are starting trials for kids as young as 12. But to date, no vaccine is being tested on children younger than 12. That may happen later this year, though it likely depends on what happens with these trials for younger adolescents.

So for now at least, younger kids won’t be able to get vaccinated.

This is actually part of why it’s so important for adults to get vaccinated. It’s true that children (especially young children) aren’t as susceptible to the more devastating symptoms of COVID-19 as teens and adults. They don’t tend to spread the virus as easily, either, and they don’t usually get as sick.

That said, the risk is still there. And young children have gotten sick — and, unfortunately, died — due to COVID-19. For the time being, the country’s little ones will depend on herd immunity from the adult population. And to achieve herd immunity, we need a high portion of the population to get vaccinated.

Once I’m vaccinated, am I free to do everything I did in the Before Times?

The short answer is no.

The mid-sized answer is that you need to be cautious but can likely enjoy a bit more freedom than you may have had over the last year.

The longer answer would require additional reading — and we’ve got you covered!

Here are some great articles that address this question using advice and guidance from actual professionals:

It comes down to risk assessment.

A vaccine may help you branch out a bit more. Maybe you can see other vaccinated friends and family members in small get-togethers. Some travel might now be possible for you.

But vaccinated people still need to practice social distancing when in crowded areas or indoors, and masks are still a good idea, at least around unvaccinated people or in places where you’re unsure of vaccine status.

That’s because experts aren’t sure to what extent the vaccine protects against transmission among asymptomatic carriers.

Vaccine studies largely looked at how well the vaccines prevented life-threatening symptoms (and hospitalization) due to COVID-19. And these vaccines are very good at that. But as far as keeping transmission low, particularly among people who might not even know they’re sick, the research isn’t as clear on that.

(For a longer explanation, including why we still need to wear masks even after being vaccinated, please read those articles. They offer some great info.)

Keep in mind, too, that full protection from the vaccine doesn’t happen for up to two weeks following your second shot.

Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, three (Pfizer) or four (Moderna) weeks apart. So “fully vaccinated” means waiting two weeks after you get your second dose of the vaccine. With the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (one dose), it takes a couple weeks for the body to develop a strong immune response.

This isn’t unusual. It actually tracks with the seasonal flu shot, which can also take a couple weeks to “kick in,” so to speak.

So let’s say you get your first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on March 8th. Assuming you’re able to get your second dose on time three weeks later, that means you would be considered fully vaccinated by about April 12th.

In other words? It’s not immediate. Just keep that in mind as you make your spring and summer plans.

I’m on board. How and when can I get vaccinated?

Great! Getting vaccinated is one more step towards ending this pandemic. As for when and how to do it, that depends on where you live. Check out the next section for links to get you started.

COVID-19 & Vaccine Info by State

Because each state handles its own vaccine distribution, start with your state’s health department for the most accurate resources. And if you live in a county with its own health department, start there.

To help you out, here’s a roundup of state health departments (including D.C.), along with direct links to pages specifically related to COVID-19 data and vaccination efforts.

Note: the links below belong to the entity that made them. We can’t make any promises about the accuracy of the info on each site. Each website linked below was live as of publishing date. For up-to-date information about vaccines and COVID-19 in your state, contact your doctor or health department.


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District of Columbia

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New Hampshire

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New Jersey

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New Mexico

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New York

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North Carolina

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North Dakota

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Rhode Island

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South Carolina

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South Dakota

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West Virginia

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