Coronavirus vaccine FAQ: What you need to know

The race is on to get Americans vaccinated against the coronavirus as COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to surge.

Here’s what you need to know.

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Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.


  • Q: Can I get a vaccine in the D.C. area?
  • Across the D.C. area, officials are rolling out the coronavirus vaccines in phases.


    Virginia on Jan. 11 allowed 11 health districts, including six in Northern Virginia (Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Lord Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William) move into Phase 1b, which means front line essential workers, those age 75 and older, and people living in correctional facilities, homeless shelters and migrant labor camps can sign up. You can find how to do that in your area here.


    In D.C., if you’re over 65 you can sign up for a shot by calling 855-363-0333 or using D.C.’s online portal. Here’s where you can make an appointment in D.C.


    In Maryland, the vaccination rollout has moved to Phase 1b — ahead of schedule — starting Jan. 18. Gov. Larry Hogan announced the move at a Jan. 14 news conference. Phase 1b includes older adults age 75 and older, those in assisted living facilities, teachers and child care providers are now eligible for the vaccines, which are being distributed by individual jurisdictions and require appointments.

    The earlier Phase 1a was limited to hospital and health care workers as well as residents and staff of nursing homes.

    In general, vaccines provided by the state to local areas are limited.

    Next up is Phase 1c, which includes adults between 65 and 74, essential workers in lab services, food and agriculture production, manufacturing, and public transit and grocery store workers. Phase 1c is set to start Jan. 25.

    You can keep track of where the Maryland is at on the various phases of the vaccine rollout on the Department of Health site.

  • Q: How is the rollout going in general?
  • Could be better, honestly. The Trump administration promised 20 million people would be vaccinated by the end of 2020; a week and a half into 2021, about 6.6 million people have been vaccinated. “States lament a lack of clarity on how many doses they will receive and when,” The Associated Press reported, adding that not a lot is being done to educate people who are resisting getting the shot.

    Vaccine doses are provided by the federal government — and supplies are still quite limited in the D.C. area.

    Maryland said it is only receiving about 10,000 doses per day from the federal government for a population of more than 1.5 million eligible to receive the vaccine at this point.

    In D.C., it took just 30 minutes for 1,400 additional COVID-19 vaccine appointments to be filled on the morning of Jan. 18. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bower said the District needs more COVID-19 vaccines from the federal government, saying “Our residents want it right now.”

    President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to boost supplies of the coronavirus vaccine and speed up the process — setting an ambitious goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office.

  • Q: What’s being done to speed up the process?
  • The Trump administration made a policy change Tuesday: Before, when you got your first shot, the second dose (remember, for the Pfizer vaccine you need two) was already kept aside for you when you came back in two weeks. That’s not happening anymore — doses are being released in order to get as many shots into Americans as possible.

    That’s a change that brings the outgoing administration in line with the incoming one: Last week, the Biden transition team announced that they would make the move themselves, “[using] the levers of government power to provide required second doses in a timely manner,” The Associated Press reported.

  • Q: How effective have the vaccines been in trials?
  • Pfizer and Moderna are reporting preliminary results from late-stage trials that show their vaccines are almost 95% effective.

    AstraZeneca says its vaccine is up to 90% effective.

  • Q: What does 'vaccine efficacy' or efficiency mean?
  • Percentages in vaccine efficacy and vaccine effectiveness describes “the proportionate reduction in disease among the vaccinated group. So a VE of 90% indicates a 90% reduction in disease occurrence among the vaccinated group, or a 90% reduction from the number of cases you would expect if they have not been vaccinated,” according to the CDC.

    There’s a formula for it:

    “Vaccine efficacy/effectiveness (VE) is measured by calculating the risk of disease among vaccinated and unvaccinated persons and determining the percentage reduction in risk of disease among vaccinated persons relative to unvaccinated persons. The greater the percentage reduction of illness in the vaccinated group, the greater the vaccine efficacy/effectiveness.

    The basic formula is written as:

    Risk among unvaccinated group − risk among vaccinated group
    Risk among unvaccinated group OR: 1 − risk ratio

    In the first formula, the numerator (risk among unvaccinated − risk among vaccinated) is sometimes called the risk difference or excess risk.”

  • Q: What are the differences between the vaccines?
  • The vaccines differ in doses and distribution requirements.

    A half-dose of AstraZeneca‘s vaccine followed by a full dose at least one month later was 90% effective.

    Both Pfizer and Moderna‘s vaccines require two shots. For Pfizer, the booster shot is needed three weeks after your first shot. For Moderna’s, it’s four weeks.

    AstraZeneca’s vaccine doesn’t need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, making it easier to distribute, especially in developing countries. It can be transported under “normal refrigerated conditions” of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit).

    Pfizer, on the other hand, plans to distribute its vaccine using specially designed “thermal shippers” that use dry ice to maintain temperatures of minus-70 degrees Celsius (minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit).

  • Q: Who gets the vaccine first?
  • Health officials have cautioned that there won’t immediately be enough doses of a vaccine for everyone.

    That means the highest-priority groups, which include health care workers, the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions, will get the vaccine first.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will also look into the data on the vaccines and issue guidance to the states regarding which populations should be prioritized for the distribution of the vaccine.

    It’s not yet known exactly how recipients will be notified.

  • Q: OK, what about the rest of us?
  • According to the CDC, vaccine supplies “will increase over time, and all adults should be able to get vaccinated later in 2021. However, a COVID-19 vaccine may not be available for young children until more studies are completed.”

  • Q: How many COVID vaccine shots are needed?
  • According to the CDC, all but one of the COVID-19 vaccines currently in Phase 3 clinical trials in the U.S. need two shots to be effective. The other COVID-19 vaccine uses one shot.

    The Food and Drug Administration said partial protection appears two weeks after the first dose of the Pfizer shot, and greater protection seems to last at least two months after the second and final dose.

  • Q: How do the vaccines work?
  • AstraZeneca’s vaccine uses a weakened version of a common cold virus that is combined with genetic material for the characteristic spike protein of the virus that causes COVID-19. After vaccination, the spike protein primes the immune system to attack the virus if it later infects the body. Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines also teach the immune system to recognize coronavirus, through messenger RNA.

    The CDC has an explainer on how vaccines work online.

  • Q: How much will the vaccine cost?
  • According to The Associated Press, Pfizer’s vaccine costs about $20 a dose, while Moderna’s is $15 to $25, based on agreements the companies have struck to supply their vaccines to the U.S. government.

    The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is cheaper. AstraZeneca, which has pledged it won’t make a profit on the vaccine during the pandemic, has reached agreements with governments and international health organizations that put its cost at about $2.50 a dose.

    The CDC says, “Vaccine doses purchased with U.S. taxpayer dollars will be given to the American people at no cost,” but there is a caveat:

    “However, vaccination providers will be able to charge an administration fee for giving the shot to someone. Vaccine providers can get this fee reimbursed by the patient’s public or private insurance company or, for uninsured patients, by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Provider Relief Fund.”


  • Q: Does the vaccine mean the pandemic is over?
  • Nope.

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top disease expert in the U.S., told CBS that for there to be herd immunity by May 2021, it would require that a majority of the country be vaccinated.

    “If you have a highly efficacious vaccine, and only a relatively small 40, 50% of the people get vaccinated, you’re not going to get the herd immunity you need,” Fauci said. “What we do need is we need to get as many people as possible vaccinated.”

    The CDC cautions that experts “do not know what percentage of people would need to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.”

  • Q: What exactly is 'herd immunity'?
  • Per the CDC: “Herd immunity is a term used to describe when enough people have protection — either from previous infection or vaccination — that it is unlikely a virus or bacteria can spread and cause disease. As a result, everyone within the community is protected even if some people don’t have any protection themselves. The percentage of people who need to have protection in order to achieve herd immunity varies by disease.”

  • Q: What can Americans do until we've all been vaccinated?
  • Stay safe: Wear a mask, wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, reduce your risk of exposure, check for symptoms and get tested.

    WTOP’s Jack Moore contributed to this report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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