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What You Need to Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine

Minnesota Department of Health graphic titled, "Hello, Sunshine." It shows a sunrise over pine trees, where some of the sun's rays are little vaccine syringes.

Vaccinations in Minnesota began this week. Shipments are arriving to hundreds of locations across the state within the week. Vaccines are also being distributed to five channels directly from the federal government. Vaccinations will happen in phases over the next several months.

Phase 1, according to Governor Walz, will see vaccinations for frontline health care workers. This includes aides, housekeeping staff, and dietary staff. Long-term care facilities will also receive vaccinations in the first phase.

Right now, we are right at the beginning of phase 1. State officials expect about a third of health care workers to be vaccinated by mid-January. However, that is partially due to the fact that it is a two-part vaccine, with doses administered nearly a month apart from each other.

Because we are getting closer to the day where we all can be vaccinated, it is important to educate ourselves so we can educate others. We’re going to lay out the main information here, and will continue to update throughout the next few months.

Who Makes the Vaccines?

Right now, there is one vaccine that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It’s made by Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company. The Pfizer vaccine is the one that’s already being distributed.

There’s a second vaccine, made by Moderna, that is expected to receive government approval this month. Moderna is a biotechnology company that focuses on developing medicine and vaccines.

How Did the Vaccines Get Approved?

Throughout the vaccine development, disease experts warned the public that vaccines probably wouldn’t be available until 2021, or even 2022. Yet the Pfizer vaccine is already being administered, just 11 months after the pandemic began in January 2020.

Because of how quickly the vaccines were developed and approved for use, many have been feeling unsure. Is the vaccine safe? Has it been reviewed and tested enough?

Yes, and yes.

COVID-19 is part of a larger family of coronaviruses. We’ve dealt with coronaviruses before — SARS in 2002, and MERS in 2012. This means that researchers had a huge head start in developing the vaccine. In other words, when researchers set to work developing a vaccine, they weren’t starting from scratch.

Once researchers have identified a possible vaccine, they start more lab testing and research to make sure they’ve found something that works. This is the pre-clinical phase. Researchers do extra research and testing in animals to figure out if the vaccine will be safe for human testing. If the vaccine makes it past pre-clinical, then human testing can start.

The vaccine has to go through a three-phase process, starting with a small amount of volunteers. If the vaccine is determined to be safe, then phase 2 expands testing so researchers can learn more. If it makes it past phase 2, then phase 3 sees the vaccine test administered to thousands of volunteers. The COVID-19 vaccines went through trials of 30,000 people.

When all these steps have gone off without an issue, vaccine developers can finally ask the FDA for permission to distribute it in the US.

After the FDA has its own team of experts in various fields review the vaccine and give it the OK, then the vaccine can be distributed. Even then, the FDA watches the process very closely.

So, long story short, even though the COVID vaccines were made in record time, they are just as safe.

How Will the Vaccines Work?

Both the already-approved Pfizer vaccine and the soon-to-be-approved Moderna vaccine require two separate shots. The Pfizer shots will be about 21 days apart and the Moderna shots will be 28 days apart.

It may seem strange that COVID-19 vaccines require two shots, since routine vaccines we usually get, like flu shots, are typically just one. However, the COVID vaccines aren’t the only vaccines that require more than one shot, and there’s a good reason for the two-shot delivery.

The first shot essentially prepares your body. According to the CDC, when someone receives a vaccine for the first time, it generally doesn’t give them full immunity. You get a little bit of protection, but then the second vaccine finishes the job. Vaccines for MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) and DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) work the same way. That’s why children need booster shots around ages 4, 6, and 12 for vaccines they received as babies.

When Can I Get Vaccinated?

Because we’re right at the beginning of Minnesota’s vaccinations, the state government isn’t finished planning the phases. The first round is, as said, frontline workers and those living in long-term care facilities. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the next in line with likely be essential workers, first responders, and adults aged 65+.

Once there are enough vaccines available, the eventual goal in Hennepin County is to have vaccination events. There have been free COVID-19 testing events all over the Twin Cities throughout the last few months. Vaccination events will likely follow the same format, though details are still being worked out.

In short, if you are not part of a population with higher risk, then it will probably be a few more months. In the meantime, it’s vital that we continue to wear masks and social distance when in public, and stay home when possible.

Read about the State of Minnesota’s vaccination phase plan here.

Visit Minnesota Department of Health’s COVID-19 Vaccine FAQ here.

Keep up with COVID-19 updates on our COVID-19 page here.

Learn about the full vaccine approval process from the FDA here.

Learn more about how vaccines work from the CDC here.

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