Get ready to roll up your sleeve—and you'd better get comfortable with that face mask because you'll have to wear it even after you get vaccinated for COVID-19.

By Lisa Milbrand
January 27, 2021
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It felt kind of like I won the lottery—and the Golden Ticket and an Academy Award. Combined. And all it was was a tiny shot of Moderna's COVID vaccine, which promises to bring life back to some semblance of the "Before Times"—at least eventually.

I was sorted into group 1C in the vaccine eligibility line due to my decades-long battle with chronic kidney disease. I'm just on the cusp of needing a transplant or dialysis, and my doctor had warned me—repeatedly—that COVID-19 would be far more likely to lead to hospitalization and death for me than it would for my healthier friends.

So my family—including my teen daughters—have been stuck in the house for months, waiting for my shot at a shot. And a few weeks ago, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it was time for high-risk individuals to line up, I signed up ASAP. I was at my local Essex County clinic in New Jersey a few days later.

The shot was painless and over before I realized she'd given it to me. And now, a week after my first dose, I'm counting the days until my second shot, and tallying up the things it could eventually bring back: visiting friends and family, in-person school and activities for my daughters, and even just going on a Target run or getting a haircut. Normal.

There are a lot of questions out there about the COVID vaccines—with new ones on the horizon, and supply outpacing demand in some areas and under-pacing in others. Here's what I discovered as someone halfway to being fully vaccinated—and what you need to know when it's your turn.

The Vaccine Effort Is a Little Disorganized Right Now

Every state and county is running their system differently—from where to get the vaccine, how to sign up, and even who can sign up. And that can lead to a lot of confusion and can make it harder than it needs to be to get the vaccine.

An image of a syringe on a colored background.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

My county has a super-streamlined online signup and a centralized system that took just a few minutes to navigate, but my mom in the next state over spent days calling various pharmacies in her area trying to locate the vaccines before I was able to find her an appointment at a clinic in Buffalo, New York.

It seems like things are starting to get a little more streamlined and organized now, so by the time most of the general population can get in line, it should be a much easier experience.

You Might Have Side Effects

I had the typical arm soreness you get after pretty much any immunization. And the day after the shot, I woke up feeling like I had a nasty hangover even though I had only seltzer the night before to celebrate my vaccination luck.

Given that Dr. Fauci said his second dose of the Moderna vaccine knocked him out for 24 hours. I'm clearing my calendar for the day after my next shot. But I figure a sick day is a very small price to pay for avoiding the hospital.

I was hoping that feeling lousy post-vaccine might be a sign that my body's really working overtime on building an immune response, but it seems like that isn't necessarily a thing. "Side effects from the vaccine, such as headache and fatigue, are common, but it does not necessarily correlate with level of protection you will achieve from the vaccine," says Michelle Barron, M.D., senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth in Denver.

You Won't Get COVID-19 From the Vaccine

Despite the memes and myths going around, there is absolutely no possible way you can get the coronavirus from the vaccine. The current vaccines don't even use the actual virus. As the CDC explains, they use mRNA (messenger RNA) to "teach our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response."

This technology has been used for effective vaccines for Ebola—and experts have been studying it as a way to potentially create individualized cures for cancer. Yay, science!

You Need a Second Dose to Be Protected

I'm about 10 days past my first vaccination, so my immune system has likely developed some of the tools it would need to fight an exposure to COVID-19. But it's that second dose that really seals the deal. "In general, the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are not fully effective until 7 to 14 days after the second dose of vaccine," says Dr. Barron.

After receiving two doses there is still the slim possibility I'm not completely covered—the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are both considered over 94 percent effective. "Potentially 1 in 20 people that have been vaccinated will still get infected," says Dr. Barron. "However, the preliminary data suggests that if this happens, the infection is less severe."

Most Kids Still Can't Get Any COVID-19 Vaccines

Moderna is only approved for people over 18 and Pfizer for those 16 and up—though, currently, they're prioritizing vaccinating young people with underlying medical conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, and cancer.

My older daughter will be able to get the Pfizer vaccine when the general population is allowed to get in line—she's over 16. But for my 14-year-old daughter the timeline is less clear. "The clinical trials that include children under 16 years are ongoing," says Dr. Barron. The current trials include kids 12 to 16, so once those trials are complete, all teens could be approved to get the vaccine.

And since that means that people in my household will still be waiting a while before they're protected, we're keeping our exposures at a minimum. "Even if parents are vaccinated and the children are not, it's recommended to continue the current measures we have been using to prevent transmission of COVID-19: wash hands, wear masks, continue with social distancing, and limit large gatherings," says Dr. Barron. "And if you're gathering, it's preferable to be outdoors." Since it's January and 23 degrees out, that's not too palatable right now.

You Still Have to Wear a Mask After Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine

It may seem like I should be able to walk the world mask-free once I've had that second shot, but the jury is still out about whether you could still carry the virus and infect others. Yes, even if you never had a single symptom—like a modern-day Typhoid Mary. And with so many people I love still waiting for their vaccines, I would feel incredibly guilty if I went maskless and anyone in my circle got sick.

"Even after the vaccines, the need for masking and social distancing and remaining in your bubble continues," says Dr. Barron. "We need to continue this until we get enough people either vaccinated or they have had the disease for the impact of the virus to slow down."

Maybe the Target run and the haircut can wait.