The COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the United States has been chaotic, but the bottom line is this: Two highly safe and effective vaccines are available, and millions of doses have already been given. Health officials are also optimistic that distribution will get better, and President Joe Biden has set an ambitious goal of doling out 100 million more doses of the vaccine by his 100th day in office.
In the meantime, the majority of Americans just have to sit tight.
It’s unclear when the vaccine will be available to everyone. Estimates range from this April to summer to the fall to the holidays. Sigh.
It is tough to wait, especially when the past year has been so devastating and the stakes are so high. But health experts say there are some ways you can prepare to get the coronavirus vaccine, whenever it’s your turn. Here’s what to do:
Familiarize yourself with your local eligibility guidelines — and check them weekly.
Each state determines who gets priority in its vaccine rollout, and while there are similarities (all states put health care workers who spend time around infected patients at the top of their lists), the plans vary. Some states, for example, have prioritized people ages 65 and up; others have focused on individuals with high-risk medical conditions.
So your first step should be to simply make sure you really understand the current prioritization and distribution plan in your area.
“This information can be found on health department websites, shared in daily news conferences, or even posted to Twitter,” said Jonathan Leizman, chief medical officer of Premise Health.
Because those plans are fluid and because they depend so heavily on supply — which is a major concern right now — people should check in on their state’s distribution plans regularly, suggested Ian Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“Once a week should be sufficient,” he said.
Social media accounts from reputable sources, like local government officials and health departments, often distribute short summaries of the newest information, which can be an easy way to stay on top of vaccine-related news, Gonsenhauser said.
Remember: The majority of Americans likely won’t roll up their sleeves until at least the spring. In a press briefing today, Dr. Anthony Fauci — the nation’s top infectious disease expert — said if 70-80% of Americans are able to receive the vaccine by mid or late summer, we could see some semblance of normalcy in the fall.
Know your distribution sites.
Once you have an understanding of the prioritization plan around you, “identify where in your area the vaccine is being offered,” Gonsenhauser said. “Is it being offered in mini clinics? In drug stores? Is it being offered at grocery stores, is it through your local health care system, or elsewhere?”
Again, every state handles this in its own way, but you should be able to find sites through your state and/or local health department.
“The same thing we ask people to do for voting, I would ask for this.”
Once you have a sense of where the vaccine is being offered near you, “I would find out the contact information, and contact them to see if you can already schedule your appointment,” Gonsenhauser said.
Ask if there is a waitlist. And ask if you qualify to be placed on it. At this point, most vaccination sites are simply maintaining waitlists of people who already qualify to be vaccinated, and who would like to be contacted if there are extra doses. But some areas are allowing residents to sign up for alerts that will notify them when they are able to be vaccinated. (New Jersey, for example, is allowing people to preregister for vaccines and notices through a portal.)
Again, plan to check on your local distribution sites regularly, since states are adding more all the time. Places like smaller pharmacies may not be offering the vaccine yet, but they might in the coming months — particularly as a likely second generation of vaccines becomes available.
Check in with your doctor.
If you’ve got a primary care physician, Gonsenhauser said, it’s a good idea to contact them and chat about any risk factors you might have for the vaccine.
“There are only a few,” he said. “The vast majority of individuals find that the vaccine is perfectly safe.” However, if you’ve had an allergic reaction to other types of vaccines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you talk to your doctor before getting the COVID-19 vaccine. And people with an allergy to PEG or polysorbate should not get an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.
The Biden administration has expressed a desire to enlist primary care physicians in helping to speed up vaccine distribution, explained Gail Shulby, co-chair of Duke University Health System’s universal flu vaccination and COVID-19 vaccination planning work groups. But at this point, there aren’t clear details about how that will all work.
It’s still worth touching base with your doctor now. “I would recommend that if an individual happens to have the opportunity to interact with his or her primary care provider in the near term, that they express their desire to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus,” Shulby said.
Also, your primary care doctor can answer questions you have about the process and can clear up any concerns you might have about the many vaccine-related myths currently circulating. “If you have a pre-existing condition and would like to consult a doctor before getting the vaccine, consider scheduling a virtual consult with your primary care provider,” Leizman recommended.
All that said, it is not necessary to talk to your doctor in order to be vaccinated. So if you don’t have an established primary care physician or you’re unlikely to get an appointment with yours before you’re qualified to get the COVID-19 vaccine, don’t fret.
“It’s certainly not a bad time to go try and find a primary care physician if you don’t have one. If this is the reason you go out and pursue one, that’s an added bonus,” Gonsenhauser said. “But it’s not required. They’ll go through all of this information with you when you go and get vaccinated for COVID.”
Make a plan for vaccine day — and immediately after.
“The same thing we ask people to do for voting, I would ask for this,” Gonsenhauser said.
So, make sure you know when you can make an appointment. Make sure you remember the day it’s scheduled. Make sure that you have a way to get there on time and that you won’t miss it. Know that the appointment could take a while, particularly since vaccine providers have been instructed to watch recipients for 15 minutes after their shots to monitor for possible allergic reactions.
Have a plan for after, too. You could develop common side effects like fever, chills or a headache and not necessarily be able to jump right back into work or child care. Expect to take it easy for a bit, and adjust your schedule accordingly.
Be honest about where you are in the line. And continue to wear your mask.
Coping with the emotions involved in knowing that there are vaccines available, but just out of reach, can be hard. And there are already many reports of people trying to use influence or tricks to jump the line.
“People should not attempt to game the system by misrepresenting their qualifications for prioritization for vaccination,” Shulby said.
Likewise, don’t think that you can harass a scheduler into somehow giving you an earlier time slot, or that you’ll get in sooner by making multiple appointments. The only thing that accomplishes is slowing everything down for everyone — you included, Gonsenhauser said.
Also, both before and after you get vaccinated, it is essential that all Americans keep taking the same precautions. Wash your hands, maintain social distance, and wear a mask. It is going to be quite some time before we reach herd immunity and life is able to go back to normal.
But we will get there eventually.
“When you’re preparing to get the vaccine, stop and take a deep breath. Think about a future when the pandemic is a problem of the past, because that’s the promise of the vaccine,” Gonsenhauser said. “And that’s really the motivator for all of us to do this.”
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