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NPR Answers Your Vaccine Questions


Let's get to some more questions that we and you, our listeners, have about the COVID-19 vaccine, specifically about how most of us will get access to the shots eventually. To help us get some answers, we brought in our own Selena Simmons-Duffin, who covers health policy for NPR and has been watching the distribution of the vaccines. Selena, thanks so much for being here.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Glad to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's start with a basic question I'm sure many people have, which is, where does one actually get the vaccine?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So right now, the vaccine doses that are available are mostly reserved for a small group of people - frontline health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. And vaccination is pretty much coming to them. Hospital workers are getting it at work, for example. Long-term care residents should be able to get it right where they live.

When the vaccine is offered more widely, it will kind of look like the flu shot - you know, when there's a flu shot available, and you just see it on buses and sandwich signs and that kind of thing. The plan is that you'll be able to get one through your doctor's office or your local pharmacy. And there's also an online tool called vaccinefinder.org that's already set up so people can put in their zip code and find a provider who has stock of vaccine. It's not set up for the COVID vaccine now, but when it is widely available, you can use that tool. And there should be some variation in terms of exactly how it works from place to place. Hopefully there'll be lots of public awareness campaigns so people know exactly where to go when the time comes.

MARTIN: And how will people know when it is their turn to get a vaccine? You know, we've seen it - certain, like, public officials, for example, like the vice president and the president-elect, are getting the vaccine publicly to, you know, raise awareness and also build confidence in it. But how will, like, the rest of us know when it's our turn?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Part of each state's vaccine plan is to find people who are eligible during each phase, reach out to them, make sure they come in. So you're going to want to keep an eye out for public outreach. And there may be state mailing lists to sign up for so you know that you get to know first thing. There will also be systems in place, like a code you get when you find out you're eligible that you can take to the pharmacy, and then verification systems to make sure that you do qualify and you are in one of these priority groups so that vaccine actually gets to the people who need it most first. That's a preview of how it will all work.

MARTIN: Another question that we got was, will people need insurance to get either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: No, you don't need insurance to get a COVID vaccine, whether it's Pfizer's or Moderna's or any other vaccine that gets authorized down the line. That's good news for approximately 30 million people in the U.S. who don't have health insurance. And the goal is that nobody will have to pay out-of-pocket costs for getting a vaccine.

MARTIN: Here's a question from Corrine Cooper in Tucson, Ariz. She writes, I'm wondering if I will need a primary care physician to obtain the vaccine. Both of my doctors have left practice due to COVID, so I wonder if that will cause a delay. So, Selena, you started to answer this question. Will people need to speak to a primary care physician before getting the vaccine?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: No, you don't have to have a primary care doctor. A lot of people don't. But it'll just mean that the provider who's giving you the shot, whether it's a pharmacist or another health care provider, will talk through your medical history, make sure there's no contraindications for you getting this particular shot. And so you will be able to talk it through with a health care provider before you get the shot. It doesn't need to be your primary care physician.

MARTIN: Do we know who will be keeping track of whether somebody has been vaccinated, what vaccine they got and when they need to get a second shot?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, so this is a good question because both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines need two shots. And one of them is three weeks apart. The other is four weeks apart. It's a lot to keep track of. So the answer is that there are lots of people and systems in place to help patients keep track of this. There are vaccine registries already in operation. They're mostly used for childhood vaccinations. Those registries will be important to keep track of who got which shot when.

Local and state public health officials will be doing their best to make sure that when vaccine gets delivered and administered, those second doses are there three weeks or four weeks later when they need to be. And also providers like pharmacies and hospitals, which you know are good at bugging and reminding you to come back, will be doing their thing. So there's also, finally, a physical paper card you will get with a date and name of the vaccine you got with that first dose. So you can keep that on your fridge - lots of redundancy, lots of ways to make sure that people remember to come back for the second shot.

MARTIN: Listener Charlotte Crittenden in North Carolina asked if somebody who had COVID-19 and recovered would still need to get a vaccine. Selena, so what do we know about that?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So the short answer is at this point, interim guidance from CDC is that people are recommended to receive the vaccine when they're eligible, even if they've previously had COVID-19.

MARTIN: So, Selena, you know that - you know this because you've been certainly covering this - mask-wearing has been a hot-button issue this year. And I'm sure people are ready to move on from having to wear one. But if somebody receives a vaccine, should they still wear a mask in public?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yes, they should. So what's clear from the clinical trials of these vaccines is that they seem to prevent symptomatic illness. But it is not clear if the vaccines protect against any infection at all. It could be that people who have been vaccinated can still get infected and can still spread the virus, even if they themselves don't feel sick. So masks are a key tool for preventing transmission. And until we know more about whether the vaccines are helpful on that front, people who have been vaccinated still need to wear masks to protect the people around them.

MARTIN: And here's one more question. Can employers compel people to get the vaccine?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: OK, this one's complicated. I called a health law professor, Lindsay Wiley, about this. The short answer is, under some circumstances, probably. But what will probably happen is that governments and employers will come up with rules, and then those rules will get challenged in court. And it's especially squishy right now legally because these vaccines haven't been approved by FDA. They've just been authorized for emergency use. So employers might be less likely to push the issue until the full approval process, which is several months away. What Wiley thinks is more likely is that employers are going to try to just encourage getting vaccinated rather than requiring it. So this is how a lot of employers handle the flu shot every year. Here's Lindsay Wiley.

LINDSAY WILEY: They'll put up a bunch of signage, and they'll make it like a contest for which department has the highest vaccination rates.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Raffle drawings, that kind of thing.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's her prediction for how employers might handle this. We'll have to see what happens in a few months when vaccines are more widely available.

MARTIN: I'm trying to think about what prize I would want. OK - other than not getting sick. That is NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Selena, thank you.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.