How to Prepare for a COVID-19 Vaccine

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Once you schedule your COVID-19 vaccine, you might wonder, “What should I expect from my vaccine experience?” Dr. Stephen Rinderknecht, chair of the UnityPoint Clinic Vaccine Committee, walks through the process to help you feel prepared before, during and after your COVID-19 vaccine.

What to Expect Before Your COVID-19 Vaccine

Do I need a COVID-19 Test Before My Vaccine? 

No, you don’t need to get a COVID-19 test before your scheduled vaccination. However, if you’re not feeling well, it’s a good idea to pause and check with your doctor before proceeding.

As with most other vaccines, it’s OK to roll up your sleeve for the COVID-19 vaccine if you’re just mildly ill from things like a cold, ear infections or even mild diarrhea. Normally, a low-grade fever during a vaccine isn’t a problem either. However, with the current pandemic, any fever without explanation needs to be approached with caution. If it turns out you do have COVID-19, you wouldn’t want to put others at risk leaving your home.

Also, if you happen to get COVID-19 after your first COVID-19 vaccine dose but before the second, delay the second dose until after you’re feeling better and the isolation period recommended for COVID-19 is over.

Can I Get a COVID-19 Vaccine at the Same Time as Another Vaccine?

Yes, you may get any other needed vaccines at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine. This is a change from previous recommendations to keep a 14-day buffer before and after the COVID-19 vaccine. The original guidance was in place out of an abundance of caution and was not connected to any safety or efficacy concerns. The CDC now says it's got data to reinforce safety around administering different vaccines together. 

Can I Take Medication Before the Vaccine to Lessen Side Effects?

It’s not recommended to take medication before your vaccine to lessen side effects. However, if you do notice any side effects (like a sore arm, headache or fever) following your vaccine, it’s OK to take an over-the-counter medication like acetaminophen to manage any discomfort.

What Should I Bring to My COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment?

It’s a good idea to bring your insurance documents, if available, and a form of identification to your appointment. Some vaccination sites may also request to see proof of employment if you’re eligible for vaccination due to your employment status.

Also, before you leave home, think about what you’re wearing. Make sure the care team can easily access your upper arm to administer the vaccine.

What to Expect During Your COVID-19 Vaccine 

How Long Will It Take to Get My COVID-19 Vaccine? 

That all depends on where you get your vaccine. If it’s staffed adequately and the workflow is pinned down, it should only take a short time to get you back to your daily duties.

Where Will the Vaccine be Administered?

Usually, the vaccine is given in the upper arm – specifically the deltoid muscle. The thigh is another option, but it’s often only used for young children. These vaccine locations are the safest places to receive an intramuscular injection because they have very few nerves and blood vessels. Most vaccines are given in the arm muscle because it allows the medication to be absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly.

If your COVID-19 vaccine requires a second dose, you can receive it in either arm.

What’s the Needle Like for the COVID-19 Vaccine?

The needle used for the COVID-19 vaccine in adults is the exact same size as what’s used for other routine vaccines – like the flu shot. It usually measures just one inch. Like getting the flu shot, the injection of the COVID-19 vaccine should cause little or no pain.

If you tend to tense up during vaccines, take a moment before your COVID-19 vaccine to take a deep breath and relax your arm. That might help reduce the soreness at the injection site.

Can I Leave and/or Drive Away Immediately After My Vaccine?

Like with other vaccines, you may be asked to wait about 15 minutes after receiving a COVID-19 dose. This allows us to monitor you for rare instances of fainting or even rarer cases of allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). The rate of anaphylaxis for a COVID-19 vaccine is about five cases per million doses - similar to other vaccines. If you've had an anaphylactic reaction due to any other cause, it's best to stay put for an observation period of 30 minutes after a COVID-19 vaccine.

What is the Card People are Getting at Their Vaccine?

During your first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, you should get a COVID-19 vaccination record. It usually comes in the form of a card or printout. It contains information on which vaccine you received and the date. This card is for your personal use and should be saved for your records. Keep the card handy, you’ll want to bring it with you if your vaccine requires a second dose.

Your vaccine information is also entered into your state’s electronic vaccine information system. Often, your state’s system is linked to your doctor’s office – so your vaccine record may also appear in your medical records. For UnityPoint Health, it’ll be available to you in your MyUnityPoint account.

While some are celebrating their vaccine by posting a picture of themselves with their COVID-19 vaccination record card, it’s not a good idea. The Federal Trade Commission says it’s an invitation for identity theft.

What to Expect After Your COVID-19 Vaccine 

What Side Effects Can I Expect? 

Remember, side effects are your body’s natural response to the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s a good sign your immune system is starting to kick in to keep you protected. If you don’t experience any side effects, that’s OK, too. According to the CDC, common responses to the vaccine include arm soreness, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills and/or fever.

Interestingly, younger people report feeling more of the side effects than other age groups.

How Long After the COVID-19 Vaccine Can You Have Side Effects?

The normal immune system reaction usually begins the day after your vaccine but can start up to three days out. If you notice any side effects, they should only last for about a day.

Many people are hesitant about the vaccine because of uncertainty regarding long-term side effects. However, experience tells us side effects appearing beyond two months after the vaccination are extremely rare.

How Do I Report Vaccine Side Effects to the CDC?

V-safe is a new program providing near real-time information on potential side effects from the COVID-19 vaccine. Participation is voluntary but recommended. The program is designed and operated by the CDC and FDA and runs through smart phones. You’ll receive information on how to register when you get your first vaccine.

After registering, you receive a text message daily for seven days, then weekly for six weeks. You’ll also get a message at month three, six and 12. The messages ask basic questions about your health and how you’re feeling. It’ll take just a couple of minutes to respond. You can also add open comments.

This program is designed to help track possible vaccine side effects that might not have shown up in the original studies.

Do I Need Another Dose?

The Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine is one dose for the adult initial series. Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are two doses in the adult initial series. If you need a second dose, it's important to get it after the recommended time interval designated by each vaccine maker. 

Your second dose of the Pfizer vaccine should be three-to-eight weeks after the first dose. Your second dose of the Moderna vaccine should be four-to-eight weeks after your first dose. Consult CDC guidelines and your doctor to determine what's best for you. Also, one of the pediatric COVID-19 vaccines has three doses as part of its initial series.

About two weeks after your initial vaccine series (or single J&J vaccine) is complete, is when you’ll reach the highest protection against COVID-19.

Why is the Second Dose of the Vaccine so Important?

If the vaccine you get requires a second dose, you’ll receive instructions on when and how to schedule your second shot. Early data shows there’s some protection from COVID-19 after the first dose, but there’s a much better immune response if you complete the initial vaccine series.

Will the Side Effects be the Same After Both Vaccine Doses?

If you get a two-dose product, it’s a common experience to notice a stronger reaction to the second dose of the vaccine than the first. This phenomenon is typical for most multi-dose vaccines. The types of side effects are the same – arm soreness, tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills and/or fever.

Do I Still Need to Wear my Mask?

Masks, vaccines, hand washing and social distancing are all layers of protection we have in order to fight COVID-19. The more layers we use, the better protected we'll be against the virus. The CDC currently says to wear a mask indoors in public if you are in an area of substantial or high COVID-19 spread to maximize protection from the delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others.

After receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, it's still important to keep washing your hands and staying home when you're sick.