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Everything Parents Need Know About the COVID Vaccine

Vaccine updates are coming in fast. Here's the latest.

COVID vaccines have been available in the U.S. for nearly a year now. Nearly 76 percent of eligible Americans have gotten at least their first shot, but there’s still a long way to go in terms of getting the vaccine in the arms of people who need it, kids included, and ending the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet it can be difficult to parse through what’s really going on with COVID misinformation floating around.

Confused about what’s going on? You’re not alone. We’ll keep this list updated to answer your most important questions about the COVID vaccines.

What COVID Vaccines are Available?

On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, which will make it easier for vaccine mandates to be passed and could convince some vaccine-hesitant people to get their shot. Moderna has applied for full approval but has not yet received it. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is approved for emergency use in the U.S.

At least two additional companies have publicized their vaccine trial results. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is 76 percent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, and it offers even stronger protection for people over the age of 65. Several countries have given emergency approval to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, but it may never be available in the U.S. because it’s probably not necessary to finish inoculating the people who are willing to be vaccinated.

The COVID vaccine from Novavax, a company that has not yet brought any vaccine to market, was 90 percent effective in a large U.S. trial. The company has not yet applied for authorization in the U.S.

Do the Vaccines Work Against the COVID Variants?

The Pfizer vaccine is 88 percent effective against the Delta variant, the dominant variant in the U.S. The Pfizer vaccine is 96 percent effective at preventing hospitalization from infection with Delta, according to a pre-print study that has not yet been peer-reviewed. Moderna’s vaccine is expected to have similar efficacy. Data suggests that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 71 percent effective against hospitalization from Delta.

Because the Omicron variant is so new, it’s not yet clear how effective the vaccines are against it. However, experts expect that the vaccines will be less effective against Omicron. The variant contains mutations that likely affect the ability of antibodies, both from natural immunity and the vaccine, to neutralize the virus. But scientists still expect that the vaccine, especially with a booster, will offer significant protection against serious illness.

When Can Kids Get the Vaccine?

Children aged 5 and up can get vaccinated but only with the Pfizer vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna have also been working to test their vaccines in children as young as six months. Experts suspect the vaccine will be available for these youngest kids in early 2022.

Where Can I Get the COVID Vaccine?

Look to get the vaccine through select pharmacies such as Walgreen’s and CVS, Walmart, Target, Publix, Kroger, hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, and more. Mass distribution sites also give out vaccines at locations such as school gymnasiums, NFL stadiums, and even Disneyland.

If you’re eligible for a COVID vaccine but having trouble finding an appointment, there are resources available to help. The Washington Post has a useful guide, which you can find here. You can find six more tips from a vaccine appointment master here.

What’s in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID Vaccines?

Pfizer and Moderna are both using a new kind of vaccine called a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. Messenger RNA is a type of genetic material that encodes the instructions for making proteins. The mRNA in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines encode for the spike protein on the coronavirus that grabs and infects human cells. After being vaccinated, the body builds up antibodies that respond to this spike protein in case it gets exposed to the real coronavirus later on. The mRNA doesn’t stay in the body but is broken down after a few days.

Vaccines usually contain a common set of added ingredients, including:

  • Aluminum: boosts the body’s response to the vaccine
  • MF59 or Squalene oil: boosts the body’s response to the vaccine
  • Thiomersal: preservative
  • Gelatin: preservative
  • Sorbitol: stabilizes the vaccine
  • Emulsifiers: holds ingredients together

(For more information about these ingredients, many of which are in the flu vaccine, click here.)

Pfizer has released its full list of ingredients, which include many of those listed above. It includes lipids, or fats, that surround the mRNA and help it enter cells. It also contains four types of salts that keep the vaccine at the same acidity as the human body and sugar, which keeps small particles in the vaccine from sticking together when they’re frozen. The vaccine contains no preservatives, a choice Pfizer made because some preservatives are at the center of disproved worries that vaccines cause autism, according to the MIT Technology Review. Moderna has also published its ingredients, which are similar to Pfizer’s.

What’s in the Johnson & Johnson COVID Vaccine?

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a defunct virus instead of mRNA. The company’s vaccine uses an adenovirus that typically would cause the common cold, but it’s modified so it can’t replicate inside the body. The adenovirus carries a coronavirus gene into human cells, which read that gene and make the coronavirus’s spike protein but not the virus itself. The immune system reacts to that spike protein and builds up immunity against it so antibodies can attack the spike protein on the coronavirus if the person ever gets infected. This adenovirus technique has been used for other vaccines in the past and is well-studied.

The FDA briefly paused rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as six women in the U.S. have reported developing blood clots after receiving the vaccine. All the women fell ill within one to three weeks after getting their shot. One died, and another was hospitalized. The blood clots appear to be an extremely rare complication, and the FDA has resumed use of the vaccine.

I Got the COVID Vaccine. What Now?

After your first dose, you’ll need a second (unless you received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends a booster shot for everyone age 18 and older. Those who were originally vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine should get a booster if it’s been at least six months since their second dose. Adults who were vaccinated with the Johnson & Johnson shot can get a booster two months after their original vaccination.

For now, a booster shot is not necessary for a person to be considered “fully vaccinated.” A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or two weeks after their first dose of Johnson & Johnson. At that point, they can have more freedom socializing, according to CDC guidelines. Fully vaccinated people can:

If a vaccinated person is exposed to COVID, they should get tested even if they don’t develop symptoms. If they’re symptomatic, they should self-isolate. But if they don’t have symptoms after exposure, they can do a modified quarantine in which they mask at home and in public until they receive their results.

This story is developing. We will update it as new information becomes available.