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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 more than half a year now. Seventy-one 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. There’s a lot of misinformation to combat, but it can be difficult to parse through what’s really going on with the media treating every small vaccine development like a major news event.

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-19 vaccines.

What COVID Vaccines are Available?

On August 23, the 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-19 vaccine from Novavax, a company that has not yet brought any vaccine to market, was 90 percent effective in a large U.S. trial. Novavax may wait until the end of September to apply for emergency authorization. The company will probably miss out on the first wave of vaccinations in the U.S., but it may be a good fit for booster shots.

Rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was briefly paused in the U.S. after reports of rare blood clots. The FDA has since resumed distribution of the vaccine.

Do the Vaccines Work Against the COVID Variants?

The Pfizer vaccine is 88 percent effective against the Delta variant, which originated in India and is now causing COVID spikes in U.S. counties where many people are unvaccinated. 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. Johnson & Johnson recently announced that its vaccine is effective against the Delta variant, even eight months after inoculation. Still, researchers have found that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are less effective against Delta than they are against the Alpha variant.

In Israel, where the Alpha variant was for some time responsible for the vast majority of COVID-19 cases, the Pfizer vaccine was 94 percent effective against asymptomatic infection and at least 97 percent effective against symptomatic infection, hospitalization, and death, according to data released in March. Trials suggest that the Moderna vaccine is also effective against the Alpha variant.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines produce less neutralizing antibodies against the variant that emerged in South Africa, now called the Beta variant. But antibody numbers don’t directly translate to efficacy, and experts expect the vaccines still offer significant protection. In a study in South Africa, Pfizer found that its vaccine is highly effective against the variant. Johnson & Johnson found that its vaccine is 57 percent effective in South Africa. Vaccine manufacturers have already started to create a booster shot targeted at the Beta variant.

The variant from Brazil, a.k.a. the Gamma variant, is expected to react similarly to Beta. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is 68 percent effective against COVID and 88 percent effective at preventing severe disease in Brazil.

When Can Kids Get the Vaccine?

Children aged 12 and up can get vaccinated, but they can only get the Pfizer vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna have launched studies testing their vaccines in children as young as six months.

Pfizer expects the results for children aged 5 to 11 to be available sometime in September, which may allow them to be vaccinated in early 2022, according to MedPage Today. Data for kids aged 2 to 5 is expected shortly after, and results for those aged 6 months to 2 years could be available in October or November.

Moderna has filed for emergency use authorization from the FDA for use of its vaccine in adolescents aged 12 to 17. The vaccine is 96 percent effective for this age group. Its trial results for younger kids will probably be available after Pfizer’s.

Johnson & Johnson is testing its vaccine in adolescents aged 16 and 17, and the company plans to begin testing in children as young as 12 this fall.

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-19 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 US have reported developing blood clots after receiving the vaccine. All of 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 get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). Originally, the second dose was supposed to be administered about three or four weeks after the first, depending on the brand. Now the CDC recommends a booster shot for some immunocompromised people and for everyone eight months after their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine. Recommendations about booster shots for those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are forthcoming.

Two weeks after you receive the final dose of your vaccine, you’re considered fully vaccinated. At that point, you can have more freedom socializing, according to CDC guidelines. Fully vaccinated people can:

If a vaccinated person is exposed to COVID-19, 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.