After months of trials, three coronavirus vaccines have been approved by federal health officials and Minnesota's vaccination program is underway. Here is information about the progress of vaccinations in Minnesota and answers to questions you may have about vaccines and the state's strategy to vaccinate millions of Minnesotans. Jump to the FAQ.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which vaccines have been approved?
While more than 50 vaccine candidates have progressed to clinical trials with humans, two have been approved for emergency use by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. A vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech was approved for those age 16 and older by the FDA on Dec. 11, and a second vaccine produced by Moderna was authorized for adults over the age of 18 Dec. 18. A single-dose vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson was approved for those age 18 and older Feb. 27. On April 13, U.S. officials recommended a "pause" in using the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots. A fourth vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca could be ready for review in coming months.
How do the vaccines work?
The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA to instruct cells to create a harmless piece of the virus that causes COVID-19. This piece of "spike protein" is a key feature of the virus (you've likely seen COVID-19 depicted as a spiky ball). The body recognizes this spike protein as foreign and triggers an immune response to fend off future infection.
The Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines are called viral vector vaccines, using the adenovirus — a strain of the common cold found in chimpanzees — to deliver a piece of that spike protein into cells. This prompts an immune response to inoculate the recipient against infection.
How are vaccines being distributed in Minnesota?
The FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine Dec. 11 and the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 18. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was approved Feb. 27, began shipping to Minnesota in early March, state health officials said. By the end of March, Johnson & Johnson has said it expects to deliver 20 million doses to the U.S., and 100 million by summer. However, that timeline will likely change pending a "pause" in using the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.
The first doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in Minnesota at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center on Dec. 14. Vaccines are being shipped to "hub" medical facilities around the state. From there, they are being distributed to smaller clinics, or "spokes," that make doses available to providers. The federal government decides how many doses each state will receive weekly. Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm cautioned that it could be months before vaccines become widely available.
When will I be able to get vaccinated?
In Minnesota, first priority was given to front-line health care workers in COVID-19 hospital units, emergency departments and nursing homes along with paramedics, COVID-19 testing personnel and some public health workers. Residents in nursing homes were also in the highest priority group. President Joe Biden pledged in a March 12 prime-time address that all Americans would be eligible to receive a vaccine by May 1 and raised the possibility of beginning to "mark our independence from this virus" by the Fourth of July. The plan to administer vaccines in Minnesota has been divided into phases. A detailed breakdown can be found here.
- Phase 1a: Health care workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities and those 65 years of age and older. Primary caregivers for people with complex medical needs or disabilities. Some vaccine doses were also made available to school teachers and child care workers.
- Phase 1b: All people with specific conditions, including: Sickle-cell disease, Down syndrome, those in active cancer treatment or immunocompromised from organ transplant, oxygen-dependent chronic lung and heart conditions, as well as people with rare conditions or disabilities that put them at higher risk. People ages 45 to 64 with one or more of the following high-risk medical conditions, or people ages 16 to 44 with two or more of these conditions, including: Active cancer, chronic kidney disease; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); heart conditions, such as heart failure coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies; weakened immune system due to organ transplants, HIV, bone-marrow disease, chronic steroids for more than 30 days, immunodeficiency disease, or immunosuppressive medications; obesity (body mass index greater than 30); Pregnancy; Type 1 or 2 diabetes. Essential frontline workers, including: agricultural, Pre-K through Adult Basic and Community Education school staff or contracted school staff, child care staff at licensed and certified child care centers or programs, first responders, those who work in correctional settings, food-processing plant workers, food production, food retail, food service, judicial system, manufacturing, public transit and postal workers. People age 50 or older who live in multi-generational housing. Any remaining individuals covered in previous phases are also eligible to be vaccinated.
- Current phase: COVID-19 vaccines will be available to all Minnesotans 16 and older beginning Tuesday, March 30, Gov. Tim Walz announced March 26. Providers are being asked to prioritize those who were already eligible, as well as: Minnesotans age 16 or older with any of the above listed high-risk medical conditions; Minnesotans age 50 to 64 regardless of health condition; and other essential workforces, including transportation and logistics, finance, housing/shelter construction, IT/communications, energy, media, legal, public safety, water and wastewater. More information about the latest phase of the vaccination program can be found here.
The state on Feb. 18 debuted a COVID-19 vaccine registration tool that is available to all Minnesota residents who have not yet been vaccinated. Enter your personal and contact information and you will be notified when they are eligible to receive the vaccine. It will also give senior citizens immediate access to a lottery for appointments at state-operated sites. More information about making an appointment can be found here.
How will I know when it's my turn to be vaccinated?
In Phase 1a of the vaccine rollout, front-line health care workers and nursing home residents will be contacted by their employer or their residential facility when a vaccine is available to them, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
All Minnesotans who have not yet been vaccinated can register on the state's vaccine connector website to be notified when they become eligible for the vaccine. If you are eligible to be vaccinated, you can use this online locator map to find local providers administering the vaccine and register for the lottery for appointments on the vaccine connector site. More information about making an appointment can be found here.
How are the vaccines administered?
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses, delivered via injection. The Pfizer vaccine requires a booster shot three weeks after the first dose, while the Moderna vaccine's booster shot is administered four weeks later. Johnson & Johnson's vaccine is a single shot. It's unclear what dosage schedule AstraZeneca will submit to regulators.
Will I get to choose which vaccine I get?
It is unlikely you will be able to choose, because the vaccines are so similar and so few doses are available.
What are some of the differences between the vaccines?
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be frozen for transportation and storage. Pfizer's vaccine is the most demanding, needing a storage temperature of -70 degrees Fahrenheit, which requires specialized freezers. Moderna has said its vaccine can be kept stable at around -20 degrees Fahrenheit for up to six months, closer to the temperature of a standard freezer.
Both the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines can be stored in a refrigerator, making them easier to ship and to use in rural areas and developing countries than the frozen kind made by Pfizer and Moderna. AstraZeneca's vaccine is also significantly cheaper to manufacture, at roughly $3-$4 per dose.
How safe are the vaccines?
The first phase in any clinical trial is dedicated to making sure a drug is safe. Vaccines cannot be approved without passing this crucial step. According to the CDC, a clinical trial is paused whenever an "unexpected health event" is detected so that researchers can investigate any potential safety concerns. Minnesota health officials have said that they have confidence in the clinical trials conducted and the regulatory approval process so far.
The experimental vaccines have been tested in tens of thousands of volunteers so far, and serious side effects have not been reported. Health officials will be monitoring for side effects as more people get vaccinated, as well as for any potential longer-term issues. One such example is that on April 13, U.S. officials recommended a "pause" in using the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to investigate reports of potentially dangerous blood clots.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, has noted that people might feel achy or feverish right after the shot, or some soreness in the arm. Other temporary side effects reported by study participants included fatigue, headache and chills.
How effective are the vaccines?
Pfizer and Moderna have both reported that their vaccines reached 95% efficacy in clinical trials, far exceeding scientists' expectations. According to Fauci, the goal was to reach 75% efficacy with any COVID-19 vaccine, and the FDA said it would approve a vaccine with just 50% efficacy.
The FDA said Johnson & Johnson's vaccine offers strong protection against what matters most: serious illness, hospitalizations and death. One dose was 85% protective against the most severe COVID-19 illness, in a massive study that spanned three continents — protection that remained strong even in countries such as South Africa, where the variants of most concern are spreading. Researchers found no one who got the vaccine needed hospitalization or died.
AstraZeneca has reported 62% efficacy with its vaccine, though that rate appears to jump to 90% when administered with a stair-step dosage. Participants were given a half-dose for the first round of immunization followed by a full dose, and researchers noted the vaccine was more effective.
Are the vaccines effective immediately?
The Pfizer vaccine provides strong protection against COVID-19 within 10 days after the first dose, according to documents published by the FDA. Minnesota state epidemiologist Kris Ehresmann cautioned that it could take up to six weeks after the first dose for vaccines to provide full protection against COVID-19.
How long will the vaccines protect against infection?
We don't know yet. It's possible that these vaccines could provide long-lasting protection against the virus, or the protection could fade over time and require additional booster shots. The FDA said the Pfizer vaccine seems to provide protection for at least two months after the second and final dose.
Will I still need to wear a mask after vaccination?
Because it could take weeks for vaccines to provide full protection, state health officials stressed that it will be important that people continue to wear masks, maintain social distancing and quarantine after exposure to slow the spread of the virus. It is also unclear if people who have been vaccinated can still carry the virus and transmit it to others, even if they don't get sick themselves.
Can children be vaccinated?
The initial rounds of vaccines will only be available to adults, according to state officials. Children may be eligible later. Researchers in the U.S. and abroad are beginning to test younger and younger kids to make sure COVID-19 vaccines are safe and work for each age.
Are the vaccines safe for pregnant or nursing women?
We don't know yet. The first clinical trials did not study the safety of vaccines for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. A research division at HealthPartners has received $2 million from the federal government to monitor the safety of new COVID-19 vaccines for pregnant women and their babies. Pregnancy is listed as a high-risk condition that could make a woman eligible for vaccination, depending on her age and other potential high-risk conditions, according to Minnesota Department of Health.
If I've already had COVID-19, should I get vaccinated?
Because re-infection is possible and may bring additional health risks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saysvaccinations may be advised for those who have already been infected and recovered from COVID-19.
How much will it cost to get the vaccine?
Under Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government contributed billions of dollars for the development of vaccines, and ordered hundreds of millions of doses. Federal health officials have pledged that vaccinations will be made available free of charge to all Americans. The Minnesota Department of Health has confirmed that vaccines will be provided to people at no cost, though health insurers may be billed.
Will vaccinations be mandatory?
Health officials encourage people to get vaccinated and expect vaccinations to be available to everyone who wants one, but it will not be required by law. However, some employers may require their employees to be vaccinated.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This post has been updated.