COVID-19 Vaccine Guide, Part 1

What to do, where to go and what you need to know

14 East is a group of community members — students, journalists, Chicagoans, Midwesterners, train-riders, grocery-buyers and people moving through the world in 2021. Last March, our lives were altered, paused and delayed just the same as many of you reading this as the novel coronavirus swept across the world.

And here we are, almost a year later — the promise of something resembling “normal” on the horizon at the end of what has been a long, heartbreaking road traveled. Vaccines.

But how do we reach that horizon? What are the steps each person can take to get vaccinated? How long will it take? What are the side effects? What will the world look like between now and “normal,” and when can we even say things are totally “normal” again?

The team at 14 East has been asking these questions, too. So, we present to you 14 East’s Vaccine Guide, Part 1. We aren’t doctors and this guide doesn’t have all of the answers — few people really do. But we do anticipate this guide to be an accessible, shareable, approachable guide to your basic questions about the COVID-19 vaccination process and how it works in Chicago based on research compiled from public health officials.

This guide is also “part 1” for a reason — the situation is constantly changing, and we know that publishing a one-time guide and calling it a day won’t be enough. There is new information circulating nearly every day about the pandemic — so the publication of this guide is more of an opening act to 14 East’s commitment to consistent, engaged vaccine coverage in the coming weeks and months.

If this guide leaves you still wondering or if you or a family member or friend have a question about COVID-19 vaccination in Chicago, leave us a tip — feel free to leave us questions via Google Form in English or Spanish, and we’ll track down an answer.

What’s the difference between the vaccines? How long do they last?

As it stands, there are two companies with vaccines approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States: Pfizer and Moderna.

Pfizer’s vaccine was created in collaboration with BioNTech, a biotechnology company, so you’ll often see their vaccine referred to as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Pfizer’s vaccine was actually tested on people slightly younger than Moderna’s, so it’s approved for people 16 and older. Pfizer’s vaccine also requires a high-powered freezer for storage — the vaccines must be stored between minus 76 and minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit and can only be stored for five days before they are no longer able to be used.

Moderna’s vaccine, on the other hand, can be stored at minus 13 and 5/4 degrees Fahrenheit, around the temperature of most home freezers. It can last up to 30 days in a freezer and Moderna’s vaccine is certified for people 18 and older. The Moderna vaccine was also developed in partnership with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines require two doses — Pfizer’s are given in two 30-microgram doses 21 days apart, Moderna’s in two 100-microgram doses 28 days apart. The vaccines have also both exhibited high effectiveness — Moderna’s proved 94.1 percent effective in a 30,000-person trial and Pfizer BioNTech’s was 95 percent effective in a 38,000-person trial.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both work using mRNA technology, which, put as simply as possible, means that the vaccine contains genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19. This material gives our cells instructions on how to produce harmless proteins that  are “unique to the virus,” according to the CDC. Our cells then make copies of the proteins and destroy the genetic material from the vaccine and are able to recognize that viral protein and mount an immune response and build T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes (also called T and B-Cells), which are able to fight the virus that causes COVID-19 in the future.

Although these vaccines are new and were developed on a record-breaking timeline, the research behind mRNA technology has been studied for decades for things like the flu, Zika and other viruses, and millions of people have already been administered vaccines.

When can I get the vaccine in Illinois? In Chicago?

At present, Illinois is split into different phases for vaccine distribution to allocate the vaccine to groups of residents with either high level of risk — like the elderly and those with underlying conditions that would increase their chances of severe symptoms as a result of COVID-19 — or a potentially high level of exposure — like frontline healthcare workers, first responders and essential employees.

Following what they term an “equity-centered approach” to vaccine distribution, Illinois lowered the age requirement for vaccines from 75 to 65 in January, after acknowledging the undue impact of COVID-19 on Black and Latino residents of the state. Of those who have died from COVID-19, the average white resident of Illinois died at age 81. Black residents died at, on average, 72, and Hispanic residents died at 68.

“Generally, Latinx and Black populations have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 with data showing related deaths at younger ages,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, at a press conference in early January. “We are hopeful that by lowering the eligibility age to 65 years we can help reduce this disparity.”

Currently, there are five groups that an Illinois resident could fall into:

Phase 1A, which includes healthcare personnel, those in hospital settings, and long-term care facility residents and staff

Phase 1B part I, which includes people aged 65 or older and frontline workers “with a higher risk of exposure” due to their “inability to perform work duties remotely” — this includes Pre-K through 12th-grade education workers, correctional officers and inmates, first responders, grocery store and manufacturing workers, and public transit employees, among other essential workers.

Phase 1B part II, which includes people aged 16 to 64 with high-risk medical conditions that would increase the risk of severe illness, including obesity, diabetes, pulmonary and kidney disease, smoking, heart conditions, pregnancy, cancer and sickle cell disease, and those who have received organ transplants. (For more information about the safety of receiving a vaccine while pregnant, here are the CDC’s guidelines and recommendations.)

Phase 1C, which is still being finalized, would include other essential workers who are not working remotely, like those in the energy, media, legal, finance and housing sectors, or who work within public safety and health or construction. (As we’ve seen, change to the vaccination phases is possible, so this isn’t set in stone.)

Phase 2, also still being finalized, includes everyone else: those 16 and up, with the possibility of younger Illinois residents being included in the future.

At the moment, the vaccine isn’t cleared for those under the age of 16, and Pfizer currently has kids aged 12 to 15 enrolled in trial groups to see the efficacy of the vaccine in children. While children can contract COVID-19, they more often than not act as asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and are not often at high risk for severe illness due to COVID, according to Dr. Juan Salazar with the Connecticut Children’s Hospital.

Recently, the state widened eligibility to those 16 and older with underlying conditions to access the vaccine in Phase 1B, and starting February 25, those residents can begin receiving vaccinations. That said, the City of Chicago has decided to not expand their criteria just yet, citing a lack of vaccine to distribute to those who would be newly eligible.

If you live in Chicago, you could fall under one of four groups for eligibility, which almost, but not perfectly, map over to the state’s criteria:

Phase 1A, which includes healthcare personnel and frontline workers

Phase 1B, which includes Chicagoans 65 and older as well as frontline essential workers, like first responders, postal workers, K-12 and pre-K educators and more

Phase 1C, which includes Chicagoans aged 16 to 64 with underlying conditions

Phase 2, including Chicagoans 16 and older.

To learn more about what vaccine category you fall into, and when you’ll be eligible to receive the vaccine, you can confirm your eligibility and schedule an appointment using Zocdoc, which has partnered with the Chicago Public Health Department.

Once it’s your turn, where can I get it? How do I sign up? 

There are several ways to go about finding your COVID-19 vaccine. Some have managed to get their vaccine when there are leftovers that need to be thrown out. Others were able to get the vaccine through work, which was the case for the health industry.

To start, you can check your eligibility and sign up to get the vaccine at the Illinois Department of Public Health website.

Another action step that you can do is to jump over to Meijer Pharmacy’s website. Once on the website, you can pre-register for your vaccine by filling out a questionnaire that takes just a handful of minutes. Once you complete the vaccine questionnaire, Meijer will keep your information on file and will reach out when it is your turn to get the vaccine.

Meijer states on their website that they will distribute the vaccine in accordance with local and federal suggestions and that locations may receive the vaccine at different times, catering to the communities public health officials say need the vaccine most.

Walgreens is another option for getting the vaccine and has an action step for you to do now. On the Walgreens website you can sign up for updates based on your location. You will need to log in or create a Walgreens account. Once it is your turn to get the vaccine, you can sign up for your appointment on their website.

If you are looking to get your vaccine from a hospital or medical clinic, make sure to check in advance. Currently, some hospitals, like Rush Medical Center, are not offering vaccine appointments to be made via their website, walk-ins or phone, as inventory is low. Hence, if you are wanting to get your vaccine from a hospital or medical clinic, you should consult your doctor.

It is possible to be one of the lucky few that get leftover vaccines in Chicago, regardless of the vaccine distribution stage qualifications. While stores do prefer that leftover vaccines go to someone that meets the qualifications, they tend to be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

What are the side effects? What can I expect?

The most commonly reported side effects, according to the FDA, lasted a few days after one was injected. They included pain at the side of injection, fatigue, headaches, muscle and joint pain, chills, and fevers. These were reported by patients more after their second dose than their first. This information is also disclosed to patients by their vaccination provider at the time of the injection. The CDC adds that common side effects on the area of injection include pain and swelling, as well as fever, chills, tiredness, and aches throughout the rest of the body.

Overall, fatigue and headaches, along with pain at the injection site, tend to be the most common side effects. If you are experiencing discomfort, ask a doctor whether you can take over-the-counter medicine, such as ibuprofen or aspirin. Side effects can affect one’s ability to complete everyday tasks, but they are known to disappear after a few days. Harvard Medical School reminds patients that side effects are not “bad,” rather, they are a sign that one’s body is building up protection against the virus. It is important to note that side effects vary with everyone. Some people may not experience side effects. However, some people might need to take time off from school or work, as they may experience a significant amount of muscle pain or fatigue.

The CDC also has a smartphone check-in tool called “V-Safe,” which sends you automatic text messages and allows you to check in with any symptoms you might be having after vaccination. Learn more here. 

Am I still contagious afterwards? Do I still need to wear a mask?

According to the CDC, none of the authorized vaccines contain a live COVID-19 virus, meaning that the COVID-19 vaccine cannot make you sick with COVID-19.

That said, after getting the vaccine, you will definitely need to wear a mask. This is because we still don’t know whether the vaccines prevent you from spreading coronavirus to other people. In fact, the CDC recommends double-masking and increasing the filtration of your masks, as well as recommending the following guidelines for correct mask usage. Masks should:

  1. Completely cover the nose and mouth
  2. Fit snugly against the sides of the face and not have any gaps
  3. Be handled only by the ear loops, cords, or head straps (not by the surface of the mask)

Will I have to get it every year? Will it work with the variants?

Currently there is still not enough data to know for sure how long the vaccine guarantees immunity. Follow-up appointments and studies will be conducted to further study the lasting effects of the vaccine, including how the immune system reacts. These studies will show how antibodies hold up post-vaccine as well as how long-term exposure affects people who have been vaccinated.

Stephen Jameson, a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said in an NPR interview that the immune system can hold the memory of certain viruses for a long time. However, there isn’t enough knowledge yet about how the immune system reacts to COVID-19 or the vaccine. Those studying the immune response are doing so in real time while people are getting vaccinated. With that in mind, the public will have to wait until scientists know more about whether or not the COVID-19 vaccine will be annual like the flu shot or a one-time thing.

People are also concerned about new variants that are emerging in the U.S. and how they will interact with the current vaccines available. The variants of COVID-19 in the U.S. as of Feb. 2 include B.1.1.7 from the United Kingdom, B.1.351 from South Africa and P.1 from Brazil. These variants spread faster than others. The CDC does not have definite data on how the vaccines respond to these specific strains, but they are doing research to find out.

In a press release from Moderna on Jan. 25, the company stated that their vaccine did show a reduction in neutralizing antibodies against the B.1.351 variant, but they say the reduction is not enough to cause the vaccine to be ineffective. As for the other variants, the Moderna vaccine has shown no sign of reduction in effectiveness. Pfizer also released a statement Jan. 27 regarding their vaccine effectiveness against new strains. They found similar results from their studies as Moderna. Although both companies said there is currently no need for a separate vaccine, they are prepared in the event that it does become necessary. For now, studies show the vaccines available are effective against the new variants.

When will we go back to “normal”?

It depends on a number of things and is very much subject to change. At this point, talk of “herd immunity” — meaning a high percentage of the population is either vaccinated or immune from being infected — is being discussed by some health officials as a possible factor in a somewhat “more normal” near future, as the timeline for a fully vaccinated population remains unclear. This week Chicago saw its lowest infection rate since the pandemic began, as did other states that experienced outbreaks over the holidays, including California.

“This won’t be like flipping a switch, it’s going to be like digging out your car in a snowstorm. It will go slowly, more snow will fall on us, we’ll have to take breaks to see where we are, and eventually we’ll get there.”

Most of this is certainly due to increased safety measures after the holiday surge, but some officials think it could also be early effects of increased vaccinations and, in some communities, beginning amounts of immunity per amount of people infected. This doesn’t mean that anyone is “in the clear,” however — as you can still get COVID-19 more than once and the new variants present additional, higher risk of infection.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced that he plans for there to be enough vaccines available for every adult in the United States to be vaccinated by the end of July, a timeframe that has also shifted multiple times as demand for vaccines remains high compared to relatively low supply, which remains an issue for the rollout. As of Monday, the state of Illinois had fully vaccinated 3.38 percent of people — a long way away from what would be needed for the type of pre-March 2020 “normalcy” that most of us envision. Additionally, the emergence and spread of new variants in multiple parts of the U.S. and the world means that vaccination alone might not be enough to fully stop all transmission COVID-19.

However, there is reason to remain hopeful. Even with the new variants circulating and the vaccine rollout’s shifting timeline, having frontline health workers, elderly people, those with underlying conditions such as cancer or autoimmune diseases, and other at-risk populations vaccinated means the virus will cause far less damage. Death rates will drop, overwhelmed hospitals and full ICUs will become more rare and it will — gradually and alongside other mitigation strategies like masking, testing and social distancing — become more safe to do other activities.

So, we don’t know exactly when things will be “normal,” again. It seems like, all things held constant, that more things will be more normal as we move forward this year. DePaul health sciences professor Craig Klugman perhaps put it best in an email to 14 East for last week’s vaccine story.

“This won’t be like flipping a switch, it’s going to be like digging out your car in a snowstorm,” he said. “It will go slowly, more snow will fall on us, we’ll have to take breaks to see where we are, and eventually we’ll get there.”

Other news sources to follow + resources

In addition to 14 East’s weekly newsletter on COVID-19 updates and news around the city, these are some great resources for information and day-to-day changes to coronavirus policy and response:




This guide was developed by the 14 East Staff, and was written by Aneesah Shealey, Bridget Killian, Cam Rodriguez, Corey Schmidt, Eiman Navaid, Francesca Mathewes and Grace Del Vecchio.

Header image by Bridget Killian