Q&A: What to expect and how to get a vaccine in Colorado

It’s vaccine open season — here are the basics of how to get one and why you should

Dr. Richard Pang moments before injecting the COVID-19 vaccination into a willing arm at the UCHealth mass vaccination clinic in the Coors Field parking lot Jan. 30, 2021. UCHealth partnered with the Governor's office, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Rockies to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to 10,000 qualified and registered people of two days. (Andy Cross/The Denver Post, pool)

This is no April Fools. As of today, all Coloradans ages 16 and up qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine. The following is a guide on what to expect, how to sign up and why you should.

What’s it like to get the vaccine?

In my experience, the hardest part was getting an appointment (see below). From there, everything went very smoothly. When I arrived at the pharmacy, a staffer took my driver’s license and asked me how I qualified. He then asked about health insurance, reassuring me that the vaccine is free, so even if I didn’t have insurance I’d be able to get it. After about 2 minutes, I was seated in a privacy area. Although my appointment was at a pharmacy, many Coloradans will have access to drive-up sites. They work very similarly, but from your car.

The shot itself is super easy. The needle was so small I barely felt it — anyone worried about this part can relax! I then waited for 15-30 minutes to make sure I had no reaction and drove home. The whole appointment was over in under 45 minutes and I didn’t pay a dime.

After the first shot — in my case Moderna — I didn’t feel much of anything. Over the next 24 hours my arm became slightly sore, but not enough to prevent me from doing anything. Some people do have reactions, such as headache or fatigue, so I made sure to clear my schedule just in case. Thankfully it wasn’t necessary for me, but it could be for others.

I haven’t had my second shot yet, but I plan to do the same preparations I did for the first. In addition to clearing my schedule, I also made sure to engage in healthy habits starting several days prior. This included sleeping full nights, getting exercise, drinking plenty of water, eating well, oral hygiene and more. Remember, the shot will put your immune system to work, so take care of yourself before, during and after.

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What vaccines are available?

Three vaccines are currently available in Colorado. Two modRNA technologies (Pfizer and Moderna) and the more traditional adenovirus vaccine (Johnson & Johnson). Different vaccination sites will have different vaccines, and you may or may not know which one you will get in advance. Please do not “vaccine shop” via telephone as it is very cumbersome on overworked pharmacy staff. If necessary, you can typically find out vaccine brands online.

Is one vaccine better than the other?

All vaccines have demonstrated safety and strong efficacy for preventing death and severe disease across multiple variants. There may be a slightly lower efficacy for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, particularly for variant B.1.351, but overall it’s still very effective and it only requires one dose which is a huge perk. The other two modRNA vaccines require two doses. In short, if you can get a vaccine, take it.

Can children get the vaccine?

For children ages 16 and 17, the currently authorized vaccine is Pfizer. Additional trials are underway for younger children. You can find these trials through your health care provider or on clinicaltrial.gov if your child would like to participate.

How do I get a vaccine appointment?

This is the hardest part for many people, and admittedly it took me several hours to secure an appointment. As there are still limited doses, it could be weeks to months before a time is available, so be ready to schedule out. Also, keep in mind any days you think it might be difficult to get a ride or miss work or school when scheduling an appointment, in case you experience symptoms.

To assist with finding vaccines, Colorado has an informational website. Recommended options include going through your employer, health care provider, the local county health department for mass vaccination sites and vaccinefinder.org. Personally, I used vaccinespotter.org, which is a GitHub collaboration by coders designed to scrape all publicly available pharmacy appointments in real time.

Of note, please do not make multiple appointments, and try to attend your scheduled time. There are millions of people needing to get vaccinated, so the logistics are very complicated. Anything you can do to make the process easier is greatly appreciated by staff. Also, many pharmacies will require you to sign-up online as the call volume is too high.

Should I be worried about vaccine safety?

Vaccine safety has not been compromised during the FDA authorizations, and all three vaccines exceeded efficacy requirements. If you’d like to learn more about the science of modRNA vaccines and the research history, I wrote about it here.

Was the vaccine tested on all ethnicities and genders?

Yes. Despite a long history of discrimination in medical science, improvements are underway and this vaccine has been tested widely across populations including, but not limited to, women, Hispanic and African American communities.

I’m young and healthy, why should I get the vaccine?

Getting the vaccine is really important, even if you are healthy now. Not only can the vaccine help prevent serious illness, but it can help us reach a level of community protection where the virus is no longer able to be easily spread. Reaching this point is known as herd immunity, and it helps us contain the virus so it can’t mutate beyond the current vaccines. In essence, we need healthy people to get vaccinated to help protect those who are most vulnerable.

Do I still have to wear a mask in public after getting vaccinated?
Yes! Until we reach herd immunity, keep wearing masks and distancing in public.

More questions?

Learn more on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 vaccine FAQs.

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