As the vaccine is rolling out across the country, many people have questions about how to get the COVID vaccine. It can get confusing to understand when you’re eligible, what the process is like, and when it is safe to return to normal life. At present, the available COVID-19 vaccine is a 2-shot course with three weeks in between the two shots. For now it is only available to demographic groups who are higher-risk or essential workers, but eligibility will open up to everyone in the next few months.

We’ve taken the guidelines of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and created a guide for how to know if you are considered eligible to get the vaccine now, what to expect the process to be like when you get the vaccine, and how to know when you are fully immune to COVID-19.

Can I Get the COVID Vaccine Now?

The national vaccine rollout is scheduled in phases. The phases currently rolled out at the national level include:

  • Phase 1a: Essential health care workers and long term care workers
  • Phase 1b: Frontline essential workers and people over the age of 75
  • Phase 1c: Other essential workers, people ages 65-74, and people ages 16-64 with underlying medical conditions

As the vaccine rollout continues, new phase groups will be added. These phases are set nationally but administered by local governments. Different locations are currently working on different phase groups, depending on how quickly they can get the vaccine administered. To find out which specific phase your local area is administering to at present, check with your state or city’s COVID-19 information. 

Is the Vaccine Covered by My Health Plan?

Regardless of your insurance status—whether you’re on Medicare, a private plan, or uninsured—the COVID-19 vaccine is free for all Americans for the duration of the pandemic. 

The cost of the doctor visit associated with receiving the injection may have a copay for certain individuals on alternative health plans, but for anyone going through insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid there are no fees or copays associated with any aspect of receiving the vaccine.

At this time it is unknown if the vaccine will cost money after the pandemic is ended. It is also unclear when the pandemic will be officially declared over—however, for the time being the vaccine is fully free for all Americans.

What to Expect at Your First Appointment

At your first appointment you can expect to wear a mask and stand 6 feet apart from other patients and medical staff. You will receive one of three different types of COVID-19 vaccines. None of them contain live COVID-19 virus, which means none of them can infect you with COVID-19.

Your first dose is a standard vaccine injection in a medical office, then you will be issued a paper or electronic record of the type of vaccine you received and the date it was given. Most types of COVID-19 vaccines require a second dose three weeks after receiving the first dose.

After you’ve received your first dose of the vaccine, you can use the CDC’s vsafe tool to get help navigating the process with text messages and web information. Vsafe includes follow-ups about how you feel after the vaccine, web surveys to track public health, and reminders for your second dose.

What to Expect at Your Second Appointment

Your second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is important for achieving immunity. Even if you experienced side effects following your first shot, getting the second shot is necessary in most cases. Unless you find you have a rare allergic reaction to the vaccine, the side effects are part of the process of the immune system learning how to recognize the COVID-19 virus. If you aren’t sure if your side effects are normal or an allergic reaction, check in with your doctor.

Between your first and second shot you may not be immune, so you should be sure to maintain normal mask, handwashing, and social distancing practices. You may experience COVID-like symptoms after receiving these shots even if you don’t have COVID-19. This is the body’s immune response to the vaccine itself, and if it is from the shot it will go away within 2-3 days.

Staying Safe in the Meantime

It takes until two weeks after your second shot to achieve full immunity, so stay safe in the meantime by maintaining normal mask, handwashing, and social distancing practices. 

This means for most people, the process of achieving full immunity to COVID-19—which takes at least five weeks—goes like this:

  1. Create an appointment for your first shot when your demographic group is eligible for the vaccine
  2. Get your first dose of the vaccine and make an appointment for your second dose
  3. Wait about three weeks before receiving your second dose of the vaccine
  4. Wait about two weeks after receiving your second dose of the vaccine
  5. After this point, you are considered fully immune to COVID-19

Until reaching the fifth step, it’s important to continue social distancing practices to keep everyone safe as most of the population continues to receive the vaccine in waves. When most people have received the full course of the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s likely the pandemic will be considered ended and these restrictions will finally lift.