COVID Vaccines

As the region’s trusted health care provider, Penn State Health is working in accordance with state and federal agency recommendations to distribute the COVID vaccine. Planning is underway for the health system to begin offering the COVID-19 vaccine to patients and the public. We will update this page with more information when broad public vaccine distribution is available, based on vaccine supply.

Below are resources that may be helpful in understanding the vaccine, phases for distribution and more.

Expert insights

Medical experts from Penn State Health provide insight into vaccine development, safety, mRNA vaccines and the COVID vaccine.

COVID-19 Vaccine FAQs

This FAQ is intended to supplement guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

What Vaccines are available in the United States?

Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 Vaccine obtained emergency use authorization on Dec. 11, 2020, and Moderna received EUA for its COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 18, 2020. Both vaccines are being distributed to sites across the U.S., including Penn State Health medical centers.

What is an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA)?

An Emergency Use Authorization, or EUA, allows the use of unapproved medical products in response to a declared public health emergency where there are no adequate, approved and available alternatives. An EUA for a COVID-19 vaccine will allow vaccine distribution in the U.S. without a full FDA approval.

Why should I get a COVID-19 vaccine?

In an ongoing clinical trial, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine has been shown to prevent COVID-19 following two doses given three weeks apart. It may also prevent hospitalizations and death from COVID-19 but more data are needed. The duration of protection against COVID-19 is currently unknown. On Dec.12, after an evidence-based review of all available data, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices issued an interim recommendation for use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in persons ages 16 years old and older for the prevention of COVID-19.

Likewise, in its ongoing clinical trial, the Moderna vaccine has been sown to prevent COVID-19 following two doses given one month apart.  It may also prevent hospitalizations and death from COVID-19 but more data are needed. The duration of protection against COVID-19 is currently unknown. On Dec. 18, after an evidence-based review of all available data, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices issued an interim recommendation for use of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in persons ages 16 years old and older for the prevention of COVID-19.

Are the vaccines safe?

Vaccine manufacturers are not permitted to apply for emergency use authorization until they can provide the required amount of safety data. Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna met the FDA safety data milestones. However, you may have some side effects from vaccination, which are normal signs that your body is building protection. The most common side effects are sore arm, fatigue, headache, chills and fever. These side effects may affect your ability to do daily activities, but they should go away in a few days. 

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 Vaccines are still being studied in clinical trials and thus rare or long term sided effects that have not been previously reported may occur.

You can find more detailed information on the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines:

Will the vaccines work to stop COVID-19?

According to the FDA, Pfizer reports a 95% efficacy rate against COVID-19 across age, gender, race and ethnicity demographics. The company observed efficacy in adults over 65 years of age at 94%. COVID-19 vaccines are aimed at preventing clinical disease. We do not know whether they prevent transmission of the virus.

Moderna reported a 94.5% effective rate for its vaccine in its initial Phase 3 data.  

Please see the FDA’s fact sheet on the EUA of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and its fact sheet on the EUA of the Moderna vaccine for specific data, guidance, side effects and more.

Is there a cost for the vaccine?

The vaccine is likely to result in little out-of-pocket cost to individuals. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is finalizing a rule that any COVID-19 vaccine with authorization from the FDA would be covered with no cost to seniors or low-income people in the government-funded health insurance programs. Commercial insurers and self-funded employer health plans are also likely to cover the cost of the vaccines due to rules in place by the federal Departments of Labor and Treasury. Check with your insurance provider for exact coverage details for your individual plan.

People without insurance can also get the vaccine at no cost, thanks to a Provider Relief Fund that health care providers who administer the vaccine to the uninsured can apply to for reimbursement.

Will there be enough vaccine for everyone?

Currently, there is a limited supply of vaccine available. This means that not everyone will be able to be vaccinated right away. The goal is for everyone to be able to easily get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as large quantities are available.

Who is being prioritized for initial vaccination?

Based upon CDC recommendations, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has established three phases for distribution and identified populations of focus, which can be found here. Initial distributions are being prioritized for health care workers and individuals living in long-term care facilities.

  • Phase 1a distribution focuses on health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.  
  • Phase 1b distribution focuses on first responders; high-risk patients and their caregivers; people over 75; and essential workers who cannot social distance, such as teachers,  
  • Phase 1c focuses on the broader health administration; essential workers not covered in Phase 1a and 1b; people over 65 and patients with preexisting health conditions.   
  • Phase 2 will include remaining Phase 1a, 1 b and 1c populations and expand to the general population. 

When will Penn State Health offer the vaccination to community health care providers or EMS personnel? 

On Dec. 30, 2020, the Pennsylvania Department of Health instructed hospitals to dedicate 10% of their vaccines to the DOH-defined Phase 1A vaccine distribution group — community health care and emergency medical services providers – who are not affiliated with medical centers.

As of Jan. 6, Penn State Health is setting aside 10% of the vaccines it receives from the DOH to allocate to these groups. The vaccinations, which will begin the week of Jan. 11, will be scheduled weekly based on the inventory of doses available. The vaccines will be given by appointment only.

Individuals who fall into the category above and wish to receive a vaccination can call Penn State Health central scheduling at 844-774-8883 to start the process. If you do not fall into the state’s Phase 1A category, please continue to visit this webpage for updates.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health does not have a time-table of how long it will take to distribute additional COVID-19 vaccines across the commonwealth since there is only a limited supply of vaccine available at this time. Our goal is to vaccinate anyone who wants to be vaccinated as soon as enough vaccine is available.

Visit the Pennsylvania Department of Health vaccine web page for the latest on distribution.

When will the vaccine be available to the general public?

To learn more about state and federal vaccine distribution plan recommendations, visit:

What happens if I have a side effect from the vaccine?

Vaccines cause an immune response in the body which can sometimes cause flu-like symptoms such as body aches or even fever, chills and a headache. An immune response may be more likely to occur with the second dose. Pfizer identified fatigue and headache as the most common. Learn about the difference between a vaccine side effect and an adverse event.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration encourage the public to report possible side effects (called adverse events) to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) external icon. The CDC is also implementing a new smartphone-based tool called v-safe to check in on people’s health after they receive a COVID-19 vaccine. When you receive your vaccine, you will receive a v-safe information sheet telling you how to enroll in v-safe.  The CDC offers guidance related to side effects here. In addition, the FDA’s fact sheet on the EUA of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has information related to side effects and vaccine adverse event reporting information.

After I get the vaccine, do I still have to follow safety protocols at work and in public?

Yes. While experts learn more about the protection that COVID-19 vaccines provide, it will be important for everyone to continue using all the tools available to us to help stop this pandemic, such as:

  • Covering your mouth and nose with a mask  
  • Washing hands often 
  • Staying at least 6 feet away from others 
  • Disinfecting surfaces 
  • Monitoring your own health 
  • Staying home when you are sick 

If I get the vaccine, can I still be infected? How long does the vaccine protect me?

Experts have yet to understand whether individuals can still be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and spread it to others even though the vaccine protects them from developing symptoms themselves. In addition, we do not know how long vaccine protection will last and whether individuals will be susceptible to COVID-19 in the future as immunity decreases.

Can I take the first dose from Pfizer and take the second dose from another pharmaceutical company such as Moderna?

No, you must stay with the same vaccine manufacturer. Mixed vaccines have not been studied.

If I already had COVID-19 do I need the vaccine?

Individuals should still be vaccinated against COVID-19 regardless of whether they have been infected in the past.

Can I get the COVID vaccine if I’m pregnant? If so, does it matter what trimester I’m in?

Pregnancy is a known risk factor for severe COVID-19. There is no available safety and efficacy data for either the Pfizer BioNTech or the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines in women who are pregnant or nursing as these individuals were not included in the most recently reviewed trials. However, pregnant or nursing women are not excluded from receiving the vaccine. Thus a pregnant or breastfeeding woman may choose to be vaccinated if they feel that their risk from COVID and the potential benefit of the vaccine outweigh the unknown risks during pregnancy or nursing. This a decision individuals should make with the help of their provider. 

There are no specific recommendations regarding timing of the vaccination in pregnancy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also provides guidance on COVID-19 vaccination in pregnant and lactating individuals.

I have a pre-existing health condition. Is it safe for me to have the vaccine?

Studies to date indicate the COVID vaccines have high rates of effectiveness and safety among all age groups (above age 16) and demographics, with a very low rate of side effects even in people with a variety of pre-existing health conditions. Discuss your individual health history and concerns with your primary care provider to help you make an informed decision.

Does the COVID vaccine represent any risk to fertility for women of child-bearing age?

The vaccine is not expected to have an effect on fertility based on how messenger RNA - or mRNA - vaccines work. The COVID vaccine is recommended for women of childbearing age who meet the criteria for vaccination. If a woman becomes pregnant after the first dose, the second dose is recommended to be given per the usual recommendations. According to the CDC, women who are trying to become pregnant do not need to avoid pregnancy after receiving an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

Can breastfeeding women receive the vaccine?

Per the CDC, there are no data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in lactating women or on the effects of mRNA vaccines on the breastfed infant or on milk production and excretion. mRNA vaccines are not thought to be a risk to the breastfeeding infant. Women who are breastfeeding and are part of a group recommended to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, such as health care personnel, may choose to be vaccinated.

News media are reporting a new, mutant strain of COVID in the United Kingdom. What does this mean?

A new variant strain of COVID - B.1.1.7 - was discovered in the UK in September 2020 and by November was accounting for up to 60% of recent infections in London. In mid-December 2020, a strain showing some similar mutations was detected in South Africa.

Scientists are studying how the new variant strains may differ from COVID in regard to transmission, testing, severity of infection, treatment, and immune protection from the vaccines currently available or from antibodies from a previous COVID infection. To date, the new variant strain appears to be more infectious - meaning that it can make more people sick. But according to the CDC, there is nothing yet to indicate that these variant strains cause more severe illness or an increased risk of death. 

The CDC launched the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance (NS3) program in November 2020 to track how the COVID virus may be mutating.  

If the virus is mutating, won’t this effect the efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines?

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines granted emergency use authorization by the FDA are messenger RNA, or mRNA, vaccines. The mRNA vaccine introduces genetic material that causes cells to create COVID’s spike protein - specifically, the protein from the original strain of the virus, not the mutant strain that’s been found in the UK.  

The vaccines produce antibodies that target multiple parts of the spike protein. Researchers anticipate it would take multiple mutations in the spike protein to evade immunity resulting from the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. If the virus continues mutation so that reformulated vaccines are necessary, the mRNA vaccines can be tweaked and reproduced very quickly. 

The efficacy of the two vaccines that have received EUA in the United States are remarkably high, at 95% for Pfizer’s and 94% for Moderna’s. Against a mutant strain of COVID, like B.1.1.7, they may be less effective at preventing illness but still effective at limiting the severity of illness in those who do become ill - similar to how the annual influenza vaccines, with an average of 50% to 60% efficacy, reduce severe illness and death. 

The vaccine was developed so quickly. Was it too rushed?

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines made it through their Phase 3 clinical trials in record time - less than one year. But unlike other diseases, COVID had scientists from across the globe focused and collaborating toward an effective vaccine. With advances in genomic sequencing, researchers determined the viral sequence of SARS-CoV-2 within two weeks of the first reported illnesses in Wuhan, China.

Countries including the United States provided resources to public and private laboratories to develop vaccines across various platforms, accelerating vaccine development while maintaining standards for safety and efficacy. 

Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID vaccines are the first messenger RNA - or mRNA - vaccine to be produced broadly. The technology, however, has been in development for years, as has research into other coronavirus vaccines.

News media are reporting a new, mutant strain of COVID in the United Kingdom. What does this mean?

A new variant strain of COVID - B.1.1.7 - was discovered in the UK in September 2020 and by November was accounting for up to 60% of recent infections in London. Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine confirmed on Jan. 7, that the same variant strain had been detected in an individual in Dauphin County who had travelled internationally.

Scientists are studying how the new variant strains may differ from COVID in regard to transmission, testing, severity of infection, treatment, and immune protection from the vaccines currently available or from antibodies from a previous COVID infection. To date, the new variant strain appears to be more infectious - meaning that it can make more people sick. But according to the CDC, there is nothing yet to indicate that these variant strains cause more severe illness or an increased risk of death.

The CDC launched the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance (NS3) program in November 2020 to track how the COVID virus may be mutating.