COVID-19 Vaccine Frequently Asked Questions

To support our community, Brown is providing updated answers to questions about the COVID-19 vaccines.

The University is committed to keeping our community informed as information becomes available about the COVID-19 vaccine. The following is a list of frequently asked questions from faculty, staff and students, which will be updated as additional information becomes available.

General Questions

Currently, two COVID-19 vaccines — one made by Pfizer-BioNTech and one by Moderna — have been authorized for emergency use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration, and more are in development. Both approved vaccines require two doses. Both are mRNA vaccines. An mRNA vaccine is a vaccine that uses messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) to build a protein that will trigger an immune response. These vaccines give our cells instructions to make a harmless part of the COVID-19 virus — specifically, a protein on the virus’s surface. Once our cells receive these instructions, the mRNA breaks down and our cells get rid of it. Also, because the mRNA never enters the cell’s nucleus, mRNA is unable to interact with our DNA in any way. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are authorized for people 16 years old and 18 years old and older, respectively.

The existing vaccines have been shown to be 95% effective in preventing symptomatic laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 and in preventing severe disease. The wider and faster the vaccine is distributed and utilized in the Providence and Rhode Island communities, the sooner more normal operations will return to the Brown University campus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use on Dec. 11, 2020, and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use on Dec. 18, 2020. The State of Rhode Island began vaccinating high-risk hospital workers the week of Dec. 14, 2020. People can follow the progress of different vaccines at various vaccine tracker sites and applications, like the New York Times Coronavirus Tracker or BioPharma Dive. Which vaccine is administered will depend largely on availability and distribution. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses. The Pfizer vaccine requires a second dose 21 days after the first dose and the Moderna vaccine requires a second dose 28 days after the first dose. For both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the first dose is the same as the second dose in terms of amount and its composition. Although the vaccines are equally effective, they are not interchangeable. It is important to have both doses be administered from the same type of vaccine.

According to the CDC, there are multiple COVID-19 variants circulating around the world. Several new variants emerged in the fall of 2020 — most notably, separate variants of SARS-CoV-2 first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. Scientists don’t know yet whether the approved COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the variants. Researchers are working hard to understand how widely these variants have spread and how these variants will react to existing treatments and vaccines. It seems that these variants spread more easily and quickly. We do not know for sure that they cause more severe illness or increased risk of death. But an increase in the number of cases can strain health care resources. For this reason, we must continue to practice measures like wearing masks, washing our hands and watching our distance. The emergence of variants is yet another reason that everyone should be vaccinated as soon as they become eligible. If the virus cannot reproduce itself in infected people,  it is less likely to mutate into new variants.

No. Vaccines do not cause disease. However, vaccines can cause your immune system to respond. This is a sign that the vaccine — and your body’s immune system — is working. Based on information released about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, recipients are expected to have symptoms after vaccination. People may feel some soreness at the site of injection, some aches and fatigue. These symptoms may be more noticeable than those that occur with a flu vaccine. This is completely normal and will clear up in a few days.

Safety is a top priority. COVID-19 vaccines have been tested in large clinical trials with thousands of people of different ages, races, ethnicities and underlying medical conditions to make sure they are safe. No steps involving safety have been skipped— COVID-19 vaccines are being held to the same standards as other vaccines to make sure they are safe. To ensure the safety of vaccines in the United States, there is a rigorous vaccine development and approval process. Following approval of a vaccine, there are several systems in place to continue to ensure safety.

After a vaccine is approved and distributed, vaccine monitoring systems are used to watch for possible side effects. If an unexpected side effect is seen, experts study it to determine whether changes are needed in vaccine recommendations. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is a national vaccine safety surveillance program of the FDA and the CDC. VAERS collects and analyzes information from reports of adverse events (e.g., side effects) that occur after a vaccine has been approved and distributed. Anyone can submit a report to VAERS by going to this link: https://vaers.hhs.gov/reportevent.html.

The vaccines have been approved through a process called an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA). This is an authority that allows the FDA to make certain medical products (e.g., vaccines, treatments) available during public health emergencies. The FDA released guidance for vaccine manufacturers considering requests for an EUA. This guidance explains the criteria that need to be met before any vaccine for COVID-19 will receive an EUA. To meet criteria, the vaccine’s potential and known benefits must outweigh the potential and known risks. In addition, the vaccine must be at least 50% effective and must meet certain safety standards among a sufficiently large group of volunteers.

You must continue to participate in testing even after being vaccinated. At this time, it is unknown how well vaccines prevent asymptomatic infection. In addition, vaccines are not always 100% effective. Finally, the duration of immunity after vaccination is also unknown. For these reasons, it is important to continue to participate in routine COVID-19 testing programs at present.

No. The federal government is providing the vaccine free of charge to people living in the United States. However, your vaccination provider may bill your insurance company, Medicaid or Medicare for an administration fee. Vaccination providers can be reimbursed for this by the patient’s public or private insurance company or, for uninsured patients, by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Provider Relief Fund. No one can be denied a vaccine if they are unable to pay the vaccine administration fee.

Brown’s Plans for Vaccinations

Distribution of the vaccine in the United States is currently controlled and managed by federal and state agencies. The University has offered to support the state of Rhode Island’s distribution efforts, but at this time we do not have a direct role in providing or distributing the vaccine. We hope there will be opportunities in the future for the University to host on-campus clinics to administer the vaccine to eligible populations, but Brown does not have authorization from the state or access to vaccine to do so at this time. While that may change as the vaccine becomes more readily available, for the time being we will focus our efforts on education and advocacy to promote vaccine adoption.

Distribution of the vaccine in the United States is currently controlled and managed by federal and state agencies. The University has offered to support the state of Rhode Island’s distribution efforts, but at this time we do not have a direct role in providing or distributing the vaccine. While that may change as the vaccine becomes more readily available, for the time being we will focus our efforts on education and advocacy to promote vaccine adoption.

In Rhode Island’s Phase 1 plan, some Brown faculty, staff and students are eligible to be vaccinated – primarily health care workers, first responders and medical students in clinical rotations. Accordingly, some members of our community in the Warren Alpert Medical School, Department of Public Safety, and Health and Wellness have begun receiving the vaccine. Adults 75 years of age and older are also included in Phase 1, and the vaccine was made available for them in February. The state’s timeline for vaccinations in Rhode Island offers the best indication of when others in the state will be eligible to receive the vaccine.

Should the University receive in the future authorization from the state and access to vaccine to be able to administer it directly, all distribution plans would be based on the State of Rhode Island’s prioritization system and timeline for vaccinations in Rhode Island, which indicates when residents will be eligible to receive the vaccine. A specific plan would be communicated to the campus community in advance of any on-campus administration of the vaccine.

In Rhode Island’s Phase 1 plan, some Brown faculty, staff and students are eligible to be vaccinated – primarily licensed health care workers, first responders and medical students in clinical rotations. Accordingly, some members of our community in the Warren Alpert Medical School, Department of Public Safety, and Health and Wellness have begun receiving the vaccine. Adults 75 years of age and older are also included in Phase 1, and the vaccine was made available for them in February.

While receiving the vaccine is an important public health measure, it does not replace the essentials of mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, staying home when sick and frequent COVID-19 testing. We don’t know whether a vaccine prevents asymptomatic infections and if there’s still the possibility that a vaccinated person could transmit the virus without knowing it. It is therefore important to continue wearing your mask after being vaccinated and until we have more information about how much and how long these vaccines offer protection against infection and transmission. For all of those reasons, all of Brown’s current public health policies and guidelines will remain in place even as more and more members of our community receive the vaccine. The wider and faster the vaccine is distributed and utilized in the Providence and Rhode Island communities, the sooner more normal operations will return to the Brown campus.

Vaccinated persons should continue to follow all current guidance to protect themselves and others, including following CDC travel guidance. Until there is more research, we still need to wear masks and also remain six feet apart when not with people in our household. Studies of the COVID-19 vaccines have only measured whether vaccinated people developed symptoms, not whether they got infected. You can become infected with the coronavirus and be asymptomatic. Asymptomatic people can still spread COVID-19 to others. We don’t know whether a vaccine prevents asymptomatic infections and if there’s still the possibility that a vaccinated person could transmit the virus without knowing it. It is therefore important to continue wearing your mask after being vaccinated and until we have more information about how much and how long these vaccines offer protection against infection and transmission.

The COVID-19 Vaccine Working Group responsibility to advise the president and the provost on matters of policy related to vaccination includes an ongoing assessment of whether the vaccine should be mandatory for students and/or employees, which is a matter on which the University has not yet made a decision. Policies and protocols will be based on the best scientific evidence. If Brown decides to make the vaccine mandatory, medical and religious exceptions will be allowed, along with considerations for reasonable accommodations.

At this point, all events and in-person socializing and activities are guided by the University’s current Campus Activity Status. For the small number of in-person events that are currently permitted, no proof of vaccinations are required — however, events must be held in compliance with Campus Activity Status requirements.

A COVID-19 Vaccine Working Group — co-chaired by Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey and Dr. Michele Cyr, professor of medicine and the Division of Biology and Medicine’s senior associate dean for academic affairs — will oversee Brown’s education and advocacy efforts for the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as advise the president and the provost on matters of policy. Distribution of the vaccine in the United States is currently controlled and managed by federal and state agencies. The University has offered to support the state of Rhode Island’s distribution efforts, but at this time we do not have a direct role in providing or distributing the vaccine. While that may change as the vaccine becomes more readily available, for the time being we will focus our efforts on education and advocacy to promote vaccine adoption.

Vaccination Eligibility and Access

In Rhode Island, eligibility for the vaccine is determined by the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH). The state has released a timeline for vaccinations in Rhode Island, indicating when residents will be eligible to receive the vaccine. The state is currently in Phase 1 of its vaccination plan, which involves vaccinating individuals in the health care and medical fields, a range of essential and front-line workers and categories of high-risk individuals, and individuals 75 years of age and older.

Individual states establish the timelines for eligible populations, and Massachusetts residents can learn more about their state’s plans on the Massachusetts COVID-19 Vaccine Information website, while those living in Connecticut can visit the Connecticut COVID-19 Response website for vaccination information. We encourage all members of the Brown community to pay attention to the state plan where they reside, and if you become eligible to receive the vaccine, do so as soon as possible.

In Rhode Island’s Phase 1 plan, some Brown faculty, staff and students are eligible to be vaccinated – primarily health care workers, first responders and medical students in clinical rotations. Accordingly, some members of our community in the Warren Alpert Medical School, Department of Public Safety, and Health and Wellness have begun receiving the vaccine. Adults 75 years of age and older are also included in Phase 1, and the vaccine was made available for them in February.

Rhode Island has been distributing the vaccine supply it receives, but the amounts allocated to the state by the federal government are limited and, to date, have been variable. State officials anticipate the volume of vaccine they receive and the pace of distribution will improve over the coming weeks and months. We hope there will be opportunities in the future for the University to host on-campus clinics to administer the vaccine to eligible populations (and we have indicated to the state that we are willing to do so), but Brown does not have authorization from the state or access to vaccine to do so at this time.

Individual states establish the timelines for eligible populations, and all members of the Brown community are encouraged to monitor the availability of the vaccine in the state in which they reside. Those in Rhode Island can stay current through the R.I. Department of Health’s timeline for vaccinations. Massachusetts residents can learn more about their state’s plans on the Massachusetts COVID-19 Vaccine Information website, while those living in Connecticut can visit the Connecticut COVID-19 Response website for vaccination information. Should Brown receive the authorization from the state and access to the vaccine required to administer the vaccine on-campus directly to eligible populations, the University will communicate this clearly to the full Brown community.

Yes. The federal government is providing the vaccine free of charge to people living in the United States. International students are encouraged to get the vaccine if and when they become eligible per the phased prioritization systems managed by each state.

Brown does not have a direct role in providing the vaccine currently. We encourage all members of the Brown community to pay attention to the state plan where they reside, and if you become eligible to receive the vaccine, do so as soon as possible. In the future, should the University receive authorization from the state and have access to administer the vaccine directly, all distribution plans will be based on the State of Rhode Island’s prioritization system and timeline for vaccinations in Rhode Island, which indicates when residents will be eligible to receive the vaccine. A specific plan would be communicated to the campus community in advance of any on-campus administration of the vaccine, including information about who is eligible.

Brown does not have a direct role in providing the vaccine currently. We encourage all members of the Brown community to pay attention to the state plan where they reside, and if you become eligible to receive the vaccine, do so as soon as possible.

Individual states establish the timelines for eligible populations. We encourage all members of the Brown community to pay attention to the state plan where they reside, and if you become eligible to receive the vaccine, do so as soon as possible. Rhode Island is currently in Phase 1 of its vaccination plan. Massachusetts residents can learn more about their state’s plans on the Massachusetts COVID-19 Vaccine Information website, while those living in Connecticut can visit the Connecticut COVID-19 Response website for vaccination information. When you do receive the vaccine you will receive a vaccination card. It is important to hold on to the vaccination documentation you are provided for future reference.

Brown does not have a direct role in providing the vaccine currently. We encourage all members of the Brown community to pay attention to the state plan where they reside, and if you become eligible to receive the vaccine, do so as soon as possible.

Vaccine Health and Safety

COVID-19 vaccines do not cause COVID-19 infection. However, they are expected to cause your immune system to respond. This is a sign that the vaccine — and your body’s immune system — is working and will fight the virus if you are exposed to it. Based on information released about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, we expect people to have some symptoms after vaccination. People may feel some soreness at the injection site, body aches, and/or fatigue. These symptoms may be more noticeable than those that occur with a flu vaccine. This is completely normal and will clear up in a few days.

It is recommended that vaccine recipients do not take pain relief medication prior to vaccination, as it may decrease antibody response to the first dose of vaccine and lower its efficacy. However, studies on taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen to manage side effects after vaccination showed that both vaccines have a still high efficacy rate: 95% for Pfizer-BioNTech and 94.1% for Moderna.

The exact degree and duration of immunity after receiving an mRNA vaccine is currently unknown. There is no lab test to determine if you are immune and protected. However, according to CDC guidelines, should you be exposed to a case of COVID-19 at least 14 days after receiving the second dose of the vaccine, you do not need to quarantine. Nonetheless, it is important to monitor yourself for symptoms. Studies of the COVID-19 vaccines have only measured whether vaccinated people developed symptoms, not whether they got infected. You can become infected with the coronavirus and be asymptomatic (i.e., have no symptoms). Asymptomatic people can still spread COVID-19 to others. We don’t know whether a vaccine prevents asymptomatic infections and if there’s still the possibility that a vaccinated person could transmit the virus without knowing it. It is therefore important to continue taking precautions such as wearing your mask after being vaccinated. This will be especially true  until we have more information about how much and how long these vaccines offer protection against infection and transmission.

According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, people with a history of severe allergic reaction (e.g., anaphylaxis) to other vaccines (i.e., not Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines) or to an injectable medication should review their risks with a primary care provider. Depending on that assessment, they can be vaccinated. After vaccination, people who have no history of severe allergic reactions are asked to wait for 15 minutes to be observed for potential side effects. People with a history of severe allergic reactions should be prepared for a 30-minute observation period. Individuals with a history of other allergies (e.g., to food, pets, insects, environmental allergies) or a family history of anaphylaxis should still be vaccinated. People with a history of severe allergic reactions (e.g., anaphylaxis) to any component of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines should not be vaccinated.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses. The Pfizer vaccine requires a second dose 21 days after the first dose and the Moderna vaccine requires a second dose 28 days after the first dose. For both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the first dose is the same as the second dose in terms of amount and its composition. The vaccines are not interchangeable. When you begin a vaccine series with one type of vaccine, the second vaccine must be of the same type.

Updated guidance from the CDC states that the second dose should be administered as close to the recommended interval as possible. However, if it is not feasible to adhere to the recommended interval, the second dose of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines may be scheduled for administration up to six weeks (42 days) after the first dose. There are currently limited data on the efficacy of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines administered beyond this window. Despite the absence of efficacy data, if  an unavoidable delay occurs, the second dose may be administered beyond the six-week window without restarting the series.

The current mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are not interchangeable with each other or with other COVID-19 vaccine products. The safety and efficacy of mixing these vaccines has not been evaluated. Per the CDC, in exceptional situations in which the first-dose vaccine product cannot be determined or is no longer available, any mRNA COVID-19 vaccine may be administered at a minimum of 28 days between doses.

Yes, you should still get vaccinated — there is no reason to avoid vaccination if you have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past. This is especially true if your positive test was more than three months before your first dose of vaccine. While there is no minimum interval that is required between a positive test and vaccination, studies have shown that the vast majority of people have natural immunity for three months after infection. Therefore, vaccination is not as critical during that time.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women can be vaccinated if they choose, after they have had the opportunity to discuss risks and benefits with their healthcare providers.

These are among the resources from the CDC and Rhode Island Department of Health accessible online:

Last updated February 19, 2021. Information on this page may be updated as the University’s planning evolves and/or public health guidance prompts a shift in Brown’s operations and protocols.