What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine in the Chattanooga area

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Medical assistant Jacqueline Burgess carries a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to a Hamilton County resident's car at the Health Department's Enterprise South vaccination site on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Starting Monday, the state of Tennessee and most local health departments in the Chattanooga region will open COVID-19 vaccinations to a much wider group of eligible patients in Phase 1c, which includes adults with common chronic conditions such as hypertension and obesity. Here are answers to questions that newly eligible residents might have:

How do I get an appointment?

You can check with your local pharmacy, health care provider or county health department. There is also a federal website called vaccinefinder.org that will connect you with resources.

What paperwork or verification do I need to bring?

Required information differs by provider and is typically discussed during the signup process.

Aaron Garst, pharmacy director for Galen Pharmacy, said anyone from the public who's eligible for vaccination can get on the wait list to be vaccinated, and they're screened for eligibility during scheduling.

"It's not that you want to turn anybody away, and I can see that there's some validity in using the honor system," he said. "At the same time, I feel like these phases were set up purposefully, and we're trying to stick by those as best as we can to make sure that the most high-risk patients get it. Granted, some of those patients are going to be the ones that are 16 plus, like a 25-year-old that's immunocompromised."

When in doubt, it never hurts to bring extra identifying information, such as a driver's license, pay stub or bill showing your home address, when visiting a vaccine site.

People with health insurance should also bring their insurance cards. Although the shots are free to patients, providers can bill insurance to cover their administration costs.

How long does it take for the vaccines to have an effect?

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines both require two doses to achieve full protection - with 21 days between each dose for Pfizer and 28 days for Moderna.

After the second dose of these vaccines, or the single Johnson & Johnson dose, full protection will likely not be achieved for several weeks, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Someone could still get infected with the virus between doses or in the days after vaccination, which is why health experts are encouraging those who have been vaccinated to continue wearing masks and social distancing.

At the moment, health experts do not know how long the vaccines will provide protection. People may need to get booster shots, especially as some coronavirus variants become more widespread.

What are the most common after-effects of the shot?

Typical side effects for all three available vaccines include pain or redness at the injection site, headache, fatigue and muscle and joint pain. These side effects typically come within a day or two after receiving a dose.

Side effects were milder with the J&J vaccine, since it is a single dose. The two-dose vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, typically cause more intense side effects after the second dose. These effects are seen as a sign of the body responding to the vaccine and building immunity.

I already had COVID-19, do I still need a vaccine?

Research has not provided a clear picture of how long natural protection lasts for people who recovered from a COVID-19 infection. The CDC recommends people get vaccinated even if they have been infected to better ensure protection.

People who received monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma as part of their treatment against COVID-19 should wait 90 days before being vaccinated, according to the CDC.

I called the county, and they said they don't have any vaccines and aren't taking any first-dose appointments. When might they get some?

The Hamilton County Health Department announces new COVID-19 vaccine appointments when it receives new shipments of doses, which typically happens weekly. Local leaders have said that while this plan creates some uncertainty for when new appointments will be posted, it means that when appointments become available people who manage to get an appointment are guaranteed to get a dose. Other health departments across the country that scheduled appointments before they had supplies have been forced to cancel those appointments when shipments were delayed or not as large as predicted.

The county health department will announce new vaccine appointments on its Facebook page and website. People can also call the county's COVID-19 hotline at 423-209-8383 for more information.

If I get the vaccine, can I still spread the virus?

The available vaccines are effective in preventing severe infections and death from COVID-19. However, the CDC cautions that some people could still be infected by the virus and carry it without knowing because they do not have symptoms. Scientists are studying whether the virus can still be spread by vaccinated people, which is why health experts have encouraged people to continue wearing masks and take other prevention measures until things are better understood.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.