Expert Info. on COVID-19 Vaccine Development, Distribution and Safety

FEMA Office of Disability Integration and Coordination

Ask the Expert

Friends & Colleagues:

The first COVID-19 vaccines are being administered to healthcare professionals across the nation, enabling them to continue responding to the pandemic from the frontlines with additional protection. As of December 30, 2020 more than 2.7 million people have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

There is a tremendous amount of information being reported about the vaccine and its distribution, and we recognize that you have a responsibility to provide the most recent, accurate information with your communities. We also recognize that you, as disability stakeholders, have questions about the vaccine that are specific to people with disabilities.

In the course of my work as the director of FEMA's Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, I recently connected with a subject matter expert, Dr. Hardeep Sandhu, in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The doctor has generously agreed to share his knowledge with our disability stakeholders in this first edition of our Ask the Expert series.

This short Q&A between me and Dr. Sandhu is intended to cover basic information about the COVID vaccine around the following key areas:

  • Vaccine Development 
  • Vaccine Distribution
  • Vaccine Safety

You will find additional resources at the end of this message, which you can use to provide your communities with facts about COVID-19.

Wishing you all a safe and happy new year,

Linda Mastandrea

Director, Office of Disability Integration and Coordination

Office of the Administrator




Linda Mastandrea, FEMA, ODIC

Hardeep, Sandhu, MBBA, MD; Regional Coordinator for HHS Region 6, Vaccine Task Force, CDC COVID-19 Response

LM: How is HHS coordinating the COVID-19 vaccine response?

Dr. Sandhu: In partnership among components of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense, with engagement from private firms and other federal agencies, and coordinating among existing HHS-wide efforts, we have created "Operation Warp Speed," a plan to accelerate the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. Operation Warp Speed's goal is to produce and deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective vaccines with the initial doses available by January 2021.

We are also working with several federal entities that will receive direct allocation of COVID-19 vaccines, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Department of Defense, Department of State, Veterans Health Administration and Indian Health Service.

LM: Now that the first vaccine is ready to be administered, who can get the vaccine and when will it be widely available to our communities?

Dr. Sandhu: The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended that vaccines in the first phase of the COVID-19 vaccination program (Phase 1a) should be offered to health care personnel (HCP) and residents of long-term care facilities. The ACIP has recommended that planning should begin for subsequent phases, including Phase 1b (frontline essential workers and individuals 75 years of age and older) and Phase 1c (other essential workers, persons 65–74 years of age, and individuals 16–64 years of age with underlying medical conditions). States and other jurisdictions will determine the timing of vaccination for different groups.

LM: Will insurance plans cover the vaccine, or will there be a cost passed on to patients?

Dr. Sandhu: COVID-19 vaccine will be distributed by the federal government at no cost to COVID-19 vaccination providers, so there is no cost to individuals for the vaccine itself. However, providers may bill your insurance company or Medicaid and Medicare for an office visit and/or an administration fee when administering the COVID-19 vaccine. It is important to know that enrolled vaccine providers must administer COVID-19 vaccine regardless of the vaccine recipient's ability to pay COVID-19 vaccine administration fees or coverage status.

LM: If someone receives the vaccine does it mean they won't get COVID?

Dr. Sandhu: Two COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for use in the United States from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Based on evidence from clinical trials, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 95%, and the Moderna vaccine was 94.1% effective at preventing laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 illness in people without evidence of previous infection.

Both vaccines are Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. mRNA vaccines do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19. They are a new type of vaccine to protect against infectious diseases. mRNA vaccines teach our cells how to make a protein—or even just a piece of a protein—that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. That immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.

LM: If someone has already had COVID, should they take the vaccine?

Dr. Sandhu: Yes. CDC recommends that people get vaccinated even if they already had COVID-19, because you can become infected more than once. While you may have some short-term antibody protection after recovering from COVID-19, we don't know how long this protection will last.  

LM: What should older adults, those with chronic health conditions, and those with illness or other conditions that may compromise their immune systems know about the vaccine?

Dr. Sandhu: COVID-19 vaccination is especially important for people with underlying health conditions. People with these conditions are more likely to get very sick from COVID-19. All COVID-19 vaccines were tested in clinical trials involving tens of thousands of people to make sure they meet safety standards and protect adults of different ages, races, ethnicities. There were no serious safety concerns, although severe allergic reactions have been reported as the vaccine has rolled out more broadly. CDC and the FDA will keep monitoring the vaccines to look for safety issues after they are authorized and in use. If individuals have specific questions about their health conditions and vaccination, consult with your healthcare provider.

LM: Are there additional safety precautions that people with disabilities, older adults and/or individuals with chronic health conditions should be taking?

Dr. Sandhu: It is important that these individuals and any of their direct support care providers keep covering their mouths and noses with a mask, wash hands often, and stay at least 6 feet away from others before and after getting each dose of the vaccine. This is because the vaccines are not 100% effective. Everyone who gets vaccinated should continue taking these precautions until the vaccine is in widespread use and COVID-19 rates have declined.  Wearing masks may be difficult for some people with sensory, cognitive, or behavioral issues. If people are unable to wear a mask properly or cannot tolerate a mask, they should not wear one, and adaptations and alternatives should be considered.

LM: Should people who take several medications to manage their health take the vaccine?

Dr. Sandhu: mRNA COVID-19 vaccines may be administered to persons with underlying medical conditions who have no contraindications to vaccination (e.g. severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis). Clinical trials demonstrated similar safety and efficacy profiles in persons with some underlying medical conditions, including those that place them at increased risk for severe COVID-19, compared to persons without comorbidities. If individuals have specific questions about the medications they take and vaccination, they should consult with their healthcare provider. 



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