In a recent survey of educators, we asked about the impact of COVID-19 on students. The results show that kids are preoccupied with the pandemic, worried about their friends and family, and concerned about their own health. The survey confirmed what teachers and parents already know—the pandemic poses a significant barrier to learning. This is true regardless of age or whether students are learning in person or virtually.
Everyone wants the pandemic to end so we can get back to normal, but there is a lot of confusion about how the new COVID-19 vaccines work and if they are safe. Evaluating sources and understanding the science is challenging. To make this important information more accessible, we summarized the latest research and findings. We hope this COVID-19 Vaccine Time Saver will help you make an informed decision about the COVID-19 vaccine. The questions that follow came directly from educators and families like you through First Book’s recent survey.
First Book’s COVID-19 Vaccine Time Saver is also available in Spanish. View the Spanish version here.
Your Questions, Answered
- I’ve heard a lot of rumors about hidden ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccine. What is actually in the vaccine?
- How were the vaccines developed so quickly?
- How can I be sure the vaccine is safe and effective, even in the long term?
- As a person of color, I’m concerned about my safety because of the history of medical racism in the U.S.
- Why has there been so much attention on people of color receiving the vaccine?
- I’ve heard I need to provide personal data and contact information to get the vaccine. Why is that? Will the government have access to that information?
Additional Free Resources
Explore related topics, backed by research and made for educators.
Last Updated: April 14, 2021.
On April 13, the CDC and the FDA paused the J&J vaccine administration due to a rare blood clot issue (6 cases in 4 million doses given). This does not invalidate the effectiveness of the vaccine, but rather the pause is out of an abundance of caution for further evaluation.
On February 27, the FDA issued an Emergency Use Authorization for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Unlike the mRNA-based vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, the J&J vaccine uses a cold virus as a delivery system. The cold virus, which has been modified so it cannot make you sick, tells your cells to create a spike protein, which prompts an immune reaction that protects you from the virus that causes COVID-19.
The J&J vaccine “can’t give you the cold virus, and it definitely cannot give you COVID,” says Dr. Cassandra Pierre, an infectious disease specialist and acting hospital epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center.
The clinical trial for the J&J vaccine involved 44,000 people of diverse backgrounds and was conducted in eight countries across three continents. The J&J vaccine was tested against the more contagious variants of the coronavirus. The clinical trials for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines (both over 94% effective) took place before these variants were widespread. Given the different trial parameters, it is tricky to compare the efficacy rates of the three vaccines.
In the U.S., the J&J vaccine reduces the risk of moderate to severe COVID-19 by 72% and hospitalization by close to 100%. In addition, studies have shown the J&J vaccine is fairly effective (74%) at preventing vaccinated people from becoming asymptomatic carriers. There is no comparable information for the Moderna and Pfizer shots. Unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the J&J vaccine can be stored for up to three months at regular refrigerator temperatures. The J&J vaccine also has the advantage of needing just a single shot.
All three vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S. save lives, and experts recommend receiving whichever one is available as soon as you are eligible. According to Dr. Tomás Aragón, State Public Health Officer and Director, California Department of Public Health, “The best vaccine is the first one that’s in your arm.”
I’ve heard a lot of rumors about hidden ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccine. What is actually in the vaccine?
It’s true there are a lot of myths about what is in the vaccine. Messenger Ribonucleic Acid, also called mRNA, is the only active ingredient in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Messenger RNA is the coding sequence (instructions) for cells to make proteins. The type of mRNA in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines encodes for a part of the COVID-19 virus: spike proteins. The mRNA in the vaccine goes into cells and makes spike proteins. Then the cells release the spike proteins, and the body makes antibodies against them. The body is now prepared to fight off the COVID-19 virus. The other ingredients of the vaccine are salt, sugar, and fat. They allow the mRNA to enter the cell. The sugar and salt also keep the vaccine’s tiny particles from clumping. The oil protects the fragile mRNA molecule. There are no hidden ingredients.
Misinformation or distrust of vaccines can be like a contagion that can spread as fast as measles.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canadian Physician and Public Health Expert
How were the vaccines developed so quickly?
The COVID-19 vaccines had a jump start because scientists have been studying similar viruses (like SARS) for decades. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are the first vaccines to use mRNA technology, but scientists have been studying this type of vaccine technology for years. Because of the seriousness of the pandemic, the federal government provided a lot of funding for research. When the pandemic started, scientists from all over the world changed their focus to COVID-19. They shared their research with each other to speed up the creation of a vaccine. This level of cooperation among pharmaceutical companies and countries is unusual and led to the quick development of effective vaccines.
Today, people will get vaccinated with a vaccine that I woke up on January 11th  to frantically help design.
Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Viral Immunologist at National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)
How can I be sure the vaccine is safe and effective, even in the long term?
The Moderna vaccine was tested on 44,000 participants and found to be 94.1% effective. The Pfizer vaccine was tested on 38,000 participants and found to be 95% effective. Both clinical trials included diversity in terms of age, ethnicity, race, gender, and pre-existing conditions. Only a very small fraction—fewer than 100 out of 10,000,000— experience a severe reaction. Other companies are also working on developing COVID-19 vaccines. The Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine has been shown to be 85% effective in preventing severe COVID-19 and 66% effective in preventing moderate to severe cases. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is also showing promising results with one dose preventing 67% of transmissions and hospitalization by 100%.
Right now, the known and potential benefits of the current COVID-19 vaccines outweigh the known and potential risks of getting COVID-19.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases
As a person of color, I’m concerned about my safety because of the history of medical racism in the U.S.
Mistrust of the health care system is understandable given the history of medical inequity and racism in our country. New laws like HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) ensure that patients are fully informed about their medical treatment and have the right to make decisions about their own health and medical conditions.
First, I think we need to acknowledge the history and that Black and brown individuals have reason to mistrust the medical community. And then we have to let them know that because of those incidents, because of Tuskegee and Henrietta Lacks, so much has changed in our healthcare arena to protect individuals that look like me.
Dr. Mysheika Roberts, Health Commissioner, Columbus Public Health
Why has there been so much attention on people of color receiving the vaccine?
People of color have higher rates of COVID-19 related illness, hospitalization, and death and are more likely to have underlying health conditions. They are also less likely to get the vaccine. For these reasons, it’s important for those in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities to understand the risks and potential serious consequences of getting sick with COVID-19 versus the risks and possible side effects of getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
I was skeptical because if you look at our history in this country with the Tuskegee Experiment, Henrietta Lacks, and things like that, it raises flags for us as African American people, so I understand why there’s a healthy skepticism about the vaccine.
Tyler Perry, Actor, Film Maker, and Humanitarian Award Winner
I’ve heard I need to provide personal data and contact information to get the vaccine. Why is that? Will the government have access to that information?
You may be asked to provide personal information such as your name, address, and phone number as well as basic demographic information. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses administered weeks apart, and clinics need to be able to contact you for scheduling purposes. All personal information is protected by HIPAA (the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) and federal privacy laws. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, healthcare companies cannot share patient-identifying information with the government or your employer. Most health care providers, health organizations, and government health plans that use, store, or transmit patient health-care information are required to comply with HIPAA’s privacy regulations. If you have any questions, check with your local health care authorities.
We not only have to bring people back for a second dose but need to make sure that we have very good records of which vaccine they received the first time.
Dr. Jinlene Chan, Deputy Secretary of Maryland’s public health services
When You’re Ready
Let’s educate ourselves about the COVID-19 vaccine and give learning a shot. When you’re ready, find out how to get the vaccine near you. The federal government is providing the vaccine free of charge to all people living in the United States. Some providers may charge a small administrative fee, which is reimbursable through your health insurance or, for uninsured patients, by the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Provider Relief Fund. Health insurance is not required, and no one can be denied a vaccine if they are unable to pay a vaccine administration fee.
In addition to the Time Saver, First Book offers additional free resources like our Trauma Toolkit, Using Books to Support Students Through Grief, Loss, and Healing, and Empowering Educators: Guidebook on Race & Racism from First Book’s Marketplace.
This First Book Time Saver was made possible by the Larry and Helen Hoag Foundation.
While we aim to keep this web page up to date, please visit online resources provided by the CDC, WHO, and your local public health department to stay informed on the latest news. Always talk to your doctor for professional medical advice.