FAQs Regarding SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine

Updated: April 7, 2021

Below is a list of frequently asked questions about the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine that have come up during Columbia town hall forums. These FAQs will be updated as new vaccines and information become available.

Please be aware that you should discuss the vaccine and any questions you have about it with your healthcare provider. The vaccines are currently being distributed to various states. In New York City, at present, prioritization of the vaccine will follow New York State and CDC guidance. 

Everyone—including those who were vaccinated—must continue to practice protective behavior, including wearing a face covering, physical distancing, washing hands, staying home if sick, and avoiding nonessential travel. This is important since it is not yet known if the vaccines protect against asymptomatic infection and prevent transmission to others.

There are currently three vaccines that have received Emergency Use Authorizatio by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration. These include the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, the Moderna vaccine, and the Johnson & Johnson's Janssen vaccine. 

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use genetic material known as messenger RNA (often abbreviated as mRNA) that cells use to make proteins. When the vaccines are injected into the body, the mRNA enters human cells and instructs the cells to make a protein that mimics the spike proteins found on the surface of the coronavirus. These vaccine-induced proteins then stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies to fight the virus. Once produced, the antibodies latch onto the virus spike protein and prevent it from entering your cells and making you sick.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses the more traditional virus-based technology.

Pfizer and Moderna require two doses, given three (Pfizer) to four (Moderna) weeks apart. Johnson & Johnson is one dose.

The vaccines are currently being distributed to states, and Columbia is monitoring New York State's supply and allocation. Check the New York State eligibility website for the latest information.

All three vaccines–Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer–offer clear public health and lifesaving benefits, providing protection against symptomatic COVID-19, hospitalization, and death.

No serious side effects have been reported with any of the vaccines to date. The safety of these vaccines was determined by independent Data Safety and Monitoring Boards (DSMBs). Safety data will continue to be monitored after the vaccines begin to be used in order to determine longer term safety profiles.

Mild to moderate side effects have been reported. These side effects include pain or swelling at the injection site, fatigue, chills, muscle aches, and headaches. Most of these side effects resolved promptly. 

The University is committed to ensuring that all eligible individuals have access to COVID-19 vaccines, consistent with local and national guidance. 

Check the New York State eligibility website for the latest information.

At this point in time, the University is strongly recommending, but not mandating vaccination for eligible persons.

Eligibility for COVID-19 vaccination has expanded in New York State to 16 years of age and older. 

Visit COVID-19 Vaccine Finder. Or call one of these numbers: for New York City, dial (877) VAX- 4NYC (1-877-829-4692); for elsewhere in New York State, dial (833) NYS-4-VAX (1-833-697-4829).

Prioritization will be consistent with New York City, New York State and CDC guidance.


Vaccination provided at Columbia University, New York Presbyterian Hospital or through ColumbiaDoctors practices will be at no cost to faculty, staff and students.

The University complies with all New York Labor Laws, including 196-C, which provides for paid time off (PTO) to receive COVID-19 vaccine injections. Columbia’s policy concerning this PTO can be found on the University Policies website, located here.

Medical expenses will be covered by insurance. If you work for Columbia and are covered under a Columbia insurance program, those expenses will be paid under your insurance plan.

For the foreseeable future, everyone including those who were vaccinated must continue to practice protective behaviors including wearing a face covering/mask, physical distancing, and other measures, such as avoiding nonessential travel. This is important since it is not yet known if the vaccines protect against asymptomatic infection and consequently prevent transmission to others. In addition, it will take time to achieve high vaccine uptake (estimated at 70-80%) in order to achieve herd immunity, i.e. sufficient population level protection from transmission of the virus.  

Yes, the University will monitor individuals who get vaccinated to ensure that they receive the recommended vaccine regimen (e.g. two doses for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines), to monitor for severe side effects and to determine uptake by various priority groups.

Getting vaccinated is at present not linked to individual or institutional decisions regarding return to campus.

Proof of vaccination will be maintained in the New York Presbyterian Hospital or Columbia Health electronic medical record databases, depending on where you get vaccinated. You will be able to access your medical records through the existing user portals including MyChart or your Columbia Health account.

You will be provided with information regarding the vaccine and most common side effects that have been reported.

Yes, all individuals, including those vaccinated, will need to continue to participate in the University testing program (e.g. gateway, sampling, mandatory testing). The reason for this is that the vaccines have not been shown to prevent asymptomatic infection, only clinical illness. It is assumed for now that individuals who have been vaccinated can still acquire the SARS-CoV-2 virus and may transmit to others. Also, the vaccines do not interfere with the results of the SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic testing.

Yes, all individuals, including those vaccinated, must participate in the Required University Protocols for coming to campus. 
1. Read the Enhanced University Health and Safety Policy
2. Read and Sign the Health Compact
3. Take Safety Training
4. Self-quarantine, If Required
5. Get Tested
6. Complete the Daily Symptom Self-check


This has yet to be determined and is currently under study. The main focus of the vaccine studies was on determining whether they protected from getting symptomatic COVID-19 (i.e. getting sick with COVID-19).

It has been shown that people can get infected by the coronavirus but not show any symptoms, which is known as asymptomatic infection. These individuals can still transmit the virus to others. Research is under way to determine whether the vaccines will prevent asymptomatic infection and therefore reduce the risk of transmission from someone who has asymptomatic infection to others. Until this is determined, it is critically important for everyone to get vaccinated to protect themselves and to continue practicing protective behaviors, including wearing a face covering/mask and physical distancing, to protect themselves and others from catching and transmitting the virus.

Yes, the trials included groups who are at high risk for COVID-19, including those who are 65 years and older, have underlying medical conditions (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity), among others. 

The duration of protection from COVID-19 provided by these three vaccines is not known as of yet. Researchers will continue to monitor study participants to determine the duration of protection.  

Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses to be effective. The second dose of the Pfizer vaccine is administered three weeks after the first dose while the second dose of the Moderna vaccine is administered four weeks after the first.

Johnson & Johnson is one single dose.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccine studies found that two doses were needed to optimize the immune response and provide the best protection from COVID-19. Therefore, the 2-dose regimen is strongly recommended and will be necessary for documentation of full vaccination.

No. This was not evaluated and there is no evidence that the vaccines are interchangeable. If you get a first dose of one vaccine, you should get a second dose of the same vaccine. Individuals administering the vaccine will be tracking this issue.

It typically takes a few weeks after the final dose of a vaccine for the body to build up immunity to the disease. However, it is not necessary for one to quarantine between each dose. Individuals are recommended to continue with their daily lives while following COVID-19 public health recommendations.

According to CDC guidance, second doses administered within a grace period of 4 days from the recommended date for the second dose are considered valid; however, doses administered earlier do not need to be repeated. The second dose should be administered as close to the recommended interval as possible. However, there is no maximum interval between the first and second dose for either vaccine.

Currently, the safety of any vaccine combination has not been determined and therefore the CDC advises against the mixing of COVID-19 vaccines. Research regarding the potential need for a booster injection of a COVID-19 or routine vaccination is underway.

According to the CDC, given the lack of data on the safety and efficacy of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines administered simultaneously with other vaccines, the vaccine series should routinely be administered alone, with a minimum interval of 14 days before or after administration with any other vaccine. However, mRNA COVID-19 and other vaccines may be administered within a shorter period in situations where the benefits of vaccination are deemed to outweigh the potential unknown risks of vaccine coadministration (e.g., tetanus toxoid-containing vaccination as part of wound management, rabies vaccination for post-exposure prophylaxis, measles or hepatitis A vaccination during an outbreak) or to avoid barriers or delays to mRNA COVID-19 vaccination (e.g., in long-term care facility residents or healthcare personnel who received influenza or other vaccinations prior to/upon admission or onboarding). If mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are administered within 14 days of another vaccine, doses do not need to be repeated for either vaccine.

Yes, health officials believe that the vaccines will offer protection against the different variants of the coronavirus. Research is ongoing to further study this issue.

Yes, as per CDC recommendations, vaccination should be offered to persons regardless of history of prior symptomatic or asymptomatic coronavirus infection, including a positive antibody test. For persons who experience lingering symptoms for weeks and months after diagnosis (i.e., “COVID-19 long-haulers”), vaccination is similarly considered safe and likely efficacious.

For persons with current COVID-19, vaccination should be deferred until recovery from acute illness.

Per CDC and FDA recommendations, those who have had a severe allergic reaction (e.g., anaphylaxis) to any component of the vaccines should not be vaccinated. For those who have had a severe allergic reaction to another vaccine or injectable treatment (intramuscular, intravenous, or subcutaneous) the vaccine can still be administered; however, it is recommended that the risks be discussed with a healthcare provider and that the recipient be monitored for 30 minutes post-vaccination. For those with any other allergy (e.g. food, pollen, pets), vaccination should be offered. All individuals who received vaccines should be observed for about 15 minutes after vaccination.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are very similar in composition. They consist of the mRNA particle, water, lipids, salt, sugar, and FDA-approved buffers. A complete list of the ingredients can be found here for Pfizer (page 11) and here for Moderna (page 11).

No, Guillain-Barre is not a contraindication for the vaccine. Individuals with such a history should discuss this with their provider.

Currently, there are no data on the safety or efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination in persons who received monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma as part of COVID-19 treatment. Therefore, it is recommended that vaccination be deferred for at least 90 days after receiving such treatment to avoid interference of the treatment with vaccine-induced immune responses.

Persons who have been identified recently as a close contact of someone with COVID-19 should defer vaccination until quarantine period has ended to avoid exposing healthcare personnel or other persons during vaccination visit.

Studies of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have resulted in reassuring safety results for pregnant or breastfeeding women. A discussion with a healthcare provider can help inform this decision.

Additionally, there is no recommendation for routine pregnancy testing before receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine. Those who are trying to become pregnant do not need to avoid pregnancy after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination. Again, a consultation with a healthcare provider is recommended in making this decision.

According to CDC recommendations, the vaccine may be administered to persons with underlying medical conditions who have no contraindications to vaccination. This guidance is based on the studies that have demonstrated similar safety and efficacy profiles in persons with underlying medical conditions compared to those without such conditions.

For those who are immunocompromised, safety and efficacy of vaccine has yet to be determined given the limited data for these groups. However, immunocompromised persons may still receive COVID-19 vaccines, with counseling, unless otherwise contraindicated given increased risk for COVID-19.

At this point in time, children under 16 years of age are not considered a priority group for early phases of vaccination given their low risk for severe disease.

Note that children who are 16 and 17 years old, should only receive the Pfizer vaccine at this stage. 

Under federal law, manufacturers and distributors of COVID 19 vaccines are entitled to immunity as long as there is no willful misconduct.


Under federal law, manufacturers and distributors of COVID 19 vaccines are entitled to immunity from suit as long as there is no willful misconduct. Under federal law, you cannot sue FDA for approving the vaccine.

  • Asymptomatic individuals who have been vaccinated are not required to quarantine after exposure if the following criteria are met:
    • Fully vaccinated (more than 2 weeks after the second dose for 2-dose vaccines; more than 2 weeks after vaccination for 1-dose vaccines).
    • Are within 90 days of the last dose in the vaccine series
  • While not required to quarantine, vaccinated individuals must still:
    • Monitor for symptoms for 14 days.
    • Follow all other guidance including face coverings, hand washing, and social distancing.
    • Immediate self-isolate if any symptoms develop and report the symptoms to [email protected]