COVID-19 vaccine distribution in California

As of Jan. 7, more than 528,000 Californians had received a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna.

Both vaccines received emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in late December. Following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), California’s initial batch of vaccines is available to health care workers and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. On Jan. 7, the California Department of Public Health opened vaccines to everyone in the state’s phase 1A priority group, including dentists and home health care workers. Adults 75 and up are in the next phase of distribution, along with people who work in the education, childcare, emergency services and food and agriculture sector.

When will the vaccine be available to older Californians?

Likely not until early 2021. California is following the CDC’s advice in prioritizing health care workers and long-term care residents, a group that it is calling phase 1A.

The state has developed a detailed tier system for its first wave of vaccines. California initially prioritized older medical professionals and residents of skilled nursing facilities, but health officials have since opened vaccines to younger health care workers and less medically vulnerable long-term care residents to avoid wasting the state’s vaccine supply.

People at least 75 years old are currently grouped in the first tier of phase 1B — just below phase 1A — so they’ll get a vaccine before it’s available to the general public. State health officials have told local health departments to begin vaccinating essential workers and people at least 75 years old if they run out of people to vaccinate in phase 1A. The state’s essential workers include people who work in the education, childcare, emergency services and food and agriculture sectors.

The second tier of phase 1B consists of people between the ages of 65 and 74 and workers in the transportation and logistics, industrial, commercial, residential and critical manufacturing sectors. People who are incarcerated or homeless are also listed in the second tier of phase 1B.

Once these groups are vaccinated, doses will be open to people in phase 1C. This group consists of people between the ages of 50 and 64, as well as people 16 and up who have serious medical conditions. Workers in defense, energy, IT, water and wastewater, chemical and hazardous materials, communications, financial services, government operations are also listed in phase 1C.

AARP is fighting for older Americans to be prioritized in getting COVID-19 vaccines because the science has shown that older people are at higher risk of death.

How do I know when I’m able to get a vaccine?

AARP recommends that you talk to your doctor about the safety, effectiveness, benefits and risks of the COVID-19 vaccine. Older adults, especially those with underlying medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes, are at increased risk for hospitalization and death from COVID-19. California health officials also recommend you seek advice from your doctor about when you may be able to get a vaccine.

You can find updates about the vaccine’s availability for various groups on the California vaccine information website. You can also call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at 833-422-4255.

I’ve heard that some vaccines require a second shot.

The initial COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna require two doses. If you get one of these vaccines, you’ll need a follow-up dose a few weeks later to be effectively immunized.

“What you have is you get some degree, not optimal, but some degree of immunity a couple of weeks after the first dose,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in December. “That’s not optimal. After the second dose, you get optimal immunity anywhere from seven to 10 days after the second dose.”

You may receive a vaccination card or printout that tells you where, when and which type of vaccine you received, according to the CDC. The California Department of Public Health is considering text, email and robocall reminders to help ensure vaccine recipients get a second dose.

The CDC has launched a web tool called v-safe that lets you sign up for text message reminders for your second vaccine appointment and report possible side effects.

Where can I get a vaccine? 

It’s available only in hospitals and long-term care facilities to start, and only to the phase 1A group. After that, California plans to work with hospitals, pharmacies and mobile clinics to distribute vaccines. The state may also partner with colleges, universities and correctional facilities to ensure younger and incarcerated Californians have an opportunity to get a vaccine.

How will residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities get the vaccine?

The federal government has contracted with CVS and Walgreens to administer the COVID-19 vaccines at no cost to long-term care residents and staff. The two national drugstore chains say that more than 48,000 of the 50,000 skilled nursing and assisted living communities in the U.S. are participating in the program. However, Los Angeles County has opted to administer vaccines directly to long-term care staff and residents rather than relying on the drugstore partnership.

Do I have to pay for the vaccination?

AARP fought to make sure the federal government is covering the cost of the vaccine. But the CDC says vaccine providers may still charge a fee for giving someone a shot. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has said the vaccine will be administered free of charge to Medicare beneficiaries. Some health insurance companies have announced that policyholders won’t face out-of-pocket costs. [Note: We are continuing to report on the possible costs, if any.]

There are already reports of scammers purporting to offer COVID vaccines and treatments and trying to charge for them. AARP’s Fraud Watch Network is tracking the latest scams.

How long does immunity last after I get vaccinated?

It’s not yet known how long immunity from a coronavirus vaccine lasts and whether it needs to be administered on a regular basis like the flu shot.

Should I still wear a mask after getting vaccinated?

Yes. Experts still need to learn more about the protection the vaccines provide under “real-life conditions,” the CDC says. It could take your body a few weeks to build up immunity after the second dose of a vaccine. And while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are effective at preventing symptoms of COVID-19, it’s not yet clear whether someone who’s been vaccinated can still catch the virus and transmit it to others.

“We have to be sober and mindful of the moment we are in, which is challenging and trying,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a recent news conference, saying the vaccines offer “light at the end of the tunnel” but reminding Californians that “we’re still in the tunnel.”

The vaccine is just one tool that can help slow the spread of the coronavirus. The CDC says it could take months for the population to build up immunity, and it continues to recommend preventive measures such as face masks and social distancing.

AARP has also called for ongoing monitoring of vaccines, once they are authorized for public use, to identify any risks that weren’t evident in the expedited development and review process.


This guide was updated on Jan. 8 by AARP with more information about who can get a COVID-19 vaccine in California.

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