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8 tips for finding a COVID-19 vaccine

While the Biden administration is working to ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations by boosting its supply by 200 million more doses, the stew of state-specific rules on who can get a shot right now and how to sign up has left many scrambling for clarity and help.

Only about 21 million Americans have so far gotten at least one dose, leaving more than 300 million people across the United States totally unvaccinated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the vaccines, which are free for all Americans, are one of the key tools in helping end the pandemic.

Under the Trump administration, vaccine distribution got off to a sluggish start, and states got fewer doses than they expected. And while the CDC offered guidelines for who should be prioritized for a vaccine, every individual state has crafted its own plan, so exactly where you land on your state’s priority list will vary. Many states are beginning to vaccinate frontline workers and seniors, but the guidance is also being updated often.

If you want a shot, but don’t know where to start, PBS NewsHour has gathered some advice on how best to secure a vaccine. In general, be prepared to do your research and be patient.

1. Try lots of sources and locations to see if the vaccine is available.

There is no single, central source where you must go to get the vaccine, though some regions have set up mass vaccination sites. For some with the time and access to transportation, it can be worth driving a farther distance to get the vaccine, too. Check to see if vaccines are being administered by:

  • Your primary care doctor
  • Local pharmacies and grocery stores
  • Your local health department — depending on where you live, it could be at the city or county level.
  • Your state health department

2. Read all the online documentation.

Your state, county, city and health systems should have information about their vaccine processes on their official websites and social media accounts. Keep checking on this regularly, as localities are often changing their guidance.

3. Sign up everywhere you qualify

Some states have not opened up sign-ups to the general public, focusing instead on deploying the vaccine to specific facilities or communities. But for states where you can register, it makes sense to cast a wide net with all the available health systems in your area, in hopes of getting notifications about vaccine supply in your area. For example, a hospital system affiliated with a university or a private health care chain might share updates about vaccine availability.

4. Have all your information ready.

If you’re booking an appointment online or on the phone, you don’t want to waste time looking up your medical history or insurance information or locating your ID. Here are some other factors you may want to raise:

  • The COVID-19 vaccine is supposed to be free, but check with your provider and insurance company if there are any administrative charges for care.
  • Tell your vaccine provider if you’ve had an allergic reaction to other vaccines in the past. The CDC recommends that if you have a history of allergic reactions that aren’t related to vaccines or injectable medicines, you should still get vaccinated.
  • If you’re getting the vaccine as part of a priority community in your state, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor if you need a note to prove pre-existing conditions, said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary and critical care medicine physician at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

5. Be flexible about timing.

While we all have logistical challenges in juggling home and work commitments, you should try to schedule any available time and date you are offered. This is the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history and there are millions like you who are waiting. In some parts of the country, appointment slots are being booked within seconds. “The demand is huge and the supply is limited,” Galiatsatos said. “Because of that imbalance, you’re probably going to have access to these vaccines potentially at inconvenient times and moments. So if you can be flexible — if that is an allowance for you — then I would advise that.”

6. Be patient.

Vaccine distribution is only expected to improve in the coming months. In addition to the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that are already approved for emergency use, candidates from AstraZeneca, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson are making their way through the development process and could eventually add to the nation’s supply. Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University who has also been a volunteer in the Johnson & Johnson clinical trial, advises Americans to remain patient. “I understand this is very difficult, and many people are so eager to get the vaccine now,” Wen said. “But I would also just urge everyone for a bit more patience, because vaccinations are ramping up and things [with the vaccine] are going to continue to get better week on week.”

7. Don’t risk your health scavenging for a vaccine in-person.

While we’re all hearing anecdotal stories of people lucking out getting leftover vaccines or swooping in when someone misses their appointment, it’s not always a smart strategy to wait for extra dosages in-person — especially if it’s indoors with other people in a confined space. That could be counterproductive for your health. “I worry about the potential for infection,” Wen said. “How tragic would it be if you were to contract coronavirus… while trying to get a dose of the vaccine?”

8. If you are capable, help others.

Share information with friends, families and neighbors, and let people know if there are vaccine openings. Ask around for how people got appointments and share accurate information in your own community. “This is really a time where we all need to come together to potentially fill in any gaps others may have,” Galiatsatos said. “If there’s a technological gap — because of access or literacy for technology — then tap your neighbor, tap your grandson or so forth to help you. We all need to come together for this pandemic.”

READ MORE: The essential COVID-19 vaccine FAQ

As the pandemic continues, health experts advise Americans should continue taking other precautions as well, especially amid news that new variants of the virus may be transmitted more easily.

“I know that everybody is focused on vaccines,” Wen said. “But we also know what it takes to prevent the spread. So let’s please not forget about masking, avoiding indoor gatherings and physical distancing.”

Editor’s note: Johnson & Johnson is a funder of the PBS NewsHour.