Welcome to COVID Questions, TIME’s new advice column. We’re trying to make living through the pandemic a little easier, with expert-backed answers to your toughest coronavirus-related dilemmas. While we can’t and don’t offer medical advice—those questions should go to your doctor—we hope this column will help you sort through this stressful and confusing time. Got a question? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, J. in Michigan asks:
I am over 70, have cancer and had an ileostomy. How can I add my name to a COVID-19 vaccine priority list?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question. But here’s what we do know.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance says the first vaccine doses available in the U.S. should go to health care workers and nursing home residents. After that, likely sometime early in 2021, access will be opened up to a slightly broader list. That will probably include essential workers in non-medical fields, then people with risk factors like yours: people older than 65, and people with medical conditions that put them at high risk of severe COVID-19. Then, by spring 2021, the general public should be able to get the shot.
But your question is a good one. If you fall into a high-priority group, do you have to apply for early vaccination? Reach out to the local health department? Tell anyone?
Frankly, even experts are unsure. The first wave of vaccinations has only just begun, and those logistics will need to be settled before planners move on to subsequent waves. “You haven’t heard about this yet because they haven’t gotten there yet,” says Angela Shen, a visiting scientist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center.
Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor at the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine and a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory committee, says it may take a little “self-advocacy” to get vaccinated early—in other words, once vaccines are available to people in your group, you may have to bring proof of your diagnosis and/or age to a vaccination center.
Some providers may also use electronic health records to verify health status, Shen says. Make sure your information is current by reminding your doctor of any underlying medical conditions, or notify them if you fit into another high-priority category. People “should ask their providers what they need to do given where they are on the priority list,” Shen says. “For example, patients may be directed to pharmacists or registration-based vaccination sites,” if any exist in the area.
The answer to this question also depends on where you live, since the CDC has left the particulars of vaccine distribution largely up to individual states and territories. You can see summaries of each jurisdiction’s vaccine plans here, but be warned, many don’t go into this level of detail yet.
That answer is probably more than a little frustrating. After a year of non-stop stress and confusion, we’re all searching for concrete answers. It will take a little longer to get them, but rest assured that vaccines are coming soon.