Starting in early September, updated COVID-19 booster shots will be available to the public. The CDC announced shortly before Labor Day weekend that the booster doses were approved for emergency use authorization following “comprehensive scientific evaluation and robust scientific discussion.”
We asked Emil Lesho, DO, an infectious disease specialist with Rochester Regional Health, to explain how the COVID-19 booster dose works, what is different about it compared to previous booster doses, and where people can find them.
When an individual is given a booster shot, it serves as an additional dose of a vaccine that gives a person’s immune system another layer of protection against a specific type of illness – e.g., influenza, polio, COVID-19, etc.
Most booster shots are administered to individuals once their initial immunity to a disease starts to wane. The extra shot gives a boost to the immune system by heading to the body’s cells and triggering an antibody response.
This allows an immunized person’s immune system to recognize the virus if they are exposed to it at any point and activate antibodies to fight off the virus.
Compared to the previously available booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the newly released COVID-19 booster dose targets the most recent Omicron subvariants – BA.4 and BA.5 – which are more contagious and resistant to treatment compared to earlier subvariants of Omicron.
The bivalent COVID-19 booster dose takes elements from the original mRNA COVID-19 vaccine and adds elements of the new Omicron subvariant to help a person’s immune system how to recognize the most recent Omicron subvariants.
Similar to the original COVID-19 vaccine and booster doses, there is no live portion of the virus in these vaccines.
Currently, a person’s eligibility to receive the updated COVID-19 booster dose depends on their vaccination status as designated by the most recent CDC recommendations.
People ages 6 months and older can get a booster dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, with some exceptions for children.
If a child ages 6 months to 5 years received their primary COVID-19 vaccine series with the Moderna vaccine, they are eligible to receive a Moderna booster dose two months after their primary series. If a child ages 6 months to 4 years has not yet begun their primary Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine series or has not received their third dose, the third dose will be the updated COVID-19 dose. If a child ages 6 months to 4 years has completed their three-dose Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine series, they are not eligible to receive an updated booster dose.
Protecting their health is the main reason people choose to be vaccinated against diseases. There are several other important factors to consider, according to Dr. Lesho.
Recent research suggests even mild cases of COVID-19 can result in cases of long COVID that have persistent, long-lasting symptoms of COVID-19.
Long COVID symptoms can range from mild to severe, with an estimated 5-30 percent of people developing long COVID following a COVID infection, according to JAMA.
When preparing for an impending flu season, scientists in North America look at data from the Southern Hemisphere in places such Australia and New Zealand. Flu seasons in this region often align with how flu seasons in the U.S. will be.
Currently, countries in the Southern Hemisphere are experiencing their worst flu season in the last 5-6 years – a sign that the U.S. flu season could be similarly challenging. Dr. Lesho suggests obtaining a flu shot and COVID shot in mid-late October to get the most protection.
“You want your vaccine to be most effective when the seasonal viruses are at their worst,” Dr. Lesho said. “In the Southern Hemisphere, there has been an early peak. I would suggest getting a flu shot first in October and then a COVID-19 booster dose later – depending on several factors.
“If you had a COVID infection within the last three months, you can probably wait until November or December for the bivalent COVID booster.”
“If you have not had a recent COVID infection or you plan on traveling on commercial airlines, you should probably get it sooner – i.e., beforehand – to maximize the protection.”
Over the last couple of years, there has been a strain on healthcare systems across the country. Nationwide hospital employee shortages and laboratories were a concern last winter when the U.S. saw a significant rise in the number of COVID-19 and flu patients in hospitals.
Staying up to date with COVID vaccination by getting the most recent booster dose can go a long way in preventing hospitals from being flooded with more patients being treated for COVID-19 and flu.
Most major pharmacy chains such as CVS, Walgreens, or Kinney Drugs have doses of the updated COVID-19 booster available for the public.
Rochester Regional Health will make patients aware when doses of the updated booster are available at its Primary Care and Family Medicine locations.
“If you are eligible under the guidance put out by the CDC and local health departments, you should seek out a COVID-19 booster does to get as much protection against COVID-19 as is available to you,” Dr. Lesho said.
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