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Should I get a COVID-19 vaccine booster?

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Booster shots are the next phase in the battle against COVID-19. Here's the latest on eligibility and recommendations. 

Ashleigh DeLuca

By Ashleigh DeLuca

The last year and a half has been filled with uncertainty and lockdowns. But at long last, our lives are beginning to look a little more normal each day — all thanks to vaccines.

So why are mask and social distancing mandates still fluctuating?

Well, more than 230 million Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And this has vastly helped to curb the spread of the virus. But until more people around the world are vaccinated, there is a high chance that variants will continue to develop. “Every unvaccinated individual is a potential variant factory,” says L.J Tan, MS, PhD. He’s the chief strategy officer for Immunization Action Coalition in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In order to keep our newly rediscovered freedom, we’ll need to stay ahead of COVID-19 variants such as the omicron variant. And that means vaccinated people may need a booster shot to keep up their immunity.

There’s a lot of conflicting information floating around on the internet. And we know it can be confusing. So we rounded up answers to some of the most pressing COVID-19 booster-related questions for you.

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What’s the current recommendation on boosters?

Initially, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended booster shots only for the most vulnerable groups of people. But since then, more safety data has come in. So in November, the CDC made boosters available to all adults. And now, some as young as 12 can get theirs, too.

If you’re 18 or older and you received an initial vaccine — be it from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson — you are now eligible for your booster shot. This ruling applies to everyone, including people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Teens ages 12 to 17 who received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine are now also eligible to get their booster.

For people who received vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna, you can get a booster as soon as 5 months after your second dose. For those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the wait is even shorter. You can get your vaccination starting at 2 months after your first shot.

It’s also important to note that the CDC strongly recommends it for certain groups of people. While everybody 18 and older is eligible, the CDC notes that people who received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine “should” get a booster. The same is true for people 50 and older and anybody living in a long-term care facility.

Which booster should I get?

Any of them will boost your immunity. The CDC has given the green light to mix and match between Moderna and Pfizer for boosters. That means if you had a bad reaction to your first vaccine — maybe you felt ill or achy — you can try another shot this time around.

If your first shot was Moderna, you can try Pfizer. If you previously had Johnson & Johnson, maybe you want to give Moderna a chance.

What is a booster shot?

A vaccine teaches your body to produce antibodies against a specific disease to keep you from becoming seriously ill. Once you have received a vaccine, a booster shot acts as a reminder to your body to continue producing those antibodies. And this helps you stay protected against that disease.

A booster shot can be given weeks, months or years after the first vaccine dose. And it can either be an additional dose of the same vaccine or an altered version of it. An altered version of a vaccine can help people stay immune to a disease when it evolves, such as the delta variant of COVID-19.

We’re hearing a lot about booster shots right now because of COVID-19. But the concept of a booster shot is not new. Children usually receive booster shots for illnesses such as chickenpox, measles and tetanus to keep them immune for longer periods of time.

If booster shots are needed, does that mean a vaccine does not work properly?

Not at all. Tan emphasizes that the current conversation about booster shots is about keeping us protected from new variants of the virus.

When the vaccines were first released, Tan says that many people hung on to the initial announcement that they were 94.5% effective. When recently released data showed this number had dropped, some people were concerned it meant the vaccine wasn’t working at all.

But that 94.5% effectiveness rate was against the original strain of the COVID-19 virus. And new variants have evolved since then.

New variants of any virus will inevitably impact a vaccine’s effectiveness, says Tan. But this doesn’t mean a vaccine isn’t working. “It just means that as the variants change, the impact of the vaccine shifts. [The first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine] may not prevent you from getting infected, but it’s making sure you don’t die,” he says.

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How long will protection from the first vaccine last?

We just don’t know yet. The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing situation, and new variants make it hard to set reliable expectations. So we will learn more about how long protection will last as time passes.

What we do know: Early data from Pfizer and Moderna showed their vaccines to be effective for at least 6 months. And according to a study published in the journal Nature, the 2 vaccines could provide long-lasting immunity.

But in May, the Israeli government released data suggesting that the Pfizer vaccine’s ability to prevent infection may decrease after a few months. Even if there is a slight decline in preventing infection, the data still showed that the vaccine was highly effective at preventing serious, life-threatening illness and hospitalization.

How often will I need a booster shot?

The answer may rely completely on COVID-19 variants, says Tan. If we are able to get more of the world vaccinated, we might be able to keep variants in check. And we might not need multiple rounds of booster shots.

That said, vaccine makers are preparing for the worst. They’re formulating their own plans as case variants continue to develop.

Take the vaccine manufacturer Moderna, for example. The company recently shared that its goal is to be able to produce a single-dose annual booster shot that will protect adults against COVID-19, flu and the common cold viruses.

There’s a lot of uncertainty around how the COVID-19 pandemic will develop, but we know that immunity is important. That’s still our best shot at containing the virus and getting back to life as we used to know it.

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Additional sources:
Vaccination rate: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Severely immunocompromised people make up about 3% of the U.S. population: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The basics of vaccines: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
July 2021 U.S. government statement on vaccine boosters: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
September 2021 statement on booster vaccines: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
November 2021 vaccine recommendation: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Vaccines and boosters while pregnant and breastfeeding: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Johnson & Johnson booster data: Johnson & Johnson press release
July 2021 international joint statement on vaccines: World Health Organization
Pfizer vaccine effectiveness through 6 months: Pfizer Press Release
Moderna vaccine effectiveness through 6 months: Moderna Press Release