Last week, both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, under emergency use, for Americans over the age of 65 and those at heightened risk of developing the disease who have already received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
The FDA had also endorsed Pfizer booster shots for frontline health care workers. Initially, the CDC did not, but on Friday, Director Rochelle Walensky overruled her own CDC panel and did recommend booster shots for those frontline workers. Confused? You’re not alone. Yahoo News spoke to its medical contributor, Dr. Kavita Patel, to break down what Americans need to know about boosters.
Why are boosters necessary?
As the Delta variant of the coronavirus has spread around the world, U.S. and international data, particularly from Israel, has shown vaccine effectiveness declining over time. This reduction in protection is significant for those aged 65 and older in particular.
“We have seen, especially for people over the age of 65, that breakthrough infections can lead to hospitalizations and severe cases of COVID after six months. So that’s why having boosters in especially high-risk populations and possibly all Americans at some point soon is going to be recommended,” said Patel.
Patel and other experts have emphasized that the need for a booster dose doesn’t mean that our current COVID-19 vaccines don’t work. On the contrary, recent studies show that those who aren’t vaccinated are five times more likely to be infected, 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 10 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated.
Who is eligible for a booster shot?
The FDA and the CDC authorized booster shots only for a select group of Americans who have received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago. Fully vaccinated people 65 and older are now eligible for the Pfizer booster shot; so are residents of long-term care facilities and adults over 18 years old who have certain high-risk conditions, or who after consulting with their physician are deemed to be at high risk.
Also included in the updated CDC recommendations are individuals at increased risk of COVID-19 infection in the workplace, such as health care workers, teachers and grocery store employees. People who are caregivers or live with someone at increased risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes could also qualify.
“Even people who are not technically health care workers, so they can either live in the household or they could even be, for example, a volunteer who’s helping someone who’s at high risk and at home — that would be a person who would be qualified under this definition of high risk for exposure,” Patel said.
COVID-19 vaccine boosters were first approved in August for people with compromised immune systems who received either the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccine.
This segment of the population, which is about 3 percent of Americans, is more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to weakened immune systems that can lessen the body’s ability to mount a robust response to the virus. For this reason, the CDC recommends that this group receive a booster shot.
What are some of the underlying medical conditions that would qualify for booster doses?
The CDC booster guidance covers people with high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, cancer, chronic lung or kidney disease, heart disease and dementia, as well as other conditions that place people at higher risk of complications from COVID-19. A complete list of those medical conditions can be found on the CDC’s website, and the agency is expected to offer additional guidance on who qualifies for booster shots in the coming days.
Patel recommends talking to your medical providers if you are uncertain about your eligibility for the booster dose.
“Many individuals who don’t know are going to have to ask the pharmacist or the physician for more guidance,” she said.
When will a booster shot be available to the general public?
Even though the Biden administration had announced a plan to support booster shots for all Americans at least eight months postvaccination, that plan was rejected by FDA and CDC scientists. The main reason was that available scientific data showed that current vaccines continue to offer solid protection against infection, hospitalization and death for most healthy individuals.
However, Walensky said that CDC guidance could change in the coming weeks as more data becomes available.
“We suspect what we are seeing with existing data for older people and those at greater risk of severe outcomes or occupational exposure will not be unique only to those populations. I’m committed to updating and revising our guidance in real time and in collaboration with the scientific community,” Walensky said.
The CDC director also said she’s hoping more data on booster shots becomes available soon for Americans who received the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
“We will, with a similar urgency, evaluate the available data in the coming weeks to swiftly make additional recommendations for other populations at risk and people who received Moderna and J&J vaccines,” she said Friday at a White House press briefing.
When and where can you get a booster shot?
If you are eligible under the categories mentioned above, you can receive a booster shot as early as Friday, Sept. 24.
At Friday’s press briefing, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said thousands of locations, including pharmacies, grocery stores and community centers across the country, are ready to offer the booster shots to those deemed eligible.
For more information about eligibility and locations that are offering the shots, visit www.vaccine.org.
Health experts cautioned against rushing to get a booster dose unless six months have passed since the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine has been administered. Dr. Anthony Fauci explained why on Friday.
“There’s an immunological reason why it is important to wait,” Fauci said during the White House press briefing. “Because you know if you allow your immune response to mature over a period of a few months, you get more bang out of the shot, as it were an enhancement of your antibodies,” he added.
Are these booster shots different from the original doses of the vaccines? What are the side effects?
The booster shots are the same vaccines that have been administered all year. They’re just an additional dose and dosage of what fully vaccinated people were given in their first two shots.
The only difference may be in the packaging. Since the Pfizer vaccine has now received full FDA approval, it now goes by the brand name Comirnaty.
Fauci said Friday that one can expect similar side effects to the second dose of the vaccine following the booster shot. According to the CDC, the most common symptoms include fatigue and pain at the injection site, but most symptoms are mild to moderate.
Can people who received other vaccines, such as the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson ones, get the booster shots now?
Only immunocompromised individuals who received the Moderna vaccine have, so far, been approved for booster shots. For those who received the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine, there are currently no boosters approved for any group.
For all other groups who received the Moderna mRNA vaccine, more data is being studied to determine when they will receive approval for boosters.
“Your health matters just as much as other vaccine recipients, and we want to make sure that your protection against COVID is strong and reliable as well,” said Murthy on Friday. “This is a high, high priority,” he added.
The company that makes the Moderna vaccine has applied for FDA authorization of booster shots. Johnson & Johnson has not submitted that application to the agency yet, but recently released details of three studies looking at various aspects of its vaccine, and said they showed that the vaccine provided long-lasting protection that could be boosted with an extra shot.
Mixing and matching vaccines is not currently recommended, and the recent Pfizer booster recommendations apply only for those who received the first two doses of the same vaccine.
Patel said, however, that people who originally received the other vaccines and who may be at high risk of COVID-19 complications should talk to their doctors about how best to stay protected against the disease.
“If you are somebody who has received Moderna or J&J, and you are at high risk — over 65 in a long-term care setting, for example — I think it’s very important to have an individual conversation with your physician because depending on your risk, and where you are, they may opt to go ahead and offer the Pfizer shot, which technically is able to be used as an off-label vaccine for its original purpose,” she said.