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Should You Get a COVID Booster Now — or Wait Until Fall?

Updated shots that also target omicron and some of its subvariants are in the works

Woman receiving Covid-19 vaccine at a vaccination center
Corinna Kern / Getty Images

Nearly a year and a half after they first became available, the two most widely used COVID-19 vaccines are getting a refresh in an effort to offer a broader swath of protection against newer strains of the coronavirus that are behind a current surge of infections.

These so-called bivalent vaccines will include components of the original strain of the virus that causes COVID-19, but also omicron and some of its subvariants. And the updated shots could be ready this fall.

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Their anticipated arrival, however, does not mean you should hold off on getting boosted this summer. If you’re eligible for a booster now, be it your first or your second, “I would not wait,” White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, M.D., said in a July 25 news conference.

A big reason: “There’s a lot of virus right now,” says Meagan Deming, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. And the version of the virus that’s behind the majority of infections this summer, the omicron subvariant known as BA.5, has some structural differences from past strains that enable it to evade some of the immune defenses put in place by the vaccines or a previous infection. This is why, compared to earlier in the pandemic, we’re seeing more breakthrough infections and reinfections.

The vaccines still protect against severe disease for many, experts say, but immunity does wane over time, and some people — namely individuals more at risk for complications from COVID-19, including older adults — need that protection reinforced after a while.

That’s the point of the second booster, Deming says. It “bumps up the immunity” and “reminds the immune system to respond to this virus, and it dramatically reduces the severe disease.” In fact, Jha recently noted that “most deaths are happening in people who are not up to date with their vaccines.” (Being up to date means that you have all of the COVID-19 vaccines that have been recommended for you.) 

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that people 50 and older who are fully vaccinated and have one booster under their belt are 4 times less likely to die from COVID-19 than unvaccinated people. With a second booster, they’re 29 times less likely to die than their unvaccinated peers.

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Still, tallies from the CDC show the vast majority of the 50-plus population is lagging behind on boosters. As of July 20, less than 30 percent of adults 50 and older who were eligible for a second boost had received one. 

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That could be due to an overall feeling that things are less dangerous now than they were in 2020, says Svea Closser, a medical anthropologist and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. As the pandemic persists, the risks of COVID-19 have “sort of faded from our consciousness a little bit,” she adds. But the evidence is clear, Closser says: The second booster is “actually really important” when it comes to reducing the risk of hospitalization among older adults.

In May, unvaccinated individuals ages 50 to 64 were 3.4 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to their peers who are up to date on their shots, CDC data show. That hospitalization rate is slightly higher (3.8) among adults 65 and older. 

50 or Older? When to get a booster

Adults 50 and older vaccinated with either Pfizer or Moderna:

• Get your first booster at least five months after completing the primary series.

• Get your second booster at least four months after the first.  

Adults 50 and older vaccinated with J&J:

• Get your first booster (the mRNA shots from Pfizer and Moderna are preferred) at least two months after your initial vaccine.

• Get a second booster (again, the mRNA shots are preferred) at least four months after the first.

If you are immunocompromised, your doctor may recommend a different schedule.

Adults 50 and under who are not immunocompromised are not eligible for a second booster at this time. People ages 18 through 49 who got a J&J COVID-19 vaccine for both their primary dose and booster can choose to get a second booster of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccine at least four months after their first booster, the CDC says, though it’s not required for this age group to be considered up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines. Stay tuned for updates.

Source: CDC

It’s not clear when the new vaccines will be ready

Another reason not to fall behind on your booster schedule: It’s still unclear when, exactly, the next generation of shots will be available. The Health and Human Services Department on July 29 announced that the new vaccines could be here by early fall, but Jha said in previous press conferences that it could be a bit longer before their distribution is more widespread.

Clinical trial data still needs to be submitted. And federal agencies and independent experts need to review and recommend the shots — a process that, even under urgent circumstances, can still take some time. Among those recommendations would be the wait time, if any, to receive a new bivalent booster after receiving one of the currently available COVID vaccines.

There’s also the possibility that we’re dealing with another dominant variant this fall, different from the ones the new vaccines are designed to target.

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“Given the unknowns that still exist, when it comes to my parents, my advice is still get that second booster. It’s a couple of months [until the new shots are potentially available], we don’t know what’s going to happen in the meantime, and we do know that getting a booster now is going to help,” Closser says.

A recent infection may not protect you for long

If you were infected with previous variants that were circulating in 2020 and 2021, coming down with COVID-19 again was unlikely — at least for a few months. “You had about a 90-day warranty,” Jha said. “And it wasn’t ironclad, but [there was a] high likelihood that you weren’t going to get reinfected within 90 days.”

That warranty may be much weaker now in the face of BA.5, health officials say. So if you were among the millions of people who caught COVID-19 this spring, don’t rely on that previous infection preventing another this summer.

You don’t need to wait too long after a bout of COVID-19 to get your next vaccine dose, either. The CDC says you can get one as soon as you’re out of isolation.

If you had your second booster already, experts say the usual pandemic precautions can add layers of protection against COVID-19 until the new vaccines are out: Wear a mask in crowded indoor areas and avoid poorly ventilated spaces. And if you do test positive for COVID-19, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about taking an oral antiviral that’s been proven to reduce hospitalization by nearly 90 percent in high-risk individuals.

“I want to emphasize that these are extremely safe vaccines,” Deming says. “If you want to be extra safe to protect yourself, your family, your community, this is a very easy way to help the people you care about.”

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