In June, the Food and Drug Administration advised pharmaceutical companies making COVID-19 vaccines to update the vaccines to include a new component targeting the highly contagious omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which are responsible for the majority of coronavirus cases across the nation.
Along with the announcement that newly reformulated vaccines are expected to become available as early as October 2022 came a choice for those currently eligible for a first or second booster: Would it be better to get a booster now, or to wait until fall for the new, reformulated vaccines?
“My suggestion is: If you're due for a booster, you should go ahead and get it, especially if you're older or if you have other medical conditions,” said Dr. David Priest, Novant Health chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer.
“Receiving a booster now will not prevent you from getting one of the new formulations in the fall, but it will maximize your protection against severe disease throughout the rest of the summer as we deal with this wave of omicron BA.5.”
The continued threat of COVID and the need to protect yourself took on fresh urgency July 21 with news that president Joe Biden tested positive for COVID and was experiencing mild symptoms. On July 30, the White House announced that he had a tested positive again. That case was mild as well. He was fully vaccinated and received two boosters. Getting a booster greatly decreases your chances of being hospitalized.
People who qualify can receive a second Pfizer or Moderna mRNA booster at least four months after their first. This includes:
- Adults aged 50 and older.
- Any adult who received a primary vaccine and booster dose from Johnson & Johnson.
- People with underlying medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, chronic liver or kidney diseases, and chronic lung diseases such as moderate to severe asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Find a complete list of qualifying conditions here.
Eligible? Schedule yours here or call your primary care physician's office to see if they offer COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
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The omicron problem
What began as a wave of omicron BA.5 has turned into a plateau, according to Priest. The subvariant currently accounts for about 65% of COVID cases in the United States right now, and hospitalizations have climbed by 20%.
“This variant does not appear to lead to more serious illness or intensive care unit admissions,” he said. “However, it is very contagious — meaning that a single case has the potential to infect a significant number of people.”
Additionally, omicron BA.5 appears more able to evade immunity from both vaccines and previous infections, he explained. So, even if you had omicron BA.1 earlier this year, chances of reinfection with BA.5 are higher than with previous subvariants.
New boosters target omicron variants
Vaccine makers are currently working on reformulated “bivalent vaccines” that target both BA-4 and BA-5. (Bivalent vaccines stimulate an immune response against two different antigens, such as two different microorganisms or viruses.)
Once they are approved by the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will make a recommendation about who should receive the new boosters. However, while the new boosters are expected to be available this fall, the exact timing is unclear.
‘Go ahead and get that booster’
“So, if you want to maximize your protection while we're in the middle of this plateau of BA.4 and BA.5, I would say go ahead and get that booster if you’re eligible,” Priest said. “Especially if you have other risk factors. You would hate to be waiting on a booster — especially since we don't know when it's coming — and end up with a severe case. It is better to err on the side of safety.”
Getting current boosters now will not prevent you from getting the new boosters when available.
While the current COVID-19 vaccines do not provide complete protection against BA.5, they will create an immune response strong enough to reduce your risk of severe illness and hospitalization. Remember, that’s the ultimate goal of the COVID vaccine. One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested that during a nine-month period in 2021, COVID vaccinations prevented 1.6 million hospitalizations in the United States and 235,000 deaths.
“Even currently, when immunity gained from infection and vaccination may be waning,” Priest said, “those who are unvaccinated are still three times as likely to become infected with COVID — and eight times as likely to die of COVID — than those who have been vaccinated.”