Virus Outbreak Massachusetts

A man gets a COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination site at the Natick Mall Feb. 24, 2021, in Natick, Mass. (Matt Stone/The Boston Herald via AP, Pool, File)

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surging in Minnesota, officials intend to move ahead this week to offer vaccine booster shots to any eligible Minnesotan who wants one, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.

Meanwhile, it appears federal officials are prepared to open the door wider to boosters. The Food and Drug Administration this week is expected to announce an emergency authorization for all adults to get the Pfizer booster shot.

While all three vaccines used in the U.S. — Pfizer, Moderna and the single-dose Johnson & Johnson — continue to offer strong protection against severe COVID-19 illness and death, the shots’ effectiveness against milder infection can wane over time.

Here are a few things to know about boosters and why health officials are urging people to get them.

Why do I need a booster? I’m already fully vaccinated.

People who are fully vaccinated are still strongly protected against hospitalization and death from COVID-19. But immunity against infection can wane over time, and the extra-contagious delta variant is spreading widely.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all adults 18 years old and above who had the single J&J shot should get a booster of any of the three vaccines.

U.S. health authorities want to shore up protection in at-risk people who were vaccinated months ago, though the priority remains getting the unvaccinated their first shots.

Where can I get a booster?

You can sign up to get a booster shot at health clinics and pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS — the same places that are administering first and second doses. They remain free.

Are COVID-19 boosters the same as the original vaccines?

Yes, boosters use the same recipe as the original shots, despite the emergence of the more contagious delta variant. The vaccines weren’t tweaked to better match delta because they’re still working well.

The vaccines work by training your body to recognize and fight the spike protein that coats the coronavirus and helps it invade the body’s cells. Delta’s mutations fortunately weren’t different enough to escape detection.

The increased protection you might get from a booster adjusted to better match the delta or other variants would be marginal, says Dr. Paul Goepfert, director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Manufacturing doses with a new formula would have also delayed the rollout of boosters.

Moderna and Pfizer are studying boosters tweaked for the delta and other variants to be ready if one’s ever needed. Health authorities would have to decide if and when a vaccine formula swap would be worthwhile.

I got the Moderna or J&J shot earlier. Can I ‘mix and match’?

Federal health officials have signed off on allowing the flexibility of “mixing and matching” that extra dose regardless of which type people received first.

A CDC panel didn’t explicitly recommend anyone get a different brand than they started with but left open the option — saying only that a booster of some sort was recommended. Preliminary results of a government study found an extra dose of any vaccine triggered a boost of virus-fighting antibodies regardless of what shots people got to begin with.

Are the boosters safe?

Yes. “There’s very, very little risk,” of any serious complications from a booster shot, says Desi Kotis, associate dean at the University of California, San Francisco School of Pharmacy. It’s reasonable to assume the “booster could show about the same side effects that you had after those first or second series shots.”

Can I get the flu and COVID-19 vaccines at the same time?

Yes, you can get the shots in the same visit.

The CDC and other health experts point to past experience showing that vaccines work as they should and any side effects are similar whether the shots are given separately or in the same visit.

“We have a history of vaccinating our kids with multiple vaccines,” says flu specialist Richard Webby of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Staying up to date on all vaccinations will be especially important this year, experts say.

Since people were masked and staying home, last year’s flu season barely registered. This year, it’s unclear how intense the flu season will be with more places reopened.

“The worry is that if they both circulate at the same time, we’re going to have this sort of ‘twin-demic,’” Webby says. “The concern with that is that it’s going to put extra strain on an already strained health care system.”

One caution: COVID, colds and flu all share similar symptoms so if you feel ill, the CDC says to postpone a vaccination appointment until you’re better to avoid getting others sick.

OK, I got a booster. Can I stop wearing a mask?

Charlotte Baker, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Virginia Tech, and Dr. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease doctor at Stanford University, urge you to keep your stash of masks.

With cold and flu season ramping up, wearing a mask when you’re out and about can protect you from a variety of germs.

Will this be my last booster?

Nobody knows. Some scientists think eventually people may get regular COVID-19 shots like annual flu vaccinations. But researchers will need to study how long protection from the current boosters lasts.

© 2020 Minnesota Public Radio. All rights reserved.

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