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What to know about the new Covid booster shots

Updated vaccines will be especially important to high-risk people, such as pregnant women and the elderly

Maggie O'Neill
Wednesday 27 September 2023 11:49 BST
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Things are becoming clearer about the rollout of the latest Covid vaccine after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this week released updated guidance regarding the new Covid-19 vaccines.

In a 12 September statement, the agency said the updated boosters — which will target newer variants of the virus — are recommended for everyone six months and older. The vaccine provides protection against the BA.2.86 variant, also known as Pirola, and is “the best way to protect yourself against severe disease” as cold and flu season approaches, the statement said.

Everyone five and up will be eligible for one dose of the vaccine, according to an 11 September statement from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unvaccinated children aged six months to four years are eligible for two to three doses; previously vaccinated children in the same age group are eligible for one to two doses.

Companies manufacturing Covid vaccines for the US have set their price lists, and each dose will be between $120 and $130, according to reporting from Reuters. Pfizer and BioNTech set their price at $120, and Moderna doses will be $129. Novavax shots will be $130 per dose.

Many major pharmacy chains — like Walgreens and CVS — are now offering vaccine appointments nationwide. Appointments at Walgreens stores are available starting 18 September, and you can reserve a spot by visiting Walgreens.com/ScheduleVaccine, using the app, or calling 1-800-WALGREENS. CVS appointments can be made through the CVS app, at CVS.com, or at MinuteClinic.com.

A 12 September statement from Walgreens said the chain is among a group of select pharmacies working with the CDC to help uninsured and underinsured Americans get the vaccine for free.

The new vaccines may cause side effects similar to those associated with previous Covid shots, per the FDA. In children six months to three years, the vaccine may cause pain at the site of the vaccination; irritability; crying; swollen lymph nodes; loss of appetite; and sleepiness. In children four to 17, side effects include pain at the site of the vaccination; tiredness; headache; joint or muscle pain; and swollen lymph nodes. Common side effects in adults include pain, swelling, or redness at the site of the vaccination; nausea; fever; chills; tiredness; and muscle pain.

To combat the side effects of the vaccine, the CDC recommends keeping your arm in use, drinking plenty of fluids and getting adequate rest.

The updated guidance comes as the US continues to see the effects of a summer wave of Covid-19. Both hospital admissions and deaths from the virus have been rising for weeks. According to the most recent data from the CDC, hospital admissions rose 8.7 per cent from 27 August to 2 September, compared with the previous week. From 3 September to 9 September, deaths rose 4.5 per cent compared with the previous week.

Experts say the nation could see a rise in case counts during 2023-2024 cold and flu season. On 14 September, the CDC released its first projections for the respiratory disease season. Researchers expressed concern over the outlook. “When a disease is endemic, it means that the levels are mostly predictable. So it’s nice to see the CDC putting out their predictions this fall,” Dr Ellie Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, tweeted in response to the outlook. “[On the other hand], it’s not so nice that their best case scenario is almost twice as many respiratory hospitalizations as pre-COVID.”

Scientists are urging the public to consider vaccination even if they are not high-risk for severe disease from Covid. Abraar Karan, an infectious disease researcher at Stanford University, recently tweeted: “One of the issues is that many people think of diseases mainly in terms of their own risk of bad outcomes being low. That works for noncommunicable diseases.” For viruses like Covid, however, there’s more at stake, he said. “But for contagious respiratory viruses with high incidence, you multiply that low risk across hundreds of millions and end up with a big absolute number of bad outcomes.”

Dr Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in the agency’s 11 September statement that the new vaccines are safe. “Vaccination remains critical to public health and continued protection against serious consequences of COVID-19, including hospitalization, and death,” Dr Marks said. “The public can be assured that these updated vaccines have met the agency’s rigorous scientific standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality. We very much encourage those who are eligible to consider getting vaccinated.”

Public health officials say they will get the vaccination themselves and help their families get it as well. In a video from the CDC released 13 September, the agency’s director, Dr Mandy Cohen, emphasised the need for protection against the virus. “While we would all love to leave Covid-19 behind, the virus is still here, and making some people very sick, especially older adults,” Dr Cohen said. “This recommendation was based on extensive data in clinical trials. As a doctor, a mom, a wife, a daughter, and head of the CDC, I would not recommend anything to others that I wouldn’t recommend for my own family. That’s why my nine- and 11-year-old daughters, my husband, my parents, and I will all be rolling up our sleeves to get our updated Covid-19 vaccine.”

Regardless of personal risk, if most people choose not to get vaccinated, the effects on the health care system could be disastrous, experts say. On Twitter, Karan cited research estimating that universal Covid-19 vaccination could prevent at least 200,000 hospitalisations and 15,000 deaths during the next two years.

Authorities say the vaccine will be particularly beneficial for people in high-risk groups — including older adults — and pregnant people. Viki Male, an immunologist at Imperial College London who focuses on pregnancy, tweeted research on 15 September that showed 11.9 per cent of stillbirths and 4.8 per cent of neonatal deaths in the UK in 2021 were linked to maternal Covid infections. Health departments across the country are releasing messaging around the dangers of Covid during pregnancy, urging women who are expecting to get vaccinated.

Despite the federal government’s push to promote Covid-19 vaccines — in order to keep the health care system functioning — some politicians are advising constituents against vaccination. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently speculated that health authorities are using people who choose vaccination as “guinea pigs”. As a result, his administration will not recommend the vaccine for Floridians under 65, even though this goes against recommendations from federal health officials. “Florida is the first state in the nation to stand up and provide guidance based on truth, not Washington edicts,” the governor recently said. DeSantis’s break from CDC recommendations comes as new research shows more than 40 per cent of his constituents have been swayed by vaccine misinformation.

Some Republicans have publicly expressed scepticism over the vaccines, while choosing to get vaccinated privately. DeSantis himself as well as Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Josh Hawley, and others all chose to get vaccinated to protect themselves from severe disease from Covid-19, as The Independent previously reported.

Despite the opinions of GOP politicians, officials say vaccination is the safest way to avoid hospitalisation — or worse —f rom Covid-19 this year. As Dr Cohen recently said in a CDC statement announcing the new vaccines, “CDC is now recommending … vaccination for everyone 6 months and older to better protect you and your loved ones.”

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