What you need to know about the new COVID-19 vaccine boosters

At a recent celebratory gathering for Hispanic Heritage Month, a line of families stretched outside the entrance and children played in the outdoor jungle gym while volunteers moved quickly to distribute food to the guests.

Also on offer at the gathering Saturday at the Latin American Association’s headquarters on Buford Highway were the latest COVID-19 booster shots.

The weekend food and vaccine drive kicked off the Association’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations, according to Cynthia Román-Hernández, managing director of the Family Well Being Program at the Latin American Association. It was also the first time the association had distributed the recently updated COVID vaccine boosters, which arrived in Georgia earlier this month.

The new “bivalent” boosters replace the older “monovalent” booster that targeted only the original strain of coronavirus that arrived in the U.S. in 2020. The bivalent vaccines are designed to offer protection against both that original strain and the latest circulating omicron subvariants. But cooling interest in COVID boosters and confusing guidance on who should get one and when has many questioning whether there will be a rush to get the latest shots.

The Georgia Department of Public Health reports that as of Sept. 14, there have been 65,520 shots of the new bivalent COVID vaccines administered in the state.

Román-Hernández said her organization provides extra incentives to encourage people to get vaccinated, such as food or gift cards.

“We have seen interest increase when we bring incentives to the table,” Román-Hernández said. “There are other issues for our community, like lack of transportation or language barriers and access to food. (Providing incentives) has been more successful than just having vaccination events.”

Douglas Ruano, assistant site manager with the Latin American Association, helps an attendee fill out COVID-19 vaccination paperwork, during the Association's vaccination day on Sept. 17, 2022.

Credit: Alex Anteau

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Credit: Alex Anteau

A work in progress

On Sept. 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended updated COVID boosters of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for ages 12 years and older, and updated boosters of the Moderna vaccine for ages 18 years and older.

“This is the first advancement in the vaccines since we started using them in December of 2020,” said Jodie Guest, an epidemiologist at the Emory University school of public health.

“It is our goal and hope that we are not going to be doing boosters on a regular, every four months kind of basis,” Guest said. “This new bivalent vaccine is our first step into what we hoped might be a once-a-year COVID-19 vaccine that you can get at the same time as your flu vaccine.”

However, according to Guest, interest in COVID-19 protection has waned.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of miscommunication,” Guest said.” It makes me sad that we’ve not done a better job getting this vaccine out to everyone.”

A line of people waiting to recieve their COVID-19 vaccines and boosters at the Latin American Association's vaccination day on Sept. 17, 2022.

Credit: Alex Anteau

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Credit: Alex Anteau

Q&A on the new COVID-19 booster shots

Q: If someone got the primary series of their COVID-19 vaccine and a booster, can they get a bivalent booster?

Jodie Guest, epidemiologist at the Emory University school of public health: Yes. But I’m going to give you some caveats for that. They should be waiting somewhere between two and four months after their most recent dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before they get this new bivalent booster.

Q: What if someone has had the two primary vaccine doses, plus boosters, but then got COVID?

A: If they’ve had COVID-19 in the last four months, they should actually wait probably up to three months before they get this new bivalent booster.

There is some new data coming out that leads us to believe that if you’ve recently had a COVID-19 infection, you do not receive the full effect of this new bivalent vaccine until your immune system has calmed down from having COVID-19. Your COVID-19 infection is still offering you some protection.

Q: Can you get a bivalent COVID-19 booster and a flu vaccine at the same time?

A: You can absolutely get them at the same time. (However, if you want to get the shots in two different arms, I’d suggest spacing them out) if you don’t want both arms to be sore at the same time. (I prefer getting both shots in one arm), because I’d rather just have one arm hurt.

Q: If you’re going to get your first COVID vaccine series now, will it be a bivalent vaccine, or the original?

A: If you haven’t had a COVID-19 vaccine yet, you get the original series, which is still available. This is because that is the baseline we want your immune system to start working on. Then four months later, you can get this bivalent (booster) vaccine.

Q: What is the recommended spacing between the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines and boosters?

A: (After you’ve had your primary vaccine doses) you wait four months to do the bivalent booster.

Q: What side effects should people expect from the bivalent boosters? Are they different from those of the original vaccines?

A: We’re (still) collecting the data, but our first swipe shows us that there are similar side effects. A sore arm, some fatigue for a day or two and a headache are the most common.

Q: Have you gotten a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine booster?

A: Yes.

Q: How was the experience for you?

A: It was great. In fact, I had fewer symptoms from it than I did (during my first series). I had extreme side effects during my first series of the vaccine, but not with my boosters, so I have (experienced) both.

You can use the CDC’s online tool to find out when and where you can get your next COVID-19 booster or go to www.vaccines.gov.

Tony Paccasassi prepares COVID-19 vaccines at the Latin American Association's vaccination day on Sept. 17, 2022.

Credit: Alex Anteau

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Credit: Alex Anteau