What you need to know about the updated COVID vaccine

The CDC recommends anyone 6 months or older get new shot
A COVID-19 sign is seen inside the CVS at North Decatur on Wednesday, Sept. 13. 2023. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the revised vaccines, anticipating their arrival shortly after a surge in COVID cases during the summer and just before the onset of flu season.

Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

A COVID-19 sign is seen inside the CVS at North Decatur on Wednesday, Sept. 13. 2023. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the revised vaccines, anticipating their arrival shortly after a surge in COVID cases during the summer and just before the onset of flu season. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Federal health officials are hoping with this fall’s approvals of the updated COVID-19 vaccine, more people would make it part of their annual flu shot routine.

On Sept. 11 the Food and Drug Administration approved the updated vaccine formula, and it began arriving at pharmacies on the heels of a summertime rise in COVID cases and just in advance of the flu season.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted that the vaccine should be recommended universally to everyone six months or older.

CDC Director Mandy Cohen speaks to the AJC during media availability for Dr. Cohen at the CDC, Thursday, September 14, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

In a September interview, CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen talked about why the updated vaccine plays an important role in protecting against the coronavirus.

“We’re in a better place than we have been in the past. However, we can not put COVID officially in the rearview mirror. It is unfortunately still with us,” said Cohen in an interview. “But the good news is we have more tools than ever to protect ourselves. We just have to use those tools. Vaccine is certainly a powerful tool, but we also have testing and treatment and then a ton of common sense solutions that we’ve learned over the last number of years that work. And if we layer all those tools together, we’ll get through this season with everyone being as healthy as possible.”

It’s been a year since the last time the vaccines were tweaked, and only about 17% of the U.S. population ever received that earlier update, according to the CDC. In Georgia, it was only about 11%.

Who can take the new vaccine?

The FDA has ruled that the new vaccine is safe for everyone 6 months and older, and anyone those ages are eligible to take the vaccine.

Currently, older adults and those with pre-existing conditions such as immune disorders, diabetes and obesity are considered to be at greatest risk of having a serious illness from COVID. Cohen said most people dying from COVID are over 65, adding older people are “definitely most at risk.” But she said the data shows that all ages face a risk from COVID, including long COVID symptoms.

Some vulnerable groups including those with weakened immune systems may get additional doses of the vaccine, according to the CDC. People 65 and over may get a second dose of the updated vaccine. And children under 5 may need multiple doses of the COVID vaccine to be up to date.

When will the new COVID vaccine be available in Georgia?

The vaccines started arriving at some large pharmacies and at Georgia health departments in September.

How much will the new COVID vaccine cost?

It depends on your insurance coverage. It will continue to be completely free for many people but not everyone. Some insurers may now charge a copay.

People became accustomed to that no-cost availability during the pandemic, but the federal government stopped picking up the entire tab with the end of the public health emergency this spring.

Now the actual cost of the vaccine will be borne by private insurers and Medicare and Medicaid. Manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna have said they will charge up to $130 a shot, compared with $30 last year for the booster.

For people without insurance, the Georgia Department of Public Health will provide the vaccine for free and the Biden administration set up the Bridge Access Program, which will make free vaccines available this fall through community health centers and pharmacies.

Jabari James, a pharmacist and CVS district manager responsible for supervising 20 CVS pharmacies in the metropolitan Atlanta area, works at the North Decatur Store on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. 
James said he would closely monitor pharmacy stock levels and advise individuals to receive vaccines promptly when they become accessible.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

What’s different about this vaccine?

The updated COVID vaccines were formulated to more closely target currently circulating variants and to provide better protection against serious consequences of COVID infections, including hospitalization and death.

The older vaccine was formulated in 2022 to match the original coronavirus that originated in China, and the earliest versions of the omicron variants. Because it matched two different strains of the virus, it was a “bivalent” booster.

The new vaccine is a “monovalent” shot that targets the XBB.1.5 variant, which is a version of omicron that was dominant in early 2023. The virus continually morphs into new variants, so even that variant has already been replaced by newer versions, but research shows the new formula should also protect against them as well.

Pharmacist Estrella Clemons at CVS pulls vaccines from a fridge ready to be administrated to a person at the North Decatur Store on Wednesday, Sept. 13. 2023. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration approved the revised vaccines, anticipating their arrival shortly after a surge in COVID cases during the summer and just before the onset of flu season.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

I’ve had COVID and taken previous boosters. Why do I need another vaccine?

Taking such protective measures remains important. Immunity wanes over time, whether acquired from an infection or a vaccine. Anyone infected can infect others who are less able to fight off the virus. And anyone infected can suffer from long COVID, with sometimes debilitating symptoms that linger for weeks or longer. The risk of new disease, disability and death remains elevated in some patients for as long as two years after catching COVID, according to a large study published recently in the journal Nature Medicine.

Public experts say similar to flu vaccines, COVID vaccines may not prevent all infections, but can lower the seriousness of an illness. That appears to include long COVID, according to emerging research.

Public health experts mostly agreed that everyone, even healthy children and teens, should get the latest COVID shots.

CDC advisors acknowledged the risk is not the same for everyone. In general, older adults and those with pre-existing conditions such as immune disorders, diabetes and obesity are at greatest risk for severe complications of COVID, including hospitalizations and death.

But the CDC advisors also emphasized young healthy children can and do get very sick from COVID. The advisors cited recent evidence showing 54% of kids up to 17 who were hospitalized with COVID had no underlying health problems that would otherwise increase their vulnerability.

How will I be sure I get the new, updated vaccine and not the older one?

According to the FDA, the older bivalent vaccine designed in 2022 is no longer authorized for use in the U.S.

How often will the vaccine be updated in the future?

According to the FDA, “Barring the emergence of a markedly more virulent variant, the FDA anticipates that the composition of COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated annually, as is done for the seasonal influenza vaccine.”

Is it okay to get the COVID and flu vaccine at the same time?

Yes. The CDC says it is safe to get both at the same time.

Dr. Mandy K. Cohen, Director of the CDC, reacts with character after she had the flu shot after she addressed her remarks during The Atlanta Press Club 2023 Leadership Newsmaker Series at the Commerce Club on Wednesday, Sep. 6, 2023, in Atlanta.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

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Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

What if I’ve just had COVID or just taken a booster?

For those who recently had COVID, the CDC recommends delaying your vaccine by three months from when your symptoms started or a positive test. Natural antibodies are already elevated from the infection, so a vaccine won’t provide as much additional benefit now.

The FDA has stated anyone 5 years of age and older, regardless of previous vaccination, are eligible to receive the updated vaccine as long as it has been at least 2 months since the last dose of any COVID vaccine.

Seeking treatment for COVID

Antiviral medications can help your immune system fight off the coronavirus infection by stopping the virus from multiplying in your body, with a goal of preventing you from becoming more seriously ill. There is a narrow window, typically five days from when you begin feeling ill, to begin this treatment so speak with your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you test positive for COVID.

The Associated Press and KFF Health News also contributed to this article.

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