Amjambo Africa reporter Amy Harris interviewed Dr. Nirav Shah, Director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Amy Harris: Many people are confused about the newest boosters. What can you tell our readers about them?
Dr. Shah: Certainly, the boosters are on everyone’s mind right now. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have both approved and authorized the updated COVID-19 booster shots for everyone ages 12 years and above.
Why did they do this? Why do we need another booster shot? Well, the COVID-19 virus does what all viruses do over time, which is that it changes. And in order for us to make sure that the protection that we get from vaccines is as up-to-date as possible, the scientists who created the vaccine are always looking to see how they can improve it. So, what they did was update the vaccine to make sure it matches with the virus that is currently in the U.S. right now. That’s why they updated the booster.
Everyone who is eligible should get it. So, who’s eligible? You’re eligible for the booster if you’ve had your first vaccines and you are over the age of 12. Everyone 12 and over who’s had their first shots can and should get the booster. The people I am hoping are first in line for their booster are people who are older, people who have health conditions, or people who are particularly concerned about COVID-19. That’s who I really want at the front of the line, even though I want everyone in the line.
Locations across the state are just now receiving their shipments, so it might take all of the locations across Maine a little bit of time before they are ready to give the boosters. But you can get your updated booster in the same places that you got your first shots. Some people got them at a pharmacy. Some people got them at a doctor’s office. All of the places that had the first shots will also have the updated booster. You don’t need to go anywhere special to get this shot.
Amjambo: Does it matter which booster you get?
Shah: No, it doesn’t matter. You can get whichever updated booster you want, no matter which one you got before. So, if you want to stay with the same brand you got before, that’s OK. If you want to switch brands, that’s OK. There’s really not that much of a difference.
I’ll tell you what I’’m going to do with my family. When we go to get our updated booster, maybe next week, we’re going to get whichever shot they have available. What matters is that you get the updated booster, not which one you get. And as with the previous vaccines, these boosters are available at no cost to you, no matter your immigration status.
Amjambo: Unfortunately, people are still getting sick, being hospitalized, and dying from COVID-19. Are vaccinated people among the sickest people? How do we know that the vaccines and boosters are actually working?
Shah: The people right now that are getting the sickest from COVID-19 are almost always people who are unvaccinated. Anyone right now can get COVID-19 because it is so contagious. And a lot of people are getting it, both people who are vaccinated and people who are unvaccinated.
But there is a big difference. When vaccinated – and boosted – people get COVID-19, it’ almost always much milder than when someone who has not been vaccinated gets it. We know that because we study who’s getting COVID-19, and we look at the data to understand how sick they’re getting. So, it’s not too late if you have not yet had your first shot. You can still go and get your first shot for COVID-19, so that you can also be protected.
All about the new COVID-19 boosters
● Are they safe? Yes.The updated COVID-19 boosters have been studied extensively to make sure they are safe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two new boosters (Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech).
● Do they work? Yes.The newest boosters offer stronger protection against newer variants (like omicron) and against the original COVID-19 virus.
● Who is eligible? Everyone ages 12 and older who has completed their initial COVID-19 vaccination series at least two months ago.
● Why do I need one? Boosters will lower your chances of getting very sick, needing to be hospitalized, or dying.
● Do I need the first vaccines? Yes. Updated boosters are available, but you should first get your initial COVID-19 vaccines.
● Are they free? Yes. Get your free COVID-19 booster at pharmacies, doctors’ offices, or community health centers. You can find the closest location at www.maine.gov/covid19/vaccines/vaccination-sites.
● Should I get a flu shot, too? Yes.This winter’s flu season is predicted to be worse than in past years. Doctors are recommend getting a flu shot at the same time as the COVID-19 booster. It is safe to get both vaccines on the same day and can be lifesaving.
Amjambo: Why do vaccinated people need boosters? Isn’t one vaccine enough?
Shah: As with any medicine, effectiveness goes down a little bit over time, no matter if it’s a Tylenol or a vaccine. The best way to keep your body’s response as current as possible is to get a booster shot.
We use boosters for a lot of other diseases, whether it’s the flu shot every year or the vaccines your children got. Even adults need to get boosters for other vaccines. COVID-19 is no different from these other vaccines. The more prepared your body is, the better it will be able to fight off the virus when you get exposed to it at an event or church.
Amjambo: What is the most common piece of misinformation you hear these days about the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters?
Shah: I’d say the biggest one still out there is that the vaccine doesn’t work. That’s the one I see the most often. But thankfully, we have scientists all around the world who have dedicated their lives to studying vaccines, and tracking data on how effective they are. And almost uniformly, every single scientist around the world who has studied the COVID-19 vaccines has come to the same conclusion – that they work extremely well at reducing the chances that you’ll get COVID-19 – and if you do happen to get COVID-19, the vaccines work by very dramatically reducing the chances that you will end up in the hospital or die. This is especially true for people who are older, or for people who have preexisting health conditions.
Amjambo: What about people’s concerns about the safety of boosters in terms of how fully they were tested? Were they rushed through the approval process? Is it safe to receive multiple COVID vaccines and boosters?
Shah: Well, I think it’s always good to ask questions about the safety of anything. The model that we used for the updated booster shot is very similar to the model that we use for the updated influenza shot every year. Every year we update the flu shot and make sure that it is current. We did the same thing with the COVID-19 booster. We made sure that the basics of the vaccine stayed the same, and that the only thing that changed was the little code that tells the body how to fight the virus. That was the only thing that changed. Everything else about the vaccine remained 100% the same. And so that’s why – and also in the interest of time – we wanted to make sure we got the booster out as quickly as possible. I don’t have any safety concerns about this updated booster. And…I recommend it to my friends and family – I do not have any hesitation in doing that.
Amjambo: Do you anticipate that there will be boosters available for young children any time soon?
Shah: Right now, the booster is available for people 12 and over, but probably in the not too distant future, the same boosters will also be authorized for kids who are younger than 12. But right now, we’re not there yet.
Amjambo: What advice do you have for parents of children younger than 5, many of whom say they are afraid to vaccinate their younger children?
Shah: I’m really glad you asked that because getting younger kids vaccinated against COVID-19 is really, really important. Nationwide, we have more work to do in getting younger kids vaccinated against COVID. It’s natural for any parent to be worried about a vaccine.
However, when you think about COVID and kids, kids can definitely get COVID and they can definitely get sick from COVID and they can even get very sick and have to end up in the hospital because of COVID. At this point, many kids have been successfully vaccinated against COVID-19. This will allow them to experience a normal, safe, and happy school year. Without the vaccine, parents will always have to worry that their kid might have COVID, and then accidentally bring it back home, and infect their parents or their grandparents. Getting the vaccine reduces those chances very significantly.
Amjambo: How worried should people be about long COVID?
Shah: Long covid is a risk. Long COVID refers to symptoms of COVID-19 that can persist after someone has cleared the infection from their body. There are different estimates for exactly what percentage of people can get long COVID, but it is not insignificant. Thankfully, what we’ve seen is that one of the best ways to avoid long COVID is to avoid COVID overall. And the best way right now to avoid COVID overall is to get vaccinated.
Amjambo: With so many people having had COVID at this point, many of whom may have had – fortunately – just a mild case, they might say, “Well, I’ve already had it. It wasn’t that bad. Why should I get a booster?” How do you respond to that?
Shah: You know…you’re making a bet. You’re gambling that if you get COVID again, it will be the same strain that you got before, and that your body will be healthy enough to fight it. You’re also making a bet that you won’t accidentally infect someone in your house if you do get it.
When it comes to infectious diseases, why make that bet? Why not get the vaccine so that if you are exposed again, you reduce your likelihood of getting it? You reduce your likelihood of getting a bad case of it, and you reduce your likelihood of accidentally passing it on to other people in your family.
Amjambo: Is it safe for people to get their flu shot and the COVID-19 booster at the same time?
Shah: Yes. If both are available at the time you go, we definitely encourage folks to get both at the same time. Getting a flu shot is always a really good idea.