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The New COVID-19 Booster is Rolling Out, Here’s What You Should Know

The New COVID-19 Booster is Rolling Out, Here’s What You Should Know

An updated booster means more protection from serious illness, says CU School of Medicine professor Thomas Campbell, MD.

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Written by Kara Mason on September 28, 2023

As new COVID-19 booster shots hit pharmacies and doctor offices this month, health care professionals say it’s as important as ever to keep up with the vaccine that can prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death from the coronavirus.

The newly-available vaccine provides protection against BA.2.86, dubbed the Pirola variant, says Thomas Campbell, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Disease at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“We are in a much better place than we were two or three years ago. We can go to the movies, eat inside restaurants, and see our family and friends in-person. To keep it that way, we need to keep our population level immunity up,” he says. “That will keep the virus from causing the same havoc in our lives as it did four years ago.”

The new vaccine is also the best way to protect others, especially older, immunocompromised, and pregnant people, from the evolving virus.

“There are two reasons to get vaccinated,” Campbell says. “One, of course, is to protect yourself from getting seriously ill, but the other reason is to help protect others. You may not be at high risk of getting ill, but someone you live with or encounter in close proximity might be. You can help to protect them by getting the vaccine.”

Campbell answers some of the most common questions about the new vaccine and how it has evolved from previous versions.

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How does this newly-available COVID-19 vaccine differ from the versions in the past?

This new vaccine is truly a new vaccine. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness, has changed over time. The prior vaccines all contained spike protein from the original virus that first appeared in humans in 2019. Last year was the first time the vaccine was updated; it was a mixture of the original virus and a newer omicron variant.

This new vaccine that’s now available is updated to be completely XBB.1.5, the latest evolution of the omicron variant that’s been predominant in the U.S. and globally since the beginning of the year.

How often should somebody get this vaccine?

It so far seems like this will be an annual vaccine, just as the flu shot is. The COVID-19 virus will continue to change over time, so we also need to continuously update the vaccine as well.

Should people expect to have similar reactions to this new vaccine as they’ve had in the past?

Yes. Flu-like symptoms, such as muscle aches, chills, and fatigue, can occur about 24 to 48 after getting a booster from the data that we’ve seen – that’s very similar to what we saw with last year’s booster and the original vaccine.

When should people consider receiving this updated vaccine?

Unlike the flu, COVID-19 doesn’t take any seasons off. We have seen COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise over the past two months across Colorado and the U.S., but we are just now seeing flu appear.

If you were going to choose one over the other right now, I would opt for the COVID-19 booster because the virus is here and it’s making people sick. We typically see more flu cases as we move into fall and winter. If you’re able to get both vaccines at the same time, that’s a great way to get protection against both viruses.

How important is it to keep up with the COVID vaccine?

The virus is with us to stay, and it’s evolving, so staying up-to-date with the boosters is crucial because it can help prevent serious illness for many people.

The other important factor to consider is that even if we didn’t see the virus change at all, the effectiveness of the vaccine wanes over time. By about six months or so, it is much less effective in preventing illness. It’s still very effective in preventing death and hospitalization, but even that begins to decrease over time, so periodic boosters continue to be important for the best protection.

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Thomas Campbell, MD