When to get the Omicron COVID Booster Shot : Short Wave Updated COVID boosters are now available that target the Omicron subvariant and many Americans 12 and older are eligible for the shot. Host Emily Kwong and health correspondent Allison Aubrey talk about who should get it, when, and whether there's a case to be made for skipping this booster.

You can read more about Allison's reporting at "Omicron boosters: Do I need one, and if so, when?"

Follow Short Wave on Twitter @NPRShortWave. You can also email us at ShortWave@NPR.org.

When Should I Get My Omicron Booster Shot?

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Hey, hey, SHORT WAVErs. Emily Kwong here with health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Allison, it's been a while. Hello.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Yes, Emily. Hi. It has been a while. Did you have a good summer?

KWONG: I did, yeah. I saw a lot of family. There were a lot of friend visits, meeting new babies.

AUBREY: Nice.

KWONG: Though - yeah. The whole while had to be kind of careful. Like, a lot of plans got scrambled because of COVID. People kept getting it. It really...

AUBREY: Yes.

KWONG: ...Does seem here to stay.

AUBREY: Yeah, totally. I got it at the end of June. It was super mild. I was kind of achy for a day, and then I declared it over in my mind. Unfortunately, my body did not agree. I ended up being exhausted for a few weeks after the infection, so - there definitely was a little spike this summer as the BA.5 omicron variant circulated. And now the good news is researchers have come up with a booster that targets this variant and the other variants circulating around the country, much like a flu shot does every year.

KWONG: This fall booster campaign - it's been talked about for a while now. And the FDA approved the shot in late August, right?

AUBREY: That's right. It's being distributed around the country now. Pharmacy chains, doctor's offices are receiving it, giving the shots. And the timing is good. These variants are still causing thousands of infections a day.

KWONG: So today on the show, Allison and I talk about these new boosters - who should get it, when, and is there ever a case to be made for not getting it this go around? You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: So, Allison, who is eligible for this new booster, and how is it different from the others that have come before?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, the CDC now recommends these boosters for people 12 and up. And the big difference is that the new boosters are designed to fend off BA.4 and BA.5, the subvariants of omicron that are now dominant in the U.S. There are two different boosters authorized - a Pfizer shot for people 12 and up, a Moderna booster for people 18 and up. And folks are eligible as long as it's been at least two months since their last booster or COVID vaccine.

I spoke to infectious disease expert Judy Guzman-Cottrill. She says there's a lot of hope that these new boosters will offer improved immunity.

JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: We finally have a booster that matches the currently circulating COVID variant in the United States. This virus has been mutating so quickly over the past two years that I feel like we've been playing catch up. And finally, we have caught up.

AUBREY: A lot of the infectious disease experts I talked to say though the booster is available to most of the U.S. population, those who can benefit the most from getting a booster now are older people, so beginning around age 60, people with compromised immune systems and chronic conditions that put them at higher risk.

KWONG: OK. I'm drafting a text to my parents as we speak. What about people under 60 who aren't immunocompromised nor living with a chronic condition?

AUBREY: You know, there might be less urgency to go out and get a booster right now if you're young and healthy. The consensus is there's still a benefit, probably. Studies show that protection wanes over time.

And even though at this point, most people are only getting mildly sick from COVID with infections that just last a few days, there are still risks and a bunch of inconveniences, as you just mentioned - you know, having to interrupt travel or rearrange travel. People have to miss work or school. You have to stay away from others. You could still get symptoms of long COVID.

KWONG: Yeah.

AUBREY: And there's a chance of passing it on to really vulnerable people at a time when there's still about 400 COVID deaths a day.

KWONG: So some of the experts you spoke to - what are they going to do?

AUBREY: Well, I spoke to Bob Wachter. He's a physician at UC San Francisco. He told me he was looking to get his booster as soon as possible. He says he got his last booster about eight months ago.

ROBERT WACHTER: My immunity has waned significantly. My immunity against getting infected has waned almost completely. So there's no question that getting a booster of some sort increases the likelihood that you'll have a benign case if you get one and will lower the probability that you'll get a case of COVID.

AUBREY: He says it's pretty clear the benefits outweigh any risks, and he's also advising his adult children who are in their late 20s, early 30s to get boosted, too.

KWONG: So the omicron wave - that really picked up around the holidays last year. So many people have gotten COVID since. What should you do if you've recently had COVID?

AUBREY: Yeah, well, if you've had COVID over the last several months, it's pretty certain you've been infected with BA.4 or BA.5, so you've got some time before you need to go out and get a booster. Generally, three months after an infection is when you should think about getting a new booster shot. When I talked to Judy Guzman-Cottrill, she said she and her two teenagers were just getting over COVID.

GUZMAN-COTTRILL: Our natural antibody response will protect us against COVID for another few months. So I do think it makes sense to wait and get the updated booster about three months after our positive COVID test. We had COVID in August, so getting a booster in November will then protect us from COVID this winter so we can avoid sick days from work and from school.

KWONG: Makes sense.

AUBREY: At a time when the virus is likely to be on the uptick - and it won't be a surprise to any infectious disease experts to see another surge this coming winter.

KWONG: Oh. Even you saying that just makes me nervous. How do we know that if there is a surge this winter, which is likely, that it will be a subvariant of omicron? Like, is there a chance the virus could mutate again into something else?

AUBREY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the more the virus circulates, the more it has a chance to mutate. But the belief is that at this point, whatever the mutation, our immune systems are still going to recognize it as COVID and mount some kind of response. So, you know, the response could be diminished depending on the mutation. But the consensus is there will be some protection is based on all of our prior infections, vaccinations and booster shots.

KWONG: That's reassuring. OK. Allison, what advice do you have for those who have not had a recent COVID infection but want to - I don't know - wait until, like, the late part of the fall or early winter to get a booster when, as you say, the risk is likely to be much higher.

AUBREY: You know, I think many people will wait, given that the full protection of a booster may only last a few months. I'd say there's mixed opinions from infectious disease experts about trying to time the vaccine.

I spoke to Dr. Anu Hazra of the University of Chicago about this. He says he, too, has heard people say, oh, I'll wait until Thanksgiving or Christmas or some big event they have planned, trying to time the booster to their time of highest exposure.

ANU HAZRA: It's a very reasonable approach to think about what's your own risk and trying to potentially calculate or try to think about when is the best time to get your booster. I think it's also important to know, though, when you get a booster, it's not immediate protection, right? It takes time for your body to create these antibodies.

KWONG: True.

AUBREY: Yeah, it can take a few weeks until the full protection kicks in. In addition, it's a bit like trying to time the stock market. In theory, it's not a bad idea. But in practice, Dr. Hazra says, it may be tough to pull off.

KWONG: I hear that. So with this new booster, is it expected to prevent infections completely?

AUBREY: Well, not completely. I mean, it's going to reduce chances of infections, likely. But just as we've seen before, given how much of the virus is still circulating, there will be infections. And I think that's why there's kind of a range of views about this booster.

I will point out that not all infectious disease experts are in lockstep. For instance, I spoke to Paul Offit. He heads the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He agrees. Absolutely, give that booster to high-risk folks - so elderly people, immune-compromised people, those with chronic conditions. But he thinks for now, other people can wait it out.

PAUL OFFIT: My thinking on this is that the goal of this vaccine is to prevent severe illness. For those who already received three doses, I think that if they don't fall into one of those three high-risk categories, they are protected against severe illness. So I don't think they benefit from a booster. So I'm not going to be getting this vaccine. I think I'm protected against serious disease.

KWONG: That's an intense perspective.

AUBREY: That is. I mean, Offit says he'd like to see data from trials in people to show that another booster dose is protective in young, healthy people.

I think what he said represents that there's a range of views, but there still is a consensus. And I'd say after talking to a whole range of experts, the consensus is you can't go wrong getting a booster.

And clearly, all the experts say for people who are vulnerable, it absolutely can give you protection that can help. As time goes on, I think we will get a better sense of how beneficial it is for younger, healthier people.

KWONG: And we will be a part of that science.

AUBREY: Yes.

KWONG: You and me.

AUBREY: That's right.

KWONG: One question that keeps coming up, lastly, is, are we going to keep getting COVID boosters for the rest of our lives? Is this a regular thing every fall?

AUBREY: You know, I think it's TBD. I think there's still some uncertainty. Though, interestingly, at a White House COVID briefing just last week, the message that was coming out of that briefing was, hey, this new booster is the last one we're going to need for a while.

Barring some kind of new variant, as we just talked about, the idea is we're probably headed into an era where COVID vaccines are akin to the flu shot with an annual shot tweaked every year to address whatever strains are expected to circulate.

KWONG: So can I get mine at the same time? Like, a flu shot and a booster shot?

AUBREY: Yeah. Yeah, you can. I mean, you can in the same visit get the, you know, COVID booster in one arm, the flu shot in the other arm. I think we're going to hear a lot of cheerleading for the flu shot this year because in the Southern Hemisphere, where winter is ending, there's been a lot of flu. Australia has had a bad flu season. And that means the U.S. could see the same at a time when COVID is still circulating.

KWONG: OK. Well, thank you so much, Allison, for bringing us this download of information.

AUBREY: Oh, sure.

KWONG: I'm going to book some appointments for myself.

AUBREY: All right. Great to be here, Emily. Good luck.

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KWONG: This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh and Gisele Grayson, who also checked the facts. Thomas Lu is our producer. Beth Donovan is our senior director of on-demand news programming. And Anya Grundmann is our senior vice president of programming. I'm Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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