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Second Opinion: Should I Get the New COVID Vaccine? What About for Influenza and RSV?

Blue Shield of California's Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Ravi Kavasery, shares practical information about the updated vaccines and gives tips on how to stay protected this fall and winter.

Hospital admissions for COVID-19 have been rising recently, according to numbers published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But the levels are nowhere near the early days of the pandemic. So, is it necessary to get a booster shot when the updated vaccines come out this fall?

Dr. Ravi Kavasery, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Blue Shield of California

People should get the booster shot when it’s available. While most people have been vaccinated at some point, immunity to infection has likely worn off and the virus has mutated. The new booster will bolster the immune response to the virus. While vaccines might not prevent infection, they will most likely make the symptoms less severe, keep you out of the hospital and reduce the risk of getting long COVID.

What’s different about the new COVID vaccines, and what are the options?

The new vaccines target the Omicron XBB.1.5 variant. They will be made available by Moderna, Pfizer and Novavax after approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When will the vaccine become available, and how difficult will access be?

The new vaccines need to be approved by the FDA and CDC, which should happen by mid-September. The CDC will likely have a vaccine rollout plan that focuses on the most vulnerable populations first. So, not everyone will be able to get the booster in the first few weeks. You should be able to easily get the vaccine at your doctor’s office, health clinic or pharmacy. You can find the nearest locations on the CDC website, which has a tool that gives options via ZIP code. 

How effective will the new vaccines be, given that another variant, EG.5, has become the dominant strain?

Even though the new vaccines won’t specifically target EG.5, or Eris, they will still be effective at combatting the virus since it’s related to XBB.1.5. Eris also belongs to the Omicron family, as do almost all (99.9%) of the circulating variants in the United States today. The CDC regularly monitors effectiveness of vaccines, so when needed, new versions can be approved. (CDC data on the variants can be found here.)

How safe is it to get the vaccines, especially for children?
The vaccines and ingredients are considered safe for most people, and are recommended by the CDC for everyone six months in age and up. More than 676 million doses have been given in the United States from December 2020 to May 2023, according to CDC data. Some people have had side effects, but symptoms usually go away in a few days.

What if I just received the old version of the vaccine or had COVID over the summer? 

Wait. The vaccine you received will still be helpful at fighting the virus, or you’ll have antibodies from your recent infection. Either way, wait until later in the fall, to better time your new dosage with the next peak. The last peak was in late December 2022 and early January this year. 

Should I get the COVID and flu (influenza) vaccines at the same time or separately?

It is totally safe to get both shots at the same time. That’s what I have done in the past. If you have had mild reactions to the flu or COVID vaccines in the past, it is fine to get them simultaneously. The most important thing is to get them both at some point this fall/winter.

Given last year’s surge of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), should I also get the newly available RSV vaccine?

In most people, RSV mimics the common cold, but the virus can cause acute respiratory infection for others. Most children have been infected by the age of 2. The FDA recently approved a vaccine for adults 60 years or older. In a study of roughly 25,000 participants, the vaccine was 83% effective in preventing infection, and 94% effective against severe RSV-related lower respiratory tract disease. Pregnant women should talk to their doctors about getting the vaccine as well. (More information on RSV can be found here.)

AP vax image jpg
A flu vaccine is readied at the L.A. Care and Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plans' Community Resource Center in Lynwood, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

What are some ways to monitor any resurgence of COVID nationwide?

The CDC is a great resource for data on hospitalizations, deaths and cases. You can monitor the different variants on its data tracker. Wastewater data offers more of a real-time snapshot of the presence of the disease in your area, with information tabulated by organizations such as Biobot Analytics.

Where and when should I wear a mask? 

You should definitely wear a high-quality mask such as N95 or KN95 in crowded spaces, such as airports, planes and entertainment events. But in these instances, any mask is better than none. You’ll greatly reduce the chances of getting infected. Just as important, you’ll help prevent spread of the disease, especially to vulnerable populations such as seniors and immunocompromised individuals.