Dr. Debra Powell, chief of Infectious Diseases at Reading Hospital, explains why the new COVID-19 vaccine booster shot is important, who is eligible to receive it, and when you should get it.
If it feels like everyone you know has COVID, you’re not alone.
At Reading Hospital in Berks County, a couple of weeks ago there were only seven patients with COVID-19, according to Dr. Debra Powell, chief of Infectious Diseases Division at Reading Hospital—Tower Health. As of late last week, the number of patients with COVID was closer to 30.
COVID cases are on the rise, and so are hospitalizations and deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of Sept. 9, Pennsylvania experienced a 30% increase in hospitalization rates over the previous week, with 680 new hospital admissions of confirmed COVID. As of Sept. 21, COVID-related deaths increased 2.4% in the past week, with a total of 323 deaths in the past month.
Thankfully, death rates statewide are nowhere near the levels they were at the height of the pandemic in late 2020 and early 2021, when the daily average of COVID-related deaths in Pennsylvania routinely eclipsed 200.
“We are seeing more cases and more hospitalizations, but it is not beyond what we are able to take care of in the health system,” Powell said. “Twenty-five we can do. But 200, which was the highest amount we saw, that really stressed us out.”
So the federal government’s release of new, updated COVID boosters feels like good timing.
On Sept. 11, the Food and Drug Administration approved the new shots; the next day the CDC weighed in with recommendations for who should get them. Short answer: Everyone ages six months and up. In making its recommendation, the CDC reiterated again that vaccination remains the best defesne against COVID-related hospitalization and death.
The vaccines are already available at many pharmacies throughout Pennsylvania. If you’re wondering whether or not you need the vaccine and how soon you should get the shot if so, we have answers:
What is Different About the Updated COVID Booster?
The updated COVID booster was formulated to target variants that are currently circulating, which are related to XBB — an offshoot of the omicron variant. Powell said the original shot was a bivalent COVID vaccine.
“We haven’t seen the original COVID variant anymore, for at least a year or more,” Powell said. “This booster contains the variant that is circulating right now.”
What is the Purpose of a Booster Shot?
The booster shot provides increased antibody levels to protect against the COVID-19 virus. Powell said it significantly reduces the risk of hospitalization and death.
“It’s going to boost your immune system,” Powell said. “If you get the booster this fall, it will protect you through winter and into spring.”
Is This Booster Made Like the Other Vaccine Booster?
According to Powell, yes.
“These boosters are all mRNA viruses,” Powell said. “These vaccines can be produced very quickly, in about half the time, and are a better way to adapt and produce a vaccine that’s closer to what virus is circulating since the virus changes so quickly.”
mRNA vaccines use mRNA created in a laboratory to teach our cells how to make a protein — or even just a piece of a protein — that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. The mRNA from the vaccines is broken down within a few days after vaccination and discarded from the body.
Who Should Get the New Booster?
Dr. Powell said the booster is recommended for ages six months and up.
“The percentage of people who have some kind of antibody to COVID is almost 100%, probably about 98%,” Powell said. “This is going to boost your immune system.”
It is especially recommended for people who are at high risk for bad outcomes, such as older people, and those with diabetes and heart disease.
“If someone hasn’t gotten the vaccine before, they can still get this one,” Powell said.
Powell suggested that people get the COVID booster now and the flu shot sometime in October, to ensure they are protected against all possible illnesses this winter.
Where Can You Get a Booster Shot?
Many pharmacy chains, such as CVS and Rite Aid, are offering the booster shot. Powell recommends visiting the website vaccines.gov to see where the booster is available in your area. You can even schedule an appointment to get your booster through the website.
Think You Have COVID? More Free Tests Are Available
The Biden administration announced last week that it is providing $600 million in funding to produce new at-home COVID-19 tests and is restarting a website allowing everyone to again order up to four free tests per household—aiming to prevent possible shortages during a rise in COVID cases that has typically come during colder months.
The Department of Health and Human Services says orders can be placed at COVIDTests.gov, and that no-cost tests will be delivered for free by the United States Postal Service.