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Should you wait to get a COVID-19 booster that targets new variants?

COVID-19 vaccination card
Simone Hogan
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Local health experts say people who are eligible for a vaccine booster should get their shot now rather than waiting for the new booster targeting the omicron subvariants.

COVID-19 vaccine makers are developing new boosters that target the new omicron subvariants now dominant across the country. The anticipated reformulation, expected to come sometime this fall, has left some people who are eligible for a first or second booster wondering if they should get a shot now or wait until the reformulated vaccines are available.

Doctors at University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic say people who are eligible for a booster should not wait. The current vaccines do a good job of preventing serious illness and death, they said, and the virus is too unpredictable to risk skimping on immunity while waiting for the new boosters to become available.

“I'm urging my patients that if they're eligible for a boost, don't wait," said Dr. Keith Armitage, medical director of the Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine & Global Health at University Hospitals. "It's somewhat likely that there will be a new version [of the vaccine] in October that is targeted for BA.5 or similar variants. But I would not wait. I would go ahead and get what you're eligible for."

Those ages 5 and over are eligible for one booster. Those 50 plus and some people 12 and older who are immunocompromised are eligible for two boosters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In June, the Biden administration told vaccine manufacturers to reformulate the vaccines to target not only the original strain but the latest omicron subvariants called BA.4 and BA.5, NPR reported.

Those variants have become dominant in Ohio and have fueled an uptick in the number of infections across the state in recent weeks. The new strains are extremely contagious and adept at eluding the body's defenses even among those who have been vaccinated or previously infected, public health officials say.

The fact that there is so much of the virus currently circulating is another reason not to wait, Armitage said.

“You get the most immunity from the vaccines in the first six to eight weeks after a boost, and there's a lot in the community right now," he said. "Luckily, we're not seeing very many hospitalizations, but I'm urging my patients that if they're eligible for a boost, don't wait."

Although the revamped boosters may be more effective against the variants, the Cleveland Clinic's Dr. Abhijit Duggal warns, no one knows exactly when they will be available.

“Right now we have something that really does protect folks against severe disease,” he said. “If you are eligible, you should go ahead and get that.”

Getting a vaccine now keeps individuals healthy and it's good for public health, Duggal said, because the more people who are vaccinated the less chance the virus has to mutate.

The bottom line is, trying to time your booster is a fool's errand when dealing with an unpredictable virus, Armitage said.

“That's the key thing: what happens next is unknown,” he said. “Everyone's crystal ball is cloudy when it comes to really what's going to happen.”

Stephanie is the digital producer/editor of Ideastream Public Media’s health team.