Everything Seniors Need to Know about COVID Boosters

covid booster

Life changed for everyone in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 began to grow from a few isolated cases in a small Chinese province to a firestorm of infections across the world.

On January 31, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency. On February 3, the United States declared a public health emergency as well. On March 11, WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and on March 19, our “new normal” began with a stay-at-home order issued for residents of the state of California. In the days following, other states followed suit.

Throughout that time, scientists were working feverishly to create the vaccines that would protect millions and stop the mounting death toll. By July 2020, vaccines were showing promising results in clinical trials. By mid-December, the Food and Drug Administration issued an Emergency Use Authorization for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and in early 2021, the FDA approved the one-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson.

Those vaccines changed the world for the better. As millions lined up to get their shots, the rate of coronavirus infections began to drop. Those who did get infected with COVID-19 had a much better chance of survival. And though the World Health Organization still considered the virus a public health emergency in the spring of 2022[1], much of the world – especially the United States – now sees COVID as a manageable, treatable illness.

But in order to be among the millions protected from the worst of what the coronavirus can do, you have to get the vaccine – and the booster. This is especially important for seniors whose immune systems are less robust.

What is the Vaccine Schedule?

When you get your first dose, you will need to get a second dose on a set schedule. For the Pfizer vaccine, you will need your second dose 21 days later. For the Moderna vaccine, you will need the second dose 28 days later. Try to get these second doses as close to the recommended dates as possible to ensure you are protected. Though it is believed that the vaccines work fine as long as you get the second dose within six weeks of the first, keeping to the recommended schedule is helpful for peace of mind. If you are immunocompromised, you should get a third dose within four weeks of the second dose[2].

After that, you will need a booster, possibly two.

What is a Booster and Why Do I Need One?

A booster is essentially another dose of the vaccine you already received. A booster prolongs the immunity your body built up after the vaccines took effect[3]. Boosters are not a new concept; children, teenagers, and even adults routinely get boosters for some of the world’s most contagious yet controlled diseases, such as diphtheria, mumps, rubella, measles, and chickenpox. When scientists created and issued the vaccines for COVID-19, they knew that boosters might be necessary, just as they are with many vaccines for other health concerns[4].

Yale Medicine offers the booster timeline: In November of 2021, the FDA and CDC recommended a booster shot six months after the primary Moderna or Pfizer vaccine, or two months after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, for all adults 18 and older. A month later, the Pfizer vaccine was approved for those aged 16 and 17, while those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were told to rely on boosters from Pfizer or Moderna instead. By late May, the booster for Pfizer vaccines was recommended for children ages 5 and up.

The latest guidance – as of this writing – is that a second booster is strongly recommended for individuals aged 50 or older or those who have a condition that makes them immunocompromised[5].

Just as medical alert technology works best as a preventative measure – as a way to call for assistance immediately when an accident or emergency occurs, and thus save precious time in getting to an emergency department – getting the booster is another layer of insurance that helps protect against getting the virus, or if you do, it will be much milder than it would be if you didn’t have the vaccine or booster.

Boosters don’t just prolong your protection against COVID-19. The boosters can be changed in small ways to improve them over the initial vaccines. This is important with the coronavirus boosters, as the virus continues to mutate and change. These variants can get around the initial vaccine protections; the booster offers protection against those variants.

The New England Journal of Medicine reports that the vaccines maintain their efficacy for about six months. Beyond that six month period, the protection begins to decline. Though your body will still mount a defense against the virus that will be assisted by the vaccine, it’s not known how quickly the vaccine protection declines after that six month period. A booster will help ensure that you have the protection you need to better fight the infection.

Which Booster or Vaccine Do I Need?

Currently, the only options for vaccines and boosters come from Moderna and Pfizer, and in limited cases, Johnson & Johnson. In most cases, Americans are encouraged to get their first and second dose of the vaccine from the same company – in other words, don’t “mix and match” the vaccines. However, when it comes to boosters, the FDA and CDC support the “mix and match” approach if that feels right for you[6]. Speak with your physician about which booster is best for you or what is more readily available in your area.

Remember, a booster is another layer of insurance against the worst of the effects from the coronavirus. Liken the booster to a medical alert device: You get it to protect yourself. But if you do have to use it, the button alert assists you in getting the help you need. If you happen to get COVID-19, you can rest assured that with the booster, your situation might be much less severe, and your odds of death are certainly lower.

In fact, getting the vaccine lowers the risk of death by 34%, and lowers the risk of a complication called “long Covid” by 15%[7]. Hospitalization rates drop too; Kaiser Permanente found that those who didn’t get a booster were twice as likely to be hospitalized than those who got their booster.

When Should I Get the Booster?

You can get the booster five months after the last of your initial doses. For example, if you received your last dose of Pfizer or Moderna in the month of January, you would need a booster in the month of June. If you took the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, you would need a booster two months after the last dose of vaccines, which means if you got the vaccine in January, you would be eligible for a booster in the month of March. (However, remember that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or boosters are not recommended if the Moderna and Pfizer options are available to you.)

However, the rules change if you are immunocompromised. In that case, the CDC recommends getting  a booster dose at three months after the initial vaccines, instead of the usual five months. That means that someone who is immunocompromised and finished their second vaccine dose in the month of January would be able to get their booster in the month of April. If you received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the CDC recommends that you get an additional dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, in addition to the booster[8].

Even if you are not immunocompromised, it is vitally important to get the vaccine and boosters. The older population of the United States is at higher risk for complications from coronavirus, especially since 85% of older adults have at least one chronic health condition and 60% of them have at least two, according to the National Institute on Aging. Those with underlying medical conditions are at higher risk of complications or even death from COVID-19 and its variants[9].

The most up-to-date recommendation from the CDC is that if you got a booster four months ago, you need another one. That’s two boosters recommended for those aged 50 or older[10].

Remember that a booster is much like the medical alert pendant. You want to get it long before you actually need it. Unfortunately, many people opt to get medical alert systems with fall detection only after they have already fallen; that initial fall put them at serious risk of not getting help to them in time. These senior life-saving alert systems are insurance against prolonged suffering after a fall by allowing a person to reach out for help immediately.

You might feel as though the coronavirus is now “under control” and not that many people are getting infected these days. While it is true that reported cases and hospitalizations are down, much of that is because so many have gotten vaccinated[11]. The insurance against the harsher side of COVID-19 is worth getting the shot.

What Sort of Side Effects Will I Feel from the Booster?

If you were one of the unlucky individuals who felt quite ill after you received your vaccines, you’ll be happy to know that the side effects of the booster are usually much milder. The Food and Drug Administration reports that the most common side effects of the COVID-19 booster include:

·         Pain, swelling, and redness at the injection site

·         Headache

·         Fatigue

·         Chills

·         Muscle or joint pain

·         Swollen lymph nodes

Remember that in order to receive approval, a vaccine or booster must provide protection that outweighs the risk of adverse reactions. So it’s important to get your booster, even if it makes you feel sick for a few days.

What Happens After the Boosters?

Even after you get the booster it’s important to still take precautions to keep you and your loved ones as safe as possible. That means practicing good hand hygiene, including washing your hands often and making good use of hand sanitizer. It can also include social distancing by staying at least six feet away from others, wearing a mask (even when it’s not required by mandate), getting tested for COVID-19 if you feel sick, and avoiding spaces that are poorly ventilated. The CDC offers more advice on staying safe from illness.

Keep in mind that even if you are vaccinated and boosted, you can still contract COVID-19[12]. The condition might be much milder, so you might not realize what you have is the coronavirus infection; that’s why testing is so important. It’s also entirely possible to contract the virus and show no symptoms; 30% of those who contract COVID-19 show no symptoms of it[13]. However, during the time the virus is active in your body, you can pass it to others. That’s an argument for continuing the usual protections we came to be so familiar with during the height of the pandemic, such as wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.

If you do test positive for the virus, isolate yourself from others immediately. Speak to your doctor if you are feeling any symptoms. Continue to isolate until a home test for COVID comes back negative. And if you don’t have your boosters yet, get them now!

As always, Alert1 wishes you health and safety!