UNC Health Talk

3 Things You Need to Know About COVID-19 Boosters

As more contagious variants of COVID-19 emerge, such as the already-infamous delta variant, you may wonder if you should get a vaccine booster shot.

The short answer? Yes, but for most people, not right now.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending that people whose immune systems are compromised moderately to severely should receive  third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines (commonly referred to as a ‘booster dose’).

To find out when everyone else will need a third dose, we spoke with UNC Health infectious diseases specialist David A. Wohl, MD. Here are three things he told us about COVID-19 boosters.

1. Boosters are common for many vaccines.

Your body’s immunity to many viruses, whether acquired naturally or through a vaccine, declines over time.

A booster shot is an additional dose of a vaccine that gives a “boost” to your immunity and provides better protection from disease. Many routine vaccines require more than one shot to maintain immunity. For example, adults should get a Tdap booster every 10 years; that protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough).

“With a booster, the immunity that has already been established by a vaccine is stimulated again,” Dr. Wohl says. “So, in a way, the booster serves as a reminder to the immune system’s memory, which can fade over time after vaccination.”

2. Some people can get a COVID-19 booster now, and others can expect to get one soon.

People who have significantly compromised immune systems are eligible to get a booster shot if they received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines initially. The FDA and CDC have provided guidance on who qualifies as being sufficiently immunocompromised and this includes people who have received a transplant, are undergoing cancer therapy, have advanced or untreated HIV infection, or are taking medications that suppress the immune system.

Right now, people who initially received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are not recommended to get a booster just yet. There are study data expected shortly that will help the FDA determine how best to boost people who received this vaccine.

If you are not immunocompromised, you can’t go get a booster now, but you’ll probably get one in the near future, Dr. Wohl says. The Biden administration is planning  to recommend boosters beginning in September for everybody who received the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

“Boosters may be helpful for those who might not have responded adequately to the initial series of shot. But, the bottom line is we’re all going to get boosters. Starting with the immunocompromised makes sense and then those whose protection may be waning, such as the people who got vaccinated earliest,” Dr. Wohl says.

3. Everyone should be wearing masks.

Dr. Wohl says that because of the higher transmissibility of the delta variant, it’s important for even fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors when around people who might not be vaccinated and are outside of their immediate household bubbles.

The CDC is now recommending masking for vaccinated people in regions where COVID-19 is surging, which is most of the country. The spread of the delta variant among unvaccinated people means that some will pass the virus on to those who are vaccinated. Fortunately, the vast majority of those who are vaccinated and get infected will have no or minimal symptoms.

“Now that delta has become widespread, all of us should be masking up and protecting themselves,” Dr. Wohl says. “My recommendation to everyone, regardless of your vaccine status, is to wear a mask indoors when you’re outside of your bubble.”

This article was originally published July 30, 2021 and updated Aug. 18, 2021. 

Visit unchealthcare.org/vaccine to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine and for the latest information on the COVID-19 vaccines.