COVID Boosters: Who’s Eligible?

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

Harwich resident Anna Bodo, 80, receives her COVID-19 vaccination. FILE PHOTO

There seem to be new headlines every day describing which group of people are now eligible to receive which COVID-19 vaccine. Some people can now get booster shots, depending on their age, health and occupation. There is even talk now about a possible fourth shot for some people, even as public health officials work to get first doses into many arms. Let’s sort it out.

Initial doses of the vaccine are currently available for people ages 12 and older, and unlike the early days of the pandemic, shots are widely available at neighborhood pharmacies, grocery stores and health clinics.

“We continue to make progress on the vaccination front,” Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson told the health board Monday. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine in children ages five through 11 years of age. The Centers for Disease Control was set to meet early this week to discuss a recommendation, and it is possible that the shot will be cleared for use in that age group by the end of the week. Similar reviews are being conducted on the Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines, Duncanson said.

Because the effectiveness of COVID vaccines wanes over time, booster shots are now being recommended for more individuals. Boosters are not to be confused with “third doses,” which are recommended to help give a baseline of protection to people who are moderately to severely immune-compromised, like people being treated for cancers of the blood or organ recipients on immune-suppressing drugs.

True booster shots are now available for many. Those who received the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine are eligible for a booster – either of the same brand vaccine or either of the two-dose alternatives – if they are 18 years of age or older. They must have received their original dose at least two months ago to be eligible for a booster.

Certain people vaccinated with the two-dose Pfizer BioNtech or Moderna shots are also eligible for a booster dose of any of the three available vaccines, provided that they received their second shots at least six months ago. To qualify, Pfizer or Moderna recipients must be 65 years of age or older. But boosters are also available for certain people who are 18 or older, including people who live in long-term care settings like congregate care facilities or prisons or people in high-risk occupations. Those jobs include first responders, teachers, postal and public transit workers and grocery store employees.

Also available for boosters are Pfizer or Moderna recipients who have certain underlying medical conditions, including cancer, chronic diseases of the kidney, liver or lungs, or heart disease. Boosters are also recommended for people with dementia, diabetes, Down syndrome, HIV, certain mental health conditions or obesity. People also qualify if they have a substance use disorder, are current or former smokers, or are pregnant. Because the list of underlying medical conditions is a long one, people should ask their doctor if they are eligible.

Officials are also urging people to get flu shots this season. Previously, the CDC advised against getting the influenza vaccine at the same time as a COVID shot, but they’ve since lifted that recommendation. While some people prefer to get the shots on different dates, doing so is not strictly necessary. Still, some flu vaccine clinics advise people not to get the flu shot within two weeks of a COVID vaccine.

Both in the case of booster shots and in first doses for young people, getting a COVID vaccine is much easier than it was when the vaccines were first made available.

“Right now there are no plans to do mass vaccination sites, just because there are so many places now where you can get vaccine,” Duncanson said. Booster shots are available at local pharmacies without an appointment, and Barnstable County officials host weekly vaccine clinics by appointment. Children who are newly eligible to get the shot will likely be offered them when they get a routine checkup at the pediatrician’s office, and some school districts have also announced plans to offer vaccinations through the school nurse.