Western Pennsylvanians who want a covid-19 vaccine booster likely will have the chance to get one in the coming months.
The Biden administration earlier this week recommended the extra protection for all Americans, starting as soon as Sept. 20 for those who were fully vaccinated by late January.
In Pennsylvania, that mostly includes prioritized groups working in health care, residents of long-term care facilities and those working and living in other congregate settings.
With ample vaccine supply and demand waning across the U.S., obtaining a booster looks to be much easier than it was to sign up for the first round of shots earlier this year. Then, backlogs plagued providers and pharmacies statewide and deliveries were scarce and inconsistent.
Health officials suggested a third dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine be given to people eight months after the second dose. The goal is to provide further protection should the effectiveness of the initial vaccination begin to wane, or prove less effective against aggressive versions of covid such as the delta variant.
Meanwhile, efforts continue to persuade vaccine-hesitant people to get their first dose as the fast-spreading delta variant poses increased risk to younger, healthier people who aren’t vaccinated.
“The inalienable fact that hits us every day in health care is people getting admitted with covid and dying from covid are unvaccinated,” said Dr. Amy Crawford-Faucher, family medicine physician and vice chair of the Allegheny Health Network Primary Care Institute. “I don’t know what further proof people need to protect themselves and their vulnerable loved ones. Getting vaccinated is the answer.”
The plan to open boosters up to nearly all Americans is awaiting final approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has been studying the safety and effectiveness of the third dose.
Here’s what you need to know about getting a covid booster shot:
Q: When can I get a booster shot, and where do I go to get one?
For now, only adults and children older than 12 who are immunocompromised can get booster shots.
The Biden administration’s announcement came about a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a third dose of the vaccine for certain people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients and organ transplant recipients.
If the FDA green-lights the broader rollout, the booster shots will be available to already vaccinated individuals about eight months after their second dose. That means someone who got their second dose in March or April will have to wait until November or December.
People who received their second dose more recently — May or later — will have to wait until next year.
The boosters should be available anywhere the vaccines are being offered. That includes not only health systems such as Allegheny Health Network and UPMC but independent pharmacies, community health providers and chains such as CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid. Primary care doctors also can help patients find a vaccine or booster provider.
There is no need to obtain a booster from the same provider that provided an individual’s first two doses.
Will the booster’s side effects be worse than the second shot?
Health officials say more data is needed, but so far the side effects of booster shots appear to be no more severe than those experienced by recipients following their second dose. The booster is no different from the prior doses.
“It’s the exact same vaccine,” Crawford-Faucher said.
For some, the only effect may be a sore arm. Others report mild flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, a fever and nausea that tend to subside within 24 hours.
Can I mix and match vaccine shots?
It’s not advised by U.S. health officials at this point, though research continues on the issue.
The CDC maintains that vaccines should not be mixed.
“So if you got Moderna, get a Moderna booster. If you got Pfizer, find a Pfizer booster, which in Pennsylvania is not a problem,” Crawford-Faucher said.
That recommendation, however, is not “a hard stop,” Crawford-Faucher said.
The CDC acknowledges that “if the mRNA vaccine product given for the first two doses is not available or is unknown, either mRNA covid-19 vaccine product may be administered.”
So what if I got a Johnson & Johnson vaccine?
The short answer: Hang tight.
“There is no recommendation for any booster for J&J. We’re sure it’s coming, we just don’t know exactly when,” she said. “We don’t have the final word on whether you should be boosted with J&J or whether you should be boosted with an mRNA vaccine.”
Will I need ID? Should I bring my vaccination card?
President Biden assured the American public that no one will be denied a booster vaccine for not having an ID.
But local health care officials do recommend bringing photo ID and proof of vaccination when possible to help the process go more smoothly.
Providers will try to work with people who are unable to provide ID or their vaccination cards.
How much will it cost? What if I’m uninsured?
Like the initial vaccine doses, the covid-19 booster shots will be free to everyone, regardless of insurance or the lack thereof.
“There is no out-of-pocket cost,” Crawford-Faucher said.
Can I get vaccinated for the flu at the same time as getting a booster shot?
Yes — and health officials say it could be efficient to schedule both at the same time.
“It is safe to get any vaccine with a covid vaccine,” Crawford-Faucher said.