Should You Get a COVID Booster Shot? Our Doctor Explains

August 24, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Daniel Varga, M.D.

COVID-19 booster shots are now being offered.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the use of an additional dose of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna) for those who are moderately to severely immunocompromised, and health officials intend to make them available to the general public starting the week of September 20, pending FDA and CDC review. Plans for additional doses of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) shot are forthcoming, once more data is collected and analyzed.

We connected with Hackensack Meridian Health’s chief physician executive, Daniel Varga, M.D., to talk through why we need booster shots now and what you should know.

Why do immunocompromised people need boosters?

An immunocompromised person has a weakened immune system. Your immune system is a combination of your cells, organs and proteins that work in tandem to protect your body from unwelcome intruders like viruses, bacteria, parasites and toxins.

If your immune system is compromised, it can impact your ability to fight off infections and disease, including COVID-19.

The COVID-19 vaccines utilize our immune system to fight off the virus – the vaccine provides your body with the instructions on how to recognize and destroy COVID-19 to prevent it from multiplying. For immunodeficient patients, you may not have as strong of a response to the vaccine as someone without deficiencies, thus the need for a boost.

Does everyone need a COVID booster shot?

For the general public, it is currently unknown how long immune protection lasts from the vaccines. Developed antibodies may decrease over time, weakening your protection against COVID and emerging variants; a booster shot will help reinvigorate that protection.

It’s important to note, data collected has shown that protection against infection may decrease over time, however the vaccine remains very effective in preventing hospitalizations and death. As time passes, you may be more susceptible to catching COVID-19, but if you’re vaccinated your symptoms are expected to be less severe.

This is not the first vaccine that requires a booster – for example, every year there is a new flu vaccine, and it’s recommended to get a tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) booster every 10 years.

Does this mean the vaccine isn’t effective?

No. The COVID-19 vaccine is effective and advisable. The vaccine is proven to protect people from getting severly ill, being hospitalized or dying from COVID.

For the immunocompromised, a COVID-19 booster will increase your immunity if your immune system did not respond as strongly to the first or second dose. For the general public, a booster would help you stay protected as your immunity wanes over time.

Who is considered to be moderately to severely immunocompromised? 

The FDA has authorized a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to certain immunocompromised populations, specifically people who have:

  • Been receiving active cancer treatment for tumors or cancers of the blood
  • Received an organ transplant and are taking medicine to suppress the immune system
  • Received a stem cell transplant within the last 2 years or are taking medicine to suppress the immune system
  • Moderate or severe primary immunodeficiency (such as DiGeorge syndrome, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome)
  • Advanced or untreated HIV infection
  • Active treatment with high-dose corticosteroids or other drugs that may suppress your immune response

Can I get a COVID booster shot right now?

As of right now, only those who are immunocompromised are able to get a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The FDA and CDC’s recommendation for the immunocompromised is that the booster be given at least 28 days after the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. There is no current recommendation for those who received the J&J vaccine.

Pending approval from the FDA and CDC, booster shots are slated to become available to the general public (to those who are 18 and older) the week of September 20. It is advised that all who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines should receive a booster eight months after they receive their second shot.

The duration of a vaccine’s effectiveness depends on the vaccine and an individual’s immune response. Researchers are continually monitoring the immunity in those who have received the COVID-19 vaccines.

What type of booster should I get?

All three companies, Pfizer, Moderna and J&J are investigating the use of boosters.

For those eligible, the CDC recommends that if you received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, that you should receive a booster of the same vaccine. You should not receive more than three doses. If the mRNA vaccine given in the first two doses is unknown or unavailable, you can receive either brand.

For the immunocompromised who received the J&J vaccine, the CDC notes there is not enough data at this time to determine if a third dose would improve your immune response.

Next Steps & Resources: 

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.