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What you need to know about COVID-19 booster shots

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The FDA has approved Pfizer booster shots for older individuals and those at higher risk of infection, and Johnson & Johnson is seeking FDA approval for its booster shot.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have authorized COVID-19 booster shots for certain Pfizer recipients. But what exactly does that mean for individuals who received the Pfizer vaccine? Side Effects Public Media reporter Steph Whiteside spoke with Bart Hagston, the administrator of the health department in Jackson County, Illinois, to get answers to some frequently asked questions.

Let's start with the basics. Is the Pfizer booster shot only for people who got the Pfizer shot initially?
Hagston: What the CDC and the FDA have approved are booster doses for those that have received the Pfizer vaccine as part of their primary series.

So if you've received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson previously, booster doses are not authorized yet. The federal authorities continue to look at the data surrounding those vaccines. And I think we'll see booster doses for those in the coming weeks or months. But for right now, it's only Pfizer.

What's the time frame on getting a booster shot?
It just has to be at least six months since your second dose of Pfizer. It could be longer.

Which Pfizer recipients are eligible for the shot?
This is where some of the confusion has set in. CDC has recommended that the following three groups of people should receive a booster dose of Pfizer — those are people age 65 and older, residents in long-term care settings and people age 50 to 64 with certain underlying medical conditions.

And then in addition to that, CDC has recommended that people in another two categories may receive a booster dose. And those are people age 18 to 49 with underlying medical conditions or people age 18 to 64 that face increased risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission because of their occupational settings.

So that could include health care workers, first responders, congregate care staff, educational staff, food workers, manufacturing, corrections, postal workers, public transit, grocery store workers.

You mentioned underlying medical conditions. Can you talk a little bit more about exactly what that means?
Sure. So people with certain medical conditions are associated with a higher risk of severe COVID-19. And so some of those conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic lung disease — including asthma — diabetes, Down syndrome, various heart conditions, various immunocompromised states, liver disease, overweight or obese, pregnant or recently pregnant, sickle cell disease, smoking — including current or former smokers — organ transplant recipients, those that have had a stroke or cerebral vascular disease or those that have substance use disorders. So it's a pretty extensive list.

Some people are saying the need for boosters is a sign that the vaccines don't work. Can you talk more about that and why people may need boosters even with a successful vaccine?
You know, the vaccines overall continue to be very effective against severe disease, hospitalization. I think everybody is probably seeing the numbers that SIH (Southern Illinois Healthcare) and other hospital systems are reporting as far as the number of people that have admitted to the hospital and how few of those are vaccinated individuals and especially those that are in the ICU or on a ventilator, how few of those are vaccinated individuals. That's information that I think really jumps out to people when they see those numbers. And that tells people a lot as to how effective the vaccines are — pre-delta and during delta.

Pfizer is just one of three vaccines. Should people who got the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots expect to get news about boosters soon?
I think we might hear more about boosters for Moderna within the next several weeks. Johnson & Johnson might be a little longer, but Johnson & Johnson didn't hit the market as early as Pfizer or Moderna.

So, you know, everything takes time. It's all based upon FDA and CDC reviewing the data available and looking at how long until the benefits of the vaccine last before they begin to wane. And even though the data might show that the benefits start to wane, it's not an immediate drop off of that protection. They slowly lose effectiveness over time, and that's why a booster might be needed. But again, you still have that protection of the original series you received.

If you are eligible for a booster shot, contact your state health department to find out more information on where and how to receive it.

Steph Whiteside is a health and environment reporter with WSIU radio in Carbondale, Ill. She can be reached at