Coronavirus

You’re eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot. Now what?

The Northwest Herald spoke to Dr. Irfan Hafiz of Northwestern Medicine to talk about COVID-19 boosters, whether to ‘mix and match’ vaccines and their possible effect on breakthrough cases

Compared with the original vaccine rollout, the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine booster shots has improved, said Dr. Irfan Hafiz, an infectious disease specialist with Northwestern Medicine.

Before, there was a lot of anxiety around the delivery and allocation of these inoculations, he said. But now, “those issues have been very much worked through,” Hafiz said.

“Access has been a lot easier,” Hafiz said. “We don’t have to be rationing out the boosters there, so it’s definitely a lot more normal, so to speak, for a vaccination.”

Following news last week that the Food and Drug Administration authorized people to mix and match their booster shots, the Northwest Herald spoke to Hafiz to find out more.

Q: Who should get a booster shot, and why?

A: Hafiz said he “strongly encourages” those who fall under the eligibility criteria to consider getting a booster shot, saying they likely have an added benefit in reducing their risk of getting COVID-19.

“Most of the patients that we are seeing in the hospital related to [COVID-19], and the bad outcomes, are the unvaccinated,” he said.

Those who can get a booster are: anyone 65 years and older; anyone 18 years and older who lives in a long-term care facility; anyone 18 to 65 years old with certain underlying medical conditions; and anyone whose job puts them at a high risk of COVID-19 exposure.

The Illinois Department of Public Health recommends anyone over 18 who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine get a booster as well.

When it comes to immunocompromised people, the “patients with those conditions are at higher risk for complications,” Hafiz said. “Therefore, we want to boost their antibody level against the virus to protect themselves in the best way possible. It’s not going to guarantee that they won’t get [an] infection, but it’s going to go a long way in avoiding complications.”

Q: Where can I go in McHenry County to get one?

A: McHenry County Department of Health is providing vaccine boosters at its Woodstock and Crystal Lake clinics, along with the regular doses for people who still have not gotten the inoculation, spokeswoman Lindsey Salvatelli said.

Pharmacies, such as Jewel-Osco, Walgreens and Walmart in towns that include Crystal Lake, Woodstock, Huntley, Lake in the Hills, Harvard, Cary and Fox River Grove, also have appointments available for boosters.

To find a provider, go to www.vaccines.gov or speak to your doctor.

Q: The Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of “mix and match” vaccines last week, where you can get a vaccine booster from a different company than the one you got your initial COVID-19 vaccine. Should I do this, or wait until the same vaccine I got originally got is available?

A: The vaccines should be relatively interchangeable, Hafiz said.

“In a perfect world, if you had all three vaccines available at a vaccination site with immediate availability, I probably choose the one that I had previously,” he said. “However, if that one is not available, the next one available is a good choice to do. I wouldn’t delay that longer in order to try to find the perfect combination.”

Hafiz suggests those who are approved to do so get their booster within six weeks, saying it’s worthwhile for those in high-risk groups to get them in the next couple of weeks.

The vaccines made in the U.S. are comparable to each other and they are all “highly effective,” so there isn’t necessarily one that’s “better” to get as a booster, Hafiz said.

“It’s more a matter of getting vaccinated than which one to get,” he said.

Q: Should I ask my doctor before getting a booster shot?

A: In general, Hafiz said, he recommends residents always talk to their doctor before getting the vaccine or booster if they have questions or other medical conditions.

“However, don’t delay it too long,” he said. “If you don’t have a lot of questions and you already had the other two shots, the boosters are quite widely available.”

Q: What are the side effects of the booster shot like?

A: Although the vaccine side effects will be similar to the second dose – body aches, chills, a headache – Hafiz has heard from people who experienced milder symptoms, lasting about the day after they get the booster.

This is because a booster has significant, ramped-up antibodies, as more time has elapsed since the previous shot.

Though these effects may be less intense on the third dose, this doesn’t mean it’s not working, Hafiz said.

“It’s still doing what it’s supposed to,” he said.

“I hate to use the word side effect because it’s not, really,” Hafiz said. “It’s an expected phenomenon as your body is responding to the vaccine.”

Q: Will we need future booster shots for COVID-19?

A: It’s gonna be tough to say for sure, Hafiz said.

But based on what he’s seeing from the summer, “chances are we’re going to continue to see cases for some time through the winter,” Hafiz said. “So it’s foreseeable that there could be future boosters again. Time will tell.”

Q: How will the vaccine boosters affect “breakthrough” COVID-19 cases, where someone gets COVID-19 even after getting vaccinated?

A: “I think it’s going to reduce the number of breakthroughs,” Hafiz said. “But also, more importantly, it’s going to reduce the number of breakthroughs that need medical attention, admission and most importantly, intensive care or death.”

Hafiz said the importance of getting the boosters, and vaccination in general, is that people could potentially spread COVID-19 to others. This could cause problems, especially if a whole department gets sick or exposed to the coronavirus and needs to quarantine.

“That could definitely impact other patients who need care” if it happens in a hospital, Hafiz added.

“We don’t want to interrupt the delivery of care to others who may need it,” he said.

Cassie Buchman

Cassie Buchman

I cover Crystal Lake, Algonquin, Cary, Fox River Grove, Prairie Grove and Oakwood Hills for the Northwest Herald.