COVID boosters and what you need to know before holiday gatherings

Starting this weekend, COVID-19 boosters will now be available for any of the three federally approved vaccines. At least 10 states had already made this change as COVID cases rose — climbing by 33 percent in the last two weeks. For the moment, death rates are stable. But the country is still averaging more than 1,100 deaths a day. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported, the government's top public health agencies are making vaccine boosters available to anyone in the U.S. 18 years or older.

    As Stephanie Sy tells us, the change is aimed at helping during the winter months ahead.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, starting this weekend, boosters will now be available for any of the three federally approved vaccines. At least 10 states had already made this change as COVID cases rise, up 33 percent in the last two weeks.

    For the moment, death rates are stable, but the country is still averaging more than 1, 100 deaths a day.

    For more on what we should know. I'm joined by Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

    Dr. Wachter, thank you for joining us on the "NewsHour."

    Let's get right to it.

    Would you at this point advise every adult to get a booster shot, and why or why not?

    Dr. Robert Wachter, University of California, San Francisco: I would. I got mine a month or so ago. But I have advised my 28- and 30-year-old healthy children to get them as well.

    The boosters do three things. First of all, we now know that the efficacy of the original shots does wane, starts waning at about five months and wanes more the more time goes on. And the boosters do three things. One is, they prevent mild infections, but mild infections can lead to long COVID.

    The second is, they can prevent severe infections, which can lead to hospitalization and death. And the third is, they keep the community safer. They decrease the amount of COVID in the community.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Isn't it still, though, Dr. Wachter, the unvaccinated that are most at risk, not only for severe COVID, but behind community spread?

  • Dr. Robert Wachter:

    No question about it.

    And, early on, people said, well, we should really concentrate on vaccinating the unvaccinated. And when I heard that, I would say, what exactly does that mean? What are we not doing to try to get the unvaccinated vaccinated? We have done everything I think we can humanly possibly do. There are enough shots for everyone.

    So, at this point, I think we can walk and chew bubblegum. I think we have to continue to concentrate on trying to get people to get vaccinated in the first place, but we also have to protect everyone else. And if you're un — if you're vaccinated, but you're more than six months out, your level of protection is now somewhere between fully vaccinated and unvaccinated, so it's time to boost it up.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So let's talk about the efficacy of the booster shot and when it kicks in.

    Does getting the booster shot, Dr. Wachter, mean you won't get COVID-19? And will we have to get booster shots every six months?

  • Dr. Robert Wachter:

    Well, the vaccines aren't perfect, although these — I think we forget. We have gotten used to it. These are extraordinarily effective.

    What the booster does is take — if you remember those original efficacy numbers of 95 percent effective in preventing cases of COVID, that number had waned to 50 or 60 percent. The boosters bump you back up to at least 95 percent. You're probably even a little bit better protected than you were after your two shots. They are miraculously effective.

    How long does it take before they kick in? It looks like about a week. So, a week after you have gotten your booster, you're back up to a level of protection that was similar to the level you had two weeks after your second shot.

    When will we need another shot? I think we will know when we know. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing. Because these shots waned in six months does not necessarily mean that the booster will wane in six months. Because we have had a lag in time, it gave the immune system more time to kind of mature. And so there's a good chance that we might need one every year or two years, but I think we will only know as we see what happens over time.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Sure.

    As we head into the holidays, though, Doctor, people are expected to gather. If you have a booster shot, should you feel comfortable not wearing a mask around your grandparents again, shopping at the mall without a mask?

  • Dr. Robert Wachter:

    Well, the way I approach life, Stephanie, is that, now that I have gotten my booster, I am perfectly comfortable hanging around in indoor spaces with other people who are fully vaccinated and, if they're eligible, who've also gotten a booster.

    Anything other than that, hanging around with unvaccinated people or people whose shots were nine months ago and who have not gotten a booster, I'm a little more careful. I would wear a mask in those circumstances. If you can't, like you're having Thanksgiving dinner together with them, I think that's a good use of the rapid tests.

    So, if someone's unvaccinated or someone's 10 months out from their shots and hasn't gotten a booster, I think it's reasonable to test them that morning. If they're negative, you can be quite confident they're not infectious that day. And so that makes it safer.

    But I think the rule is, vaccinated plus booster, if you're eligible, you are really good to go. And if you're hanging out with other people like that, you really are quite safe.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Really appreciate that clear advice.

    Dr. Robert Wachter, the chair of the Department of Medicine at U.C. San Francisco, thank you.

  • Dr. Robert Wachter:

    Thank you.

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