Updated COVID-19 booster shots will be available in mid-September — the start of what is expected to be an annual booster campaign against the illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.
In a virtual press conference, CDC director Dr. Mandy Cohen said the shots are a critical step to reducing what are likely to be several circulating respiratory illnesses this winter.
While the FDA has yet to approve the boosters, the expectation is that the shots will likely be available for individuals 6 months and older, and given the ongoing changes in the virus and decreases in immunity over time, the federal government expects to make an updated COVID booster available annually.
“We think that vaccines are the strongest protection that we can offer folks,” Cohen said.
Even with new boosters about to become available, the virus has continued to evolve. Experts have pointed to a new variant, BA.2.86, that has emerged in recent weeks.
However Cohen said the new variant accounts for less than 1 percent of the cases the country is seeing, and the shots currently going through FDA regulatory review have been tailored specifically to the dominant circulating variants of COVID-19. Cohen said it was unclear if the forthcoming vaccine boosters are as effective against the new variant in preventing severe illness, though early indications are promising.
Still, Cohen said many other tools have been proven effective against the new variant of the virus, including COVID tests and treatments.
Updated boosters come as COVID transmission has remained low nationally but is rising from summer lows.
Cohen said that last week the county saw 15,000 COVID-19 hospital admissions — an increase from earlier in the season but less than half the 38,000 people who were hospitalized with the virus at this time last year.
In Massachusetts, waste water data through Aug. 28 show that the numbers have increased since July, and hospitalizations have increased in recent weeks, however they remain far below what they were at this time last year.
Cohen said 97 percent of the country has a baseline immunity to the virus.
It is unclear how many people will take advantage of the new boosters. In Massachusetts, only 30 percent of the state population has received a booster shot since last September, according to state data updated Aug. 28.
For those who have not yet received a booster, Cohen recommended waiting the two weeks for the updated version. Older individuals or those who have underlying health conditions should turn to their doctor for guidance on whether to get a missed booster even sooner.
New COVID boosters come as a vaccine for RSV has become available for older adults, and monoclonal antibody injections similar to vaccines have been approved for infants. The FDA has also approved an RSV vaccine for pregnant women that is expected to become available later this fall. Flu vaccines are also available.
“Adding flu plus RSV plus COVID together will put a strain on our system, because there will be a lot of virus this winter,” Cohen said. “And that’s why we want to get ahead of it with everyone using the tools that we have to protect themselves.”
The Southern hemisphere, which experiences its flu season earlier than the United States, had a typical year of the flu virus, but Cohen noted that was no guarantee for what the Northern hemisphere might experience.