New COVID boosters arrive during increase in hospitalizations

September 14, 2023
vials and needles laid out on a towel.
Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines are lined up and waiting for students to attend the vaccine clinic at R.B. Stall High School vaccine clinic on April 28, 2021. New boosters contain a new formulation. Photo by Sarah Pack

New COVID boosters are arriving as MUSC Health sees its highest rate of COVID hospitalizations since January. The numbers are low compared with earlier waves, but infectious diseases specialist Scott Curry, M.D., said they’re worth noting. “We’re in the double digits again.”

Mike Sweat, Ph.D., said that may not change for a little while. He leads the Medical University of South Carolina’s COVID tracking team, which has been publishing data on the virus since the early days of the pandemic.

“I don't think this wave is anywhere near over based on historical patterns. Based on three years now of seeing the patterns, we're probably going to see this go up and peak sometime next month and come down in November. And then shortly after the holidays and the cold weather hit, I think we're going to potentially see another wave.”

Getting boosted

So the arrival of the Moderna and Pfizer boosters may be timely. They were just approved by the Food and Drug Administration and endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Everyone 6 months and older is eligible to get the shots.

Unlike the past vaccines, which targeted two strains of COVID, the new ones go after a single strain. “The current variant that the vaccine is targeted to, XBB.1.5., is an outcome of the prior variants. So at least for neutralizing antibodies, it's showing really good performance,” Sweat said.

Red arrow on a gray background with the words growth rate from the week prior is plus 16%. 
A chart from the MUSC COVID-19 Epidemiology Intelligence shows the concentration of COVID in wastewater in the Charleston area rising.

Despite that targeted approach, the FDA said the boosters should also help protect people from other variants that are circulating, including BA.2.86. Scientists were worried that BA.2.86 might be able to get around vaccine immunity, but new data has eased that concern. 

Curry, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine is an epidemiologist at MUSC, and medical doctor in the Division of Infectious Diseases. He encouraged people to take advantage of the new shots. “If we have two peaks, one now and one in January, you probably ought to get it now. It's an important update because most Americans didn't opt to get the previous booster,” he said.

“So the only shots most people got were the classic versions from over a year ago. They are going to need an updated version. They have little protection. COVID still affects healthy young people – half of them are so sick they have to be in bed.”

Getting a booster also protects other people who may be at higher risk of getting seriously ill. “If you don't get COVID, you won't give it to older people or people who are immunocompromised. So that’s the community benefit,” Curry said.

And Sweat said vaccination lowers the odds of something a lot of people don’t take into consideration: developing long COVID. “Six percent of people who get a COVID infection have lingering symptoms defined as long COVID, and a quarter of those people have symptoms that significantly limit their daily activities. It’s not an everyday thing, but it's enough of a worry that people don't want this to happen. Some people’s lives have been almost ruined by this.”

Possible side effects

But COVID vaccinations can come with side effects. According to the CDC, they may include:

  • Pain, redness and/or swelling where you got the shot.
  • Tiredness.
  • Headache.
  • Muscle pain.
  • Chills.
  • Fever.
  • Nausea.

However, the CDC said those effects are usually mild and temporary.

Going forward

Sweat, a professor in the College of Medicine at MUSC, adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and former research scientist for the CDC, said he knows people have more questions about COVID vaccines.

“I would stress to people that if you're in doubt or you've heard some rumor or you read something on social media that kind of maybe looks strange – people ask me all the time, ‘Is it true the vaccines contain microchips?’ I would encourage them to talk to their physician, because there is trust in that relationship. That's to me the best thing you can do to try to overcome the misinformation that's circulating so widely.”

Curry said people shouldn’t just focus on COVID when it comes to preventing illness. They should also get flu shots, and if they’re eligible, RSV immunizations. RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus.

But he and Sweat agreed that COVID shots are here to stay. “This is the future. I don't think this is going to change. It's going to be around like the flu. We just have to adapt to that,” Sweat said.

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