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A new COVID vaccine is coming out and here’s what you should know

This week, federal authorities announced that they had approved a new booster vaccine for COVID-19, updated to cover a newer variant of the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement the vaccines would be widely available in a matter of days.

In Philadelphia, new boosters will likely be available this weekend at large chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens, and by next week at smaller health care clinics, doctors’ offices, and independent pharmacies.

The Philadelphia health department wants residents to treat the COVID booster shots like the seasonal flu shot: “Wherever you get your flu shot, you should be able to get your COVID shot,” spokesperson Jim Garrow said. “Pharmacies are probably going to be the easiest places to get them.”

Here’s what to know about the new vaccines.

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What COVID variants do the new boosters protect you against?

The new booster vaccines are designed to protect against the XBB.1.5 variant, which is itself a variant of the Omicron strain of the virus that caused a large spike in cases last fall. XBB.1.5 was the most dominant strain in the United States earlier this summer, but has since been overtaken by the EG.5 variant, another Omicron-related strain, which was responsible for about 20% of nationwide COVID cases as of Aug. 19.

Even though the new booster targets XBB.1.5 specifically, early testing of the vaccines shows that they are also effective against other variants, the CDC says.

What are the current COVID levels in Philly?

Tracking the spread of individual COVID cases has become trickier since the national public health emergency ended earlier this year. But Philadelphia’s health department is still tracking hospitalizations and deaths from COVID, as well as levels of the virus in the city’s wastewater.

Garrow said that wastewater monitoring has shown a slight uptick in COVID rates. As of Sept. 13, Philadelphia reported having 49 people hospitalized with COVID. That’s down from the 60 hospitalized patients recorded at the end of August, which was the highest number of hospitalizations the city had seen for months.

“COVID is still circulating more than it was earlier in the summer, but even with kids in school for a week and a half now, we’re not seeing a huge spike, which is good news,” Garrow said.

Statewide, hospitalizations have been rising since midsummer. Still, rates of hospitalization and deaths are significantly lower now than at the height of the pandemic.

Who should get a booster?

The city health department recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months — except for those who have been vaccinated against COVID in the last two months — should get a booster.

“Whether you’ve had the vaccine before or not, now is the time to get it,” Garrow said.

People who are at a higher risk for complications from COVID-19, including pregnant people, people with chronic lung conditions, and people over age 65, should prioritize getting a booster.

Getting vaccinated doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t get COVID. But having an up-to-date vaccine means you’re less likely to get seriously ill from the virus.

What does the booster shot cost?

Because federal emergency declarations have ended, the cost of the vaccine will not be covered by the government and is instead left to private insurance and Medicare and Medicaid.

For people without insurance, the Biden administration established the CDC’s Bridge Access Program, which will make free vaccines available through community health centers and state health departments.

In statements, Pfizer and Moderna have talked of charging $110 to $130 per dose and plan to offer programs for people unable to afford that cost.

Should you consider getting other vaccinations when getting your COVID booster?

With colder weather coming, Philadelphia is preparing for flu season, and the health department is encouraging residents to get their flu vaccines at the same time they get their COVID vaccine, both for convenience and the added protection against another respiratory illness.

This spring, the Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which can cause serious illnesses in very young children and people over age 60. Last fall, a surge in illness from the combination of RSV, flu, and COVID cases contributed to a “tripledemic” that packed emergency rooms in the region.

The CDC recommends that parents of infants younger than 8 months who are entering their first RSV season get a dose of that vaccine. People over age 60 should also talk to their doctors about getting a dose.

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