You may have heard that there have been changes to the COVID-19 vaccine for this fall and winter. And maybe you’re wondering, should I get another COVID-19 shot?

The answer is yes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone over 6 months old get at least one dose of the updated COVID-19 vaccine. Below, we share information about the new vaccines and why you should get one.

What’s changed with the new COVID-19 vaccine

COVID-19 vaccines were updated in September of 2023 to provide protection against the variants that are most common right now. The new COVID-19 vaccines are monovalent, meaning they contain components from one variant of the coronavirus – the XBB.1.5 subvariant of Omicron. While the XBB.1.5 subvariant is no longer the most common strain, early research shows that the updated vaccines provide protection against the variants of EG.5 (Eris) and BA.2.86 (Pirola), the most common strains that are circulating right now.

The vaccines that came out in the fall of 2022 were bivalent, meaning that they included components from two strains of the coronavirus – the original Wuhan strain and the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants. The bivalent COVID-19 vaccines have been deauthorized, so they’re no longer approved for use in the United States.

Monovalent vs. bivalent vaccines: Is one better?

It may seem like bivalent vaccines would be better since they protect against more variants of a virus, but that’s not always the case. It can depend on which variants of a virus will be circulating during a single year. Sometimes scientists think that one virus strain will be responsible for the most infections, so you only need a monovalent vaccine. But other times, there could be multiple strains in the community, so there’s a bivalent vaccine. This is why flu shots are sometimes monovalent, but other times bivalent.

The most important thing is that the vaccine protects against the strains that are circulating – and for the upcoming months, scientist believe that the circulating COVID-19 strains will be related to the XBB.1.5 Omicron subvariant.

Plus, it’s possible that including components of the original Wuhan strain could make it harder for your body to build the best protection against the current strains of COVID-19. Your body may build immunity to the original virus instead of building immunity to the new subvariants. What’s going to be most beneficial in the coming months is protection against the new subvariants.

Does the need for a new COVID-19 vaccine mean that previous COVID-19 vaccines weren’t safe and effective?

Absolutely not. The need for updated vaccines is not a reflection of the safety and efficacy of the previous COVID-19 vaccines. It’s just that COVID-19 continues to change – and we’ll get the best protection from vaccines that are updated to protect against the strains of coronavirus that are currently most common.

There’s no denying that previous COVID-19 vaccines saved countless lives during the pandemic – and continue to reduce the chance of severe illness. But it’s also true that current strains of the coronavirus are a lot different than the strains that the original vaccines and the bivalent vaccines were based on.

Since the new COVID-19 vaccine includes components based on the Omicron variant XBB.1.5, it should offer even better protection against COVID-19 in your community.

How many updated COVID-19 vaccines are there?

The two mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) have been updated. The Novavax vaccine, a protein subunit vaccine, hasn’t yet been updated for the XBB.1.5 subvariant. However, an updated Novavax vaccine may be available in the coming months.

Is the new COVID-19 vaccine considered a booster?

No, these new vaccines aren’t considered boosters. Instead, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is calling them “updated COVID-19 vaccines.” So, what’s the difference?

This updated vaccine is different than a booster because it’s a new formula, and not part of a series. Most people only need one dose of the new vaccine – even if they’ve never had a COVID-19 vaccine before.

A booster is an additional dose of vaccine that you get when the protection of the original vaccine starts to decrease. Getting a booster helps to bring a vaccine back up to the original level of effectiveness and extend the length of protection.

During the pandemic, the CDC recommended booster shots of the original vaccine because there were an increasing number of COVID-19 infections (and cases of breakthrough COVID-19).

Will you need a yearly COVID-19 vaccine?

There have been a lot of questions about whether you’ll need another COVID-19 vaccine in the future. For example, will you need an annual COVID-19 vaccine in the same way that you get a yearly flu shot?
At this point, we don’t know for sure. It’s likely that the 2023-2024 COVID-19 vaccine is the first in a line of yearly vaccines. But it will depend on how COVID-19 continues in our community.

Why should you get the updated COVID-19 vaccine?

COVID-19 looks a lot different than it did a few years ago. Symptoms of the current subvariants are usually less severe. In fact, it can be hard to tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19. Still, there are good reasons to get the updated COVID-19 vaccine.

Boost your waning immunity

You probably don’t have the protection against COVID-19 that you once did. You can build up immunity to a virus in one of two ways: getting a vaccination or getting sick with the virus. You likely developed immunity to COVID-19 in one (or both) of these ways. But immunity wanes over time, and for most people, it’s been a while since they got sick or vaccinated (only about 20% of people got the bivalent booster that came out last fall).

Protect against long COVID

For some people, the lingering long haul COVID-19 symptoms are worse than being sick with the coronavirus. There are over 200 possible symptoms of long COVID that can affect your entire body, including your lungs, brain and heart – and these symptoms can last for weeks, months or even years. Getting the new vaccine can reduce your chance of long-haul symptoms, even if you get sick. Studies show that, in adults, the chance of getting long COVID is 50% lower if you’re vaccinated.

Prepare for what’s next

COVID-19 continues to change. In the last year alone, there have been more than 25 different variants – some more similar than others. While it’s unlikely that there will be a new variant that has the serious symptoms of Delta and earlier variants, we don’t know for sure. We also don’t know if new variants will be more likely to cause lingering symptoms like chronic fatigue after COVID-19.

How many COVID-19 doses do you need?

It’s recommended that everyone 6 months old and older get at least one new mRNA COVID-19 vaccine. Most adults, teens and older kids only need one dose. But younger children, older adults and people who are immunocompromised may need more than one dose.

If you’re vaccinated

  • 5 years and older – One dose of any updated mRNA vaccine, at least two months after a previous dose
  • 6 months to 4 years – One or two doses of an updated mRNA vaccine, depending on the previous COVID-19 vaccine

If you aren’t vaccinated or fully vaccinated

  • 5 years and older – One dose of an mRNA vaccine
  • 6 months to 4 years – Two or three doses given 3-8 weeks apart. If your child is in the middle of a vaccination series, it will be completed with the updated mRNA vaccine of the same brand whenever possible

If you’re immunocompromised

  • Three doses given 3-8 weeks apart. If you or your child is in the middle of a series, it will be completed with an mRNA vaccine. If needed, additional doses will be given at 2-month intervals

Why do people who are immunocompromised need more doses?

For most people, receiving one dose of the updated COVID-19 vaccine will cause enough of an initial immune system response to protect them from the new variants. But for people with weakened immune systems, one dose of the updated vaccine may not produce enough protective antibodies to prevent them from getting sick. In these cases, people may need more doses of the new COVID-19 vaccine for greater protection.

You may be considered immunocompromised if you:

  • Had an organ transplant
  • Had stem cell transplants within the past two years
  • Have severe primary immunodeficiency
  • Are being treated for active cancer
  • Have advanced or untreated HIV
  • Are being treated with drugs that may suppress your immune system, such as high-dose corticosteroids

If you’re immunocompromised (or think you might be) make a primary care appointment to talk to your doctor.

Possible side effects of the updated COVID-19 vaccines

Do you remember the side effects that you had with your initial vaccine dose(s)? Chances are that your side effects will be very similar this time around. But there’s also a chance you’ll have fewer side effects if you were previously vaccinated or if you previously had COVID-19.

For most people, the common side effects are usually fatigue and feeling pain around where they got the shot. Less commonly, people experience headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea. These side effects usually only last a couple days.

The Novavax vaccine is still an option

While the updated mRNA vaccines are more effective and considered the preferred option, the Novavax vaccine is an option for people 12 years and older who are unable or uninterested in getting an mRNA vaccine. But the Novavax vaccine may not be offered where you normally get your vaccinations. So, make sure to check availability if that’s the vaccine you’d like to get.

When will the new vaccines be available? Here’s where to get a COVID-19 vaccine

The updated mRNA vaccines are now available at HealthPartners – you can schedule a vaccine appointment now. And if you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet, you can get a COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot at the same time.

Are COVID-19 vaccines still free?

If you have private or public health insurance, the new COVID-19 vaccine should be free for you if you get it from an in-network provider. If you get the vaccine from a provider outside your network, you may have to pay part of the cost. So, make sure that you check your coverage before getting your vaccine.

If you don’t have insurance, you may still be able to get the updated COVID-19 vaccine for free. The CDC’s Bridge Access Program and the Vaccines for Children Program will provide vaccines at no cost, at least through 2024.

Get the best protection against new COVID-19 variants

Since the COVID-19 vaccine has been available, the recommendations on the doses you need for the best protection have changed over time. These changes are a good thing because as vaccine experts have learned more about the coronavirus and its variants, they've been able to make improvements.

If you have been putting off getting vaccinated, now is a perfect time since most people only need one dose. And if you’ve already been vaccinated, getting the new COVID-19 vaccine will help ensure the best protection against the current variants of the coronavirus.