The Atlantic Daily: Not Everyone Needs to Rush for a Booster

The United States is reportedly gearing up to authorize COVID-19 boosters for all adults. Should you snap one up or wait? Here’s what to consider.

A registered nurse draws up a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 booster at Park Avenue Health Center in Arlington, MA on November 9, 2021. Nursing home leaders are now facing another sobering reality. Immunity is waning from COVID shots administered to many of their residents and staff early this year. Just 27 percent of nursing home staffers had received boosters by late October, and now many nursing homes are trying to convince workers to get their boosters. In hopes of creating as much protection in their facility as possible, Park Avenue is offering boosters to any staff, resident or residents' family members who want them.
Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe / Getty

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If the booster rollout is a TV show (as my colleague Rachel Gutman once joked), this evening brought a juicy—if not entirely unexpected—plot twist: According to The New York Times, the FDA and CDC are moving to make Pfizer boosters available to all adults, not just those at higher risk. And they reportedly plan to move quickly, with an authorization coming as soon as this week.

So should you rush out for your extra dose?

To help you figure out what’s right in your situation, I spoke with three reporters who have been covering the vaccine rollout—Sarah Zhang, Katherine J. Wu, and Rachel Gutman—to weigh the pros and cons of running out immediately versus sitting tight.

Why hurry
  • The shot will, well, give you a boost. You’re likely already well protected from severe disease, hospitalization, and death thanks to your first course, Rachel pointed out. But the early science suggests that extra doses help your body produce additional antibodies, perhaps lowering your risk of infection.  

  • You’re in a higher-risk group. If you’re an older American or have additional health conditions that make you particularly vulnerable, the case is more clear-cut. That extra protection is extra important, Katie told me, because “your tank has drained a little faster than other people’s.”

  • You’re around higher-risk people. Parents who are trying to protect unvaccinated kids, for example, might consider using a booster as an additional precaution, Sarah told me.

  • You plan to gather over the holidays. The winter chill moves celebrations indoors, elevating risk. On average, antibodies peak three weeks post-booster, Rachel explained, though it varies person to person. So if you’re concerned about keeping your family safe at Christmastime, now might be a good option.

  • Breakthrough infections are inconvenient at best. Even for those who are not in the high-risk bucket, boosters can help stave off milder breakthroughs and asymptomatic disease—a real boon for individuals when a positive COVID test can be a logistical nightmare. “A breakthrough infection can still be really disruptive for your life,” even if it’s mild, Sarah Zhang reminded us.

Why wait
  • We don’t know how to optimize vaccine timing yet. Boosters haven’t been available that long, so the science on timing is preliminary. “It’s not an argument for or against. It’s just a fact that nobody has yet pinpointed the most effective time to get a booster, if at all, if you’re a healthy adult,” Rachel told me. And boosting too early might not be ideal: “After you show an immune system a vaccine for the first time, your cells study up on it,” Katie explained. “If you boost too soon, you might catch those cells while they’re still in the early learning process and not get the most juice you can get out of that squeeze.”

  • Extra doses mean extra chances of side effects. Getting a booster could increase your risk of rare side effects, Katie explained: “There’s a reason we don’t boost unnecessarily.” (But that, she added, is not a reason to not get jabbed if you do need it.) And, of course, boosting means subjecting yourself to the more common side effects, such as fatigue and fever, for another round, Rachel explained.

  • Keep the bigger picture in mind. Boosters aren’t a “silver bullet,” Katie reminded me. And, though this won’t be solved by you forgoing an extra shot, there are lots of people in the world who haven’t even gotten their first dose yet. That’s worth remembering.

Still have questions? Tell us.

The news in three sentences:

Kyle Rittenhouse

(1) U.S. President Joe Biden met (virtually) with Chinese President Xi Jinping. (2) America’s capital city is lifting its mask mandate in most indoor spaces. (3) The jury continues to deliberate in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Today’s Atlantic-approved activity:

Stop caring what other people think.

A break from the news:

Actually, Kristen Stewart has always been a great actor.

Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.