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Health officials urge Wisconsinites to get new COVID-19 boosters

a close-up shows a medical provider administering a vaccine to a black person
Zoran Zeremski
Adobe Stock
Health officials say it is time to get your flu shot and the new COVID booster.

With temperatures cooling, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services is asking Wisconsinites to get vaccinated against a trio of respiratory illnesses this fall: COVID-19, flu and RSV.

New COVID-19 vaccines are rolling out in the coming days, following federal regulatory approval this week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the new boosters for everyone 6 months and up.

The green light comes as COVID-19 spread in the state is up in recent months, although they remain at low levels historically. According to wastewater surveillance data, average virus levels in wastewater statewide started climbing in July.

“The bigger question is, where is it going to go?” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for the DHS’s Bureau of Communicable Diseases, in a call with reporters on Wednesday. “We do know that it’s likely to increase seasonally in the winter, as we know has been the case for influenza.”

Westergaard said transmission models “have led the CDC to say that we should expect roughly similar levels of flu activity and COVID-19 activity as we did in the most recent year, 2022-2023.”

The updated vaccine is tailored to a relatively recent strain of the virus, the XBB.1.5 Omicron subvariant, which experts say closely matches currently circulating strains.

Ever since the pandemic began, the virus has been evolving.

“The beautiful, miraculous thing about our immune system is that our immune system remembers our previous infections and is prepared to mount a response and protect us if we get exposed to those same things in the future,” Westergaard said. “But with the virus changing over time, it’s a moving target.”

The updated vaccine helps prepare people’s immune systems for the strain actively spreading now.

Westergaard said the booster should help everyone, whether they are high-risk or not. People of all ages continue to experience severe outcomes, as well as long COVID, related to infection.

“There’s good reason to believe that the vaccine can prevent symptoms of long COVID,” he said.

In previous years, the federal government covered the cost of COVID-19 vaccines, purchasing them and distributing them to states. Westergaard emphasized that people can still obtain the vaccine for free.

“People still will not have to pay out of pocket for vaccines, but the process is different,” he said. “People [who] have insurance, you should go get the vaccine at a place that accepts your insurance. If you don’t have insurance, stay tuned. Look at vaccines.gov for one of the providers in the Bridge Access programs to make sure that you can get it without an out-of-pocket cost.”

Westergaard said getting flu and COVID-19 shots at the same time is safe and recommended. RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, prevention is recommended for people over the age of 60 and children under 19 months.

Vaccines.gov has the latest information on where the COVID-19 vaccine is available near you.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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