Omicron-specific COVID vaccine booster now available. Here's what you need to know

Chris Green Zach Roth
Rockford Register Star

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved new COVID-19 booster vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Each is designed to fight a pair of variants plaguing much of the United States and world for the past several months — the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the Omicron variant.

Here's what you should know about the new boosters:

Why is a new booster needed?

While the vaccines developed by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have all contributed to a significant decline in serious illness and death from COVID-19, they have been less effective against newer strains of the virus such as BA.4 and BA.5, which are now the dominant variants in Illinois.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, as of Sept. 3, 87.8% of all cases in the state were of the BA.5 variety, making it urgent that protection against the worst outcomes of the virus come sooner rather than later.

How does the new booster work?

Much like the original vaccines developed in response to the original COVID-19 disease, the Pfizer and Moderna boosters work by using mRNA technology to provide an immune response against the original virus and its variants.

The new boosters are likened to seasonal flu shots in that they were developed to provide protection and attack a certain variant of the virus.

"We've had numerous variants since our first COVID vaccines, but this (Omicron) has been around the longest lately and affecting the most people," said Gail O'Neill, director of the Sangamon County Department of Public Health. "This is kind of like what they do with the seasonal flu shot – they find out what's coming across the world, headed in our direction. In this case, it's the BA.4 and BA.5 that this booster is intended to help protect us against."

Where can I get the new boosters?

COVID-19 vaccines are readily available at local pharmacies. Go to to find a vaccine provider near you. The newly authorized Bivalent COVID-19 Vaccine Booster is now available as a search selection on the site.

Boosters are also available at Walgreens and CVS, among others. Contact your local store or go online to schedule an appointment.

Who qualifies for the new boosters?

The Pfizer booster is available for those ages 12 and older, while the new Moderna booster is for those ages 18 and older.

People need to have their initial series of COVID-19 vaccinations before receiving the booster. It is recommended that people be at least two months removed from vaccinations prior to receiving the new booster.

"You need to wait at least two months after the last one because your body needs to build immunity with each one," O'Neill said. "It's chemically made up to work together."

When is a good time to get the new boosters?

Get the vaccine as soon as possible. With fall approaching, there's the possibility of a new COVID wave similar to the previous two years of the pandemic. O'Neill advised caution as the weather gets cooler and more people start gathering inside.

"We feel we're quite prepared," O'Neill said. "Unfortunately, we're quite experienced with dealing with vaccinating large numbers of people and dealing with the illnesses that can come (from COVID). We feel that people are knowledgeable, much better than in the past, and we're still thinking that there could be another peak (during) the holidays around November. Those are a little concerning, so we need people to be careful."

Rockford Register Star reporter Chris Green contributed to this report.