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COVID-19, Flu and RSV vaccines — what you need to know

Keck Medicine of USC experts discuss new recommendations for staying healthy and safe during the respiratory virus season

Note: This source alert, originally published on Aug. 24, 2023, has been updated to include information about BA.2.86, the new COVID-19 variant, and guidelines for the new COVID-19 vaccine. 

LOS ANGELES — The much-awaited fall COVID-19 vaccine will be available within the next few days. The flu shot is already available, as is a newly approved vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a virus that is especially harmful to infants and older adults.

What can we expect from the vaccines, how important are they and can you get them at the same time? Keck Medicine of USC experts have the answers. 


The new COVID-19 vaccine

The updated COVID-19 vaccine is designed as a single annual dose that targets the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 and any XBB substrains. The vaccine is offered by Pfizer and Moderna.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone six months and older be vaccinated. 

The CDC is also tracking the rise of a new variant called BA.2.86. Health experts are studying the virus to understand it better, but they still believe the new vaccine is the best way to avoid serious illness, hospitalization and death from all currently circulating COVID-19 variants.

The federal government’s COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Program, which provided free vaccinations, has ended. However, insurance should pick up the cost of COVID-19 vaccines. For those uninsured or underinsured, the CDC is launching the Bridge Access Program, which partners with state and local programs to provide and distribute free vaccines.  

-- Edward Jones-Lopez, MD, MS, is an infectious disease expert with Keck Medicine of USC. He is available for interviews in English and Spanish.  


Why COVID-19 vaccines are still needed  

Research shows about 75% of Americans have retained at least some immunity from a prior infection of the virus. However, immunity fades over time and the individual risk of getting COVID-19, despite some immunity, is varied and inconsistent. The protection offered by vaccines also diminishes over time.  

Despite advances in treating COVID-19, it still can be a difficult and deadly disease that can lead to hospitalization, long-term symptoms or death. The side effects of the vaccine have proven to be minimal, so it is recommended that everyone who is eligible gets vaccinated, especially as we are coming off an end-of-summer surge and there may be future outbreaks over the holidays.  

If you have any concerns about the vaccine due to a health condition, please consult your health care provider.  

-- Earl Strum, MD, is the medical director of Employee Health Services for Keck Medicine of USC and clinical professor of population and public health science with the Keck School of Medicine of USC.  


Timing your vaccines safely and effectively

It is recommended that everyone six months or older be vaccinated against influenza every year. The best time to get the flu shot is September or October, so you will be inoculated in plenty of time before the high-flu season of the holidays. 

It is safe to get the flu shot at the same time as your COVID-19 vaccine. For some people, one or both vaccines may result in mild flu-like symptoms that should pass within a few days. For those concerned about soreness at the site of the jab, consider getting one shot in one arm and one in the other arm to avoid overtaxing one limb. Also, if a local reaction does occur, you will know which vaccine was responsible. If not insured, you can find a free flu shot at a local health clinic, pharmacy or even grocery store.  

RSV is a highly contagious virus that causes infections of the lungs and breathing passages, particularly among the young and old. The CDC recommends adults 60 years and older receive a single dose of the RSV vaccine in consultation with their health care provider. Additionally, the FDA has approved the RSV vaccine for use in pregnant individuals to protect infants from the virus.  

Clinical trials have shown that there are minimal side effects of the vaccine, and any mild symptoms far offset the possible serious complications RSV can cause. Talk to your health care provider should you have any questions or concerns about this new vaccine, including if you can receive it at the same time as your other vaccines and your payment/insurance options.  

-- Krist Azizian, PharmD, MHA, is the chief pharmacy officer for Keck Medicine of USC.