This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Apurva Patel.
As the COVID-19 virus continues to evolve into new variants with new characteristics, researchers and vaccine developers work to counter these changes with new, more effective vaccines. The latest versions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for most people are the Pfizer and Moderna bivalent vaccines. “Bivalent vaccines” protect against both the original strain of COVID-19 and the new Omicron variants. They’re considered boosters because they are designed as an additional dose of the COVID-19 vaccine series to be given after the initial shots. These new vaccines represent another step away from the emergency phase of the pandemic and toward a new normal, where we figure out how to best live with COVID-19.
In New Jersey,the COVID-19 vaccine, including the full course of shots and boosters, is available at pharmacies, clinics, and some physicians’ offices across the state. Our relatively high vaccination rate is helping to minimize the transmission and severity of the disease, as well as its tendency to evolve into new variants. But these successes depend upon widespread vaccine participation by New Jersey citizens, so it is especially important to stay up to date with the vaccines recommended for you.
“Vaccination reduces both the spread of COVID-19 and the time it can spend reproducing in human bodies — this slows its mutation rate, which is a very good thing,” advises Dr. Apurva Patel, an ID Care infectious disease expert with insights into the state of the pandemic in New Jersey and the new bivalent vaccines.
COVID-19 Pandemic: NJ Update
The COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing in New Jersey and around the world. While State health authorities have ended most mandates for masks in indoor and outdoor settings, they still recommend wearing a mask when near others if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
Thousands of new cases are reported daily in the U.S., but unlike the panicky early days of the pandemic, we now have a variety of prevention and treatment options available to combat the disease. Several vaccines can slow transmission and prevent severe symptoms, and we have antiviral medications and monoclonal antibody treatments that can reduce the disease’s severity and duration if you do get infected. While deaths have declined markedly due to all these measures, the virus remains an ongoing threat.
“In New Jersey,” Dr. Patel reports, “we’ve seen a recent increase in cases over the past few weeks, with about 1,500 cases every day statewide and a current rate of transmission (RT) that is greater than 1. This means that cases will likely increase in the near future. Managing and reducing this caseload is where the new bivalent vaccines become so important.”
Overall, about 80% of New Jerseyans are considered fully vaccinated, which ranks the state among the top 10 in the nation. That’s a remarkable achievement, but experts like those at ID Care recommend continuing to expand the number of vaccinated people in order to slow and potentially stop the progression of the disease.
According to Dr. Patel, “New Jersey has done a good job rolling out the COVID-19 vaccines, but many adults and children still need their latest booster doses. Keeping current with recommended COVID-19 vaccination is the main preventive action we should all be taking.”
What Makes a Bivalent Vaccine Different?
A bivalent vaccine causes the immune system to create antibodies to protect against two different virus strains or variants. Both the Pfizer and Moderna bivalent vaccines protect against the original COVID-19 strain and the Omicron strain, including the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-strains. The previous COVID-19 vaccines were monovalent vaccines, designed primarily to counter just one strain.
Otherwise, the bivalent vaccines for COVID-19 are very similar in effect to each other and to previous vaccine formulations,” Dr. Patel said, “so you can expect a similar experience to your last vaccine shot.”
Bivalent Vaccine Safety
Even though all COVID-19 vaccines have emergency FDA approval and have not undergone the typical full FDA review and approval process, Dr. Patel and the consensus of health authorities agree that the bivalent vaccines are generally very safe. They were developed with proven technology and have demonstrated remarkable safety and effectiveness in millions of recipients worldwide over the last two years.
People who have immuno-compromising conditions and comorbidities are at higher risk for developing a severe case of COVID-19, so for them, it’s even more important to stay up to date with vaccination.
What About Myocarditis and Menstrual Cycle Effects?
Myocarditis or inflammation of the heart is a very rare side effect of the COVID-19 vaccines. Most cases have been reported in adolescent or young adult males within several days of receiving the vaccine dose. Patients who develop these symptoms tend to respond well to medicine and rest, and generally feel better quickly, within a few days.
Regarding menstrual cycle effects, a recent study showed that COVID-19 vaccination was associated with an average increase in menstrual cycle length of less than a day. These effects were seen to be relatively small and temporary.
“If there’s one thing to keep in mind, it’s that the new bivalent vaccines are safe and effective against COVID-19. I encourage all eligible people to get up to date with primary and booster doses when they are due. This not only protects you from ever needing to see us for complications of severe COVID-19, but it protects your friends and family and helps prevent the spread of the disease.”
Bivalent Booster Common Side Effects
The most common side-effects from bivalent booster shots include:
- Injection site tenderness
- Muscle pain
These symptoms are generally mild and dissipate within a few days.
Do More-Severe Side Effects Mean the Vaccine is Working Well?
Some research data indicates that people who have side effects that are more severe tend to have a greater antibody response to the vaccines. However, this doesn’t mean that a lack of side effects indicates the vaccine did not work. Also, there’s really no way to predict who will experience side effects, severe or mild.
“The bottom line is,” said Dr. Patel, “regardless of the presence or absence of side effects, the overwhelming majority of people who get the vaccine are protected from severe COVID-19. The only reason to avoid the bivalent vaccine is if you’ve had a true allergic reaction to previous COVID-19 vaccines, which is very rare,” he said. “All of the scientific data amassed over the course of the pandemic support the fact that the biggest risk of not being vaccinated is that you may develop severe COVID-19 disease, which can lead to COVID-19 pneumonia and complications such as respiratory failure and sometimes death.”
Is It Safe to Get a Bivalent Vaccine Along with Other Vaccines?
A COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot alone is generally safe, and the CDC recently published a study showing that, when administered simultaneously, both the flu vaccine and the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine are safe and effective.
Dr. Patel noted that “there was a slight increase in side-effect reactions, but generally, these were mild and went away quickly. So far, there is no indication that the monovalent or bivalent COVID-19 vaccines conflict with other vaccines in any significant way.”
When to Get Your COVID-19 Bivalent Vaccine
Dr. Patel advises that “you should get your bivalent booster dose as soon as recommended. There’s generally no good reason to wait. Don’t worry about seasonality or timing for the holidays — you should get boosted on time, without delay.”
Currently, the CDC recommends that people complete their primary series of COVID-19 vaccinations with the monovalent Moderna, Pfizer, or Novavax vaccines, followed by a booster dose with a bivalent vaccine at least eight weeks after the last primary dose.
Dr. Patel advises that “this waiting period allows the vaccine to take hold in the body, providing the most robust protection against infection and severe disease.”
People who recently had COVID-19 illness should wait about 90 days before getting the booster shot.
Where are Bivalent Vaccines Available in New Jersey?
The bivalent vaccines are being administered at retail pharmacies and facilities affiliated with the New Jersey Department of Health, as well as in certain federally qualified health centers, local clinics, and doctors’ offices. While the CDC recommends getting your initial, primary vaccine shots from the same vaccine producer, this is not the case for bivalent boosters. They work just as well regardless of maker, and there is no problem if your primary series vaccine was made by a different manufacturer than your bivalent booster shot.
Visit vaccines.gov to find nearby vaccination locations based on your zip code, select the bivalent booster of your choice, and then go get vaccinated..
Are New COVID-19 Variants and Vaccines Coming?
Like any virus, COVID-19’s evolution and mutation can lead to new variants, some of which may be able to evade the protection offered by existing vaccines and other treatments. For this reason, it’s important that we continue to tweak the vaccines and stay up to date with vaccination to counter these newer variants.
“It’s still unclear how often we’ll need new COVID-19 vaccines,” said Dr. Patel, “but it may be similar to the situation with influenza vaccines, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we wind up getting annual vaccine shots for COVID-19, too.”
Unlike early in the pandemic, COVID-19 treatments have been available for many months, including the very effective antiviral treatments Paxlovid and Remdesivir for hospitalized patients. Monoclonal antibody treatments are also available and useful. Unfortunately, the newer COVID-19 variants seem to evade some of the protection offered by these monoclonal antibodies, reducing their effectiveness. For this reason, it’s even more important that everyone get boosted with the bivalent vaccine.
What Type of Doctor Is Best for COVID-19?
Most people will see their primary doctor first when they develop symptoms of COVID-19, but as far as specialists go, an infectious disease doctor like those at ID Care will have the most training and experience in diagnosing and treating COVID-19.
“More complicated or challenging cases are often referred to us for treatment by primary care providers,” Dr. Patel said, “because we have the experience and expertise to handle the toughest cases.”
How Does ID Care Address COVID-19?
Regular vaccination booster shots are available from pharmacies and primary care doctors. ID Care does not dispense them. Instead, the practice is focused on education and the treatment of more complex cases requiring additional medications.
According to Dr. Patel, ID Care “offers outpatient treatments such as Paxlovid, and we’ve also been administering the prophylactic monoclonal antibody Evusheld to patients who are at high risk for severe COVID-19 illness.”
ID Care also offers a wide range of services including the ability to check for COVID-19 with very accurate rapid molecular testing. Results are usually available within 15 minutes, and the highly qualified doctors and staff are fully equipped to begin treating the disease.