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The first vaccine gave me a sore arm for a few days. No big deal.
The second, in February 2021, felt like a truck hit me at high speed. The side effects – almost every one you’ve ever read about -- came on quickly as I had lunch the following day. Nausea hit first. A lifelong meat-and-potatoes guy, I was eating a steak sandwich. I haven’t enjoyed steak since. Then came the aches and pains, topped off by a fever that reached 102 degrees. I felt much better by the next day, but it triggered mild asthma symptoms that needed treatment for a week.
The first booster, in October 2021, felt like a smaller truck hit me at slower speed. No nausea or asthma this time. The aches and pains were similar, but the fever only made it to 100.9 degrees. All of the issues were gone in 24 hours.
Still, to say the least, for a guy who used to be able to count on one hand how many times he's had a fever as an adult, none of it was fun. Now, six months later, with COVID cases beginning to rise again, I faced the question: To get or not to get the second booster. Many friends and family members have decided not to.
Before I go on, I am over 60, weigh more than I should, and you already heard about my asthma, all of which are risk factors. I also don’t have any added protection because I have not contracted COVID (that I’m aware of). I am also a university professor, so I am constantly around students in indoor settings, which puts me at a higher risk of infection than most people.
In debating whether to get the shot, I first tried to inform myself by going to the Centers for Disease Control website. Even though I have often written about the CDC’s muddled messaging during the pandemic, I’ve spent a lifetime respecting its science.
Unfortunately, the CDC’s recommendation isn’t definitive. It now allows second boosters for people over 50, but this is what CDC Director Rochelle Walensky says: “People over the age of 50 can now get an additional booster four months after their prior dose to increase their protection further. This is especially important for those 65 and older and those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions that increase their risk for severe disease from COVID-19 as they are the most likely to benefit from receiving an additional booster dose at this time.”
That’s wishy-washy bureaucratese. The most I can take from it is that people like me might be among those “most likely to benefit” from another booster.
Then I read the transcript of an excellent conversation between my friend Alina Cho, a fellow Bulletin writer, and Dr. Jeremy Faust, another Bulletin colleague who’s an emergency room physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. Like me, Dr. Faust was not concerned about the safety of a fourth dose, but he pointed out that we are in uncharted waters if we start thinking about more doses in the future. In other words, if we get a booster now, could a fifth or a sixth shot be a problem?
Faust also raised one of my main concerns: Should I wait and try to “time” the second booster until we see a larger jump in cases? He makes a good argument that many people should, because surges are becoming increasingly predictable.
Continuing my research, I found that an Israeli study of half a million people aged 60 to 100 indicated that people who received a second booster of the Pfizer vaccination had a 78% lower death rate than those who only received one booster.
I also started paying attention to Dr. Ashish Jha’s recent comments. Throughout the pandemic, from his perch as the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, Jha has consistently been one of the most clear and sober voices on COVID. He’s now the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Response Team.
Jha confirmed what he’s been arguing over the past week during his April 17 appearance on “Fox News Sunday”: “The data out of Israel is pretty compelling for people over 60 … when people got that second booster shot four months after their first booster, what we saw was a substantial reduction not only in infections but in deaths. So, I think people over 60 should be getting it. 50 to 59, I think it’s depending on risk profile. Talk to your doctor.”
Jha also pointed out that the longer people avoid COVID, the more likely better vaccines and therapeutics will be available. “We’re going to have a new generation of vaccines, my hope is in the fall,” Jha said. “There are a lot of really promising treatments coming down the pike. None of those things are going to be available to the American people if Congress does not step up.” (Let’s hope congressional dysfunction does not get in the way of finishing off this battle and get us to a place where COVID is endemic and mostly preventable and treatable.)
Finally, not that anecdotal experience is terribly valuable, my in-laws, who are in their 80s, had only minor trouble with their second booster.
So, I decided to move ahead, and I received my fourth shot yesterday. So far, 28 hours after the vaccination, the side effects have been slightly milder than in the past. I have substantial aches and pains, chills, a somewhat tight chest, a mildly sore arm, and a 101.5 fever.
I hope I made the right choice.
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Cover photo: Me receiving the vaccine at a CVS pharmacy in South Miami on Saturday, April 16, 2022, next to a picture of vials of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (Artur Widak/Getty Images)