El Paso pharmacies are now offering booster shots to combat the two highly transmissible strains of COVID-19.

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved updated vaccines that specifically target the BA.4 and BA.5 strains of the omicron variant. These are the most contagious strains of coronavirus so far, driving up new infections and reinfections in El Paso this summer

People can make an appointment online to get their booster shot at CVS and Walgreens locations. Additional clinics and pharmacies, including those run by City of El Paso, Immunize El Paso, Costco and Sam’s Club, are preparing to distribute the new booster shots once they receive them in the coming weeks. Appointments will not be necessary at the four city-run clinics, which expect to get the boosters as early as this week, spokesperson Soraya Ayub Palacios confirmed.

El Paso has recorded more than 281,000 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, with thousands resulting in long COVID-19 disease and death. The omicron infection tends to have less severe symptoms than previous variants, but illness can still keep people away from work or school as they recover in isolation.

“It is better to receive the booster dose very soon, before the holidays because the body needs time to produce protective antibodies,” wrote El Paso health authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza in an email. “If we wait until we get exposed, then we will not get the full benefit of the vaccine.”

Who is eligible for the updated COVID-19 booster?

The FDA authorized the updated Pfizer-BioNTech booster for people ages 12 and up, and the updated Moderna booster for people ages 18 and up. Adolescents who don’t meet the age requirement should get the primary vaccine series and original booster shot because those doses still provide protection, Ocaranza recommends.

After COVID-19 vaccines were approved for children under 5 years old, two sisters were the first to get vaccinated at Immunize El Paso’s Eastside clinic on June 20. (Courtesy of Immunize El Paso)

El Paso continues to have a high vaccination rate – about 77% of the population ages 6 months and up are fully vaccinated, according to data from Texas Health and Human Services. But immunity wanes over time and public health experts recommend getting the new booster.

When should I get the new booster shot?

The FDA authorized getting the updated booster at least two months after a person receives the primary vaccine series and original booster dose. People who currently have COVID-19 can get the booster as soon as they feel better and are out of their isolation period, Ocaranza said.

People who recently had COVID-19 can consider waiting up to 3 months after symptoms appeared before getting the updated booster, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests. Most people who’ve had COVID-19 create new antibodies to fight off the disease, though this layer of natural immunity varies by person.

The CDC recommends seniors and immunocompromised people get the new booster as soon as possible.

Since boosters are most protective in the first several months, some people may want to wait until closer to Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, when health officials are bracing for a potential surge in COVID-19. But delaying the booster comes at the individual’s risk. Those trying to time their boosters should remember it takes around two weeks for a booster vaccine to reach full effectiveness. 

The CDC suggests that people, particularly adolescent or young adult males, might consider waiting four weeks after getting JYNNEOS or ACAM2000, the orthopoxvirus vaccine used for monkeypox. For more information, visit the CDC website.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...