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UVM epidemiologist answers questions about recent COVID uptick, new vaccine

A vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is shown  at the University of Vermont Medical Center, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.
University of Vermont Medical Center
An updated COVID-19 vaccine, which will be a new booster option with more protection against current variants, should be available in six weeks.

COVID-19 cases nationwide are starting to tick up, and Vermont is seeing that trend, too. Dr. Tim Plante, a general internist, epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine, answered questions about this newest wave, and when you can plan to get your next booster.

What is causing the current rise in COVID-19 cases?

These new COVID-19 cases are starting to be comprised of a new variant, EG.5, which Plante said is on its way to being the dominant strain in the U.S. The variant is related to others in the omicron family.

"It's thought to evade antibodies from prior vaccines and prior infections," Plante said, which is leading to more cases after a quiet stretch. However, he also said it seems to not be more transmissible than previous variants, which is a good thing.

How bad is it in Vermont?

Plante said the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington currently has fewer than 10 patients with COVID-19.

"That number is pretty low to begin with, but it's maybe a few more people than have been there," Plante said.

However, Plante said at this moment in time, it's hard to tell if that's a trend or a blip.

When will the newest booster be available?

Plante said the next updated vaccine is expected to be available at the end of September — just about six weeks away. This booster will be the third COVID-19 vaccine, made to provide protection against these new variants.

The most recent updated vaccine, which became available in 2022, won't provide as much protection as this new one due to the changes in variants that are circulating.

Should I get the new booster? When should I get it?

"The shot from last year ... it had a little bit of the original vaccine and it had the BA4/5 variant in it, which is not circulating anymore," Plante said. "If you were to get it, you probably would ... get a little bit of protection from it. But I think the better bang for your buck is waiting another six weeks, wash your hands, wear a mask, you know, be careful, and get the new vaccine that's coming out — the third vaccine that's ever been made — in six weeks, which targets the currently circulating virus. That's the one we want to be getting into arms."

While this new vaccine wasn't made specifically with the currently-dominant "Eris" variant, it is made with other Omicron descendants — like Eris is — and it will provide more protection than the old boosters, although Plante said those ones will still provide reasonable protection if you were to get it now.

So, if you've been thinking about getting a booster, Plante said it may be beneficial to wait and get the one that is predicted to provide more protection against this current spike.

If you've recently had COVID-19, the general consensus is that it gives you some sort of protection, as the data shows it's unlikely to be reinfected within three months. So if you've recently had — or currently have — COVID-19, you may not need the booster right away in September.

"We know that when people get COVID, your immune system gets trained to fight off COVID, which is what a vaccine does," Plante said.

If you get last year's booster, Plante said it's also likely you won't be eligible for another, new vaccine in six weeks.

If you received the 2022 booster when it came out, it may be time to get this new one. Plante compared it to the annual flu shot: "The flu shot makes a whole lot of sense to people. 'Did you get your flu shot this year? Yes or no?' That's where we are with COVID shots now, 'Did you get your COVID shot this year?' The year starts in the fall for COVID," Plante said.

Can I use expired COVID tests?

"It depends, is the answer," Plante said.

When at-home tests, like BinaxNOW, became available, they had short shelf-lives because they were new. But now that more information is available, some of those expiration dates may have been extended.

The FDA has information on the extended expiration dates listed here.

Plante said that if a test is really, really old, it could give you a wrong answer, "but it won't give you a false positive." It's much more likely you could get a false negative result.

But... "If that (old test) tells you you have COVID, you probably have COVID," Plante said.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.