KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The new COVID vaccine booster has been approved by the FDA, and the changes that come with the new booster could help protect East Tennessee from the virus.

Recently, Knox County, among many other counties in East Tennessee, was moved from a high community level of COVID to a medium level. While experts expect to see a resurgence of the virus in the fall and winter, Tennessee residents can take an additional step to prevent this by getting boosted. Dr. John Adams, a Covenant Health Infectious Disease Specialist, spoke with WATE to explain the Omicron booster and why it is so important.

Unlike previous boosters, the new Pfizer and Moderna boosters are bivalent, meaning they carry two mRNA of strains. This allows it to provide protection against the original COVID virus as well as the Omicron variant in a single dose according to Dr. Adams.

“The vaccine is recommended for all adults for specific immunity against the dominant omicron variant that is now circulating the U.S.” Adams said.

Adams shared that the Omicron variant is responsible for approximately 80-85% of the COVID cases throughout the United States.

For those who are 18 and older, either booster option is available, regardless of primary series of vaccination given. Primary vaccination is required first, with the vaccine series that carries only the original formula, before either of the new boosters can be administered. According to Dr. Adams, it appears that the only booster that will be offered after primary vaccination.

For those aged 12 up to 18, only the Pfizer booster has been approved, and it will be available for those who received any of the primary vaccination series, Dr. Adams said.

The new boosters also carry the added convenience of not needing to be given separately from a flu vaccine. With the vaccines being administered at the same appointment, there is no increased likelihood of side effects from the vaccines and gets the process completed in one session.

In Knox County, COVID is still taking a toll according to Dr. Adams. COVID cases are still being seen along with hospitalizations, including hospitalizations of severe cases.

“Even though Omicron is not as Virulent as the Delta strain that preceded it, that does not mean it is to be ignored. COVID is still a serious illness, especially in the elderly and the compromised.” Dr. Adams said. “It’s still very active, and I’m not ready to let my guard down.”

According to Dr. Adams, there is no need to be on the fence about either of the boosters because of the use of mRNA technology. The title stands for “messenger RNA” which refers to a type of nucleic acid.

“[Nucleic acids] are compounds that convey all various genetic signaling in all life, RNA being the type of nucleic acid that is used in coronavirus.” Dr. Adams said. “What the vaccine does is it give a very small bit of various that code for the production of viral proteins, just like the proteins that coat the outside of COVID.”

Cells use the mRNA, which signals them to create protein spikes which are presented on the cell surface, like those of the initial COVID virus as well as those of the Omicron variant Adams explained. Very importantly, mRNA degrades very rapidly in the body, and any form of RNA cannot translate into DNA Dr. Adams said. Such a process would not be possible for a mammal Adams explained.

A vaccine and new booster are available at several Covenant Health Clinics, including:

  • Claiborne Primary Care (Tazewell)
  • Fort Loudon Primary Care  (Lenoir City)
  • FamilyCare Specialists (Knoxville)
  • McNeeley Family Physicians (Clinton)
  • Southern Medical Group (Knoxville)
  • Roane County Family Practice (Harriman)

The booster and vaccines may also be available through other primary care providers as well as through pharmacies that are authorized to administer vaccines. Before going to a pharmacy or health care provider, it is suggested to call to schedule an appointment and confirm that they have the booster. Dr. Adams said that it is possible that some already have the booster or may have it soon as it was initially shipped some time last week.

Anyone who is considering the Omicron booster but is unsure for any reason should talk to their doctor with questions. The CDC has guidelines for COVID vaccinations and boosters, but also acknowledges that those in certain situations, such as those who are immunocompromised, have different recommendations for the vaccines and boosters.