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WHO reverses course, now says COVID boosters needed

The World Health Organization says boosters shots provide strong protection against severe disease and death from the omicron variant.
A healthcare worker administers an AstraZeneca booster shot for COVID 19 at a vaccination center in Guatemala City on March 1.
A healthcare worker administers an AstraZeneca booster shot for COVID 19 at a vaccination center in Guatemala City on March 1. [ MOISES CASTILLO | AP ]
Published Mar. 8

GENEVA — An expert group convened by the World Health Organization said Tuesday it “strongly supports urgent and broad access” to booster doses of COVID-19 vaccine amid the global spread of omicron, capping a reversal of the U.N. agency’s repeated insistence last year that boosters weren’t necessary for healthy people and contributed to vaccine inequity.

In a statement, WHO said its expert group concluded that immunization with authorized COVID-19 vaccines provide high levels of protection against severe disease and death amid the continuing spread of the hugely contagious omicron variant. WHO eased back on its earlier position in January by saying boosters were recommended once countries had adequate supplies and after protecting their most vulnerable.

It said vaccination, including the use of boosters, was especially important for people at risk of severe disease.

Last year, WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for a moratorium on booster doses while dozens of countries embarked on administering the doses, saying rich countries should immediately donate those vaccines to poor countries instead. WHO scientists said at the time they would continue to evaluate incoming data.

The updated recommendations came from an 18-member advisory group that focuses on the impact of “variants of concern” — the most worrying variants, like omicron — and assesses the vaccines’ effectiveness against them.

Numerous scientific studies have proven that booster doses of authorized vaccines help restore waning immunity and protect against serious COVID-19. Booster programs in rich countries including Britain, Canada and the U.S. have been credited with preventing the surge in omicron infections from spilling over into hospitals and cemeteries.

WHO said it is continuing to monitor the global spread of omicron, including a “stealth” version known as BA.2, which has been documented to have re-infected some people after an initial case of omicron. There’s mixed research on whether it causes more severe disease, but vaccines appear just as effective against it.

WHO noted that the current authorized COVID-19 vaccines are all based on the strain that was first detected in Wuhan, China more than three years ago.

“Since then, there has been continuous and substantial virus evolution and it is likely that this evolution will continue, resulting in the emergence of new variants,” the agency said. It added that coronavirus vaccines would likely need to be updated.

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How to get tested

Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.

Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.

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The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.

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How to get vaccinated

The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:

Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.

Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.

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More coronavirus coverage

OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.

KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.

PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.

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