On Sept. 12, 2023, advisers of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention formally authorized new COVID vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer (also known as Comirnaty). The vaccines are now starting to roll out across the United States, amid a rise in COVID cases locally and nationally. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Unlike previous rounds of the vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aren’t calling this latest shot a “booster” — so you won’t see that language online around appointments. Instead, they’re referring to it as a “new” or “updated” COVID vaccine for 2023 that’s been updated to better target a more recent strain of the coronavirus than previous vaccines: This time, the omicron variant known as XBB.1.5.
Keep reading for what you need to know about the new COVID booster shots from Pfizer and Moderna and how to find a free COVID vaccine near you. Or jump straight to:
The shots have now transitioned into the traditional health care market. So for most people with health insurance, their insurer will now cover the cost of getting the new COVID vaccine direct, much like your plan might cover your flu shot — and this is why many county public health officials are urging people to first seek out the new vaccine via their health care provider. (It’s also why those county-run vaccination sites that were so common at the height of the pandemic will now not exist on the same scale, and will primarily be targeted toward folks without insurance.)
The bottom line is that your updated vaccine should still be free, the way COVID vaccines have been throughout the pandemic. But because of delays in the rollout, some people have reported being asked to pay at pharmacies for their new COVID vaccine.
This change in who pays for your COVID vaccine, and how, has already caused issues for folks seeking vaccines, as their public health officials have urged them to. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, some Medicare patients have found themselves being charged large sums to receive the vaccine at pharmacies, when the costs should have been covered. Representatives from the pharmacies and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services attributed this to a glitch in the system around billing codes, with a CVS spokesperson telling the Chronicle that some “payers are still updating their systems and may not yet be set up to cover the updated COVID-19 vaccines.” If this happens to you, CVS says that a pharmacist can help you reschedule your appointment for a later date.
Sara Rosenbaum, a health law and policy professor at George Washington University, also told The Guardian that some pharmacies did not initially stock enough of these new vaccines because they weren’t sure how large the public demand for the shots would be. Corporations “fear that vaccines will sit around on their shelves unused,” Rosenbaum said.
Why can’t I get my new COVID vaccine at a pharmacy if I have Kaiser?
Another reason you might be charged for your new COVID vaccine right now, or denied the shot if you refuse to pay out of pocket: if you get your health care through a health system like Kaiser Permanente.
Usually, if you have health insurance, you should be able to give your insurer’s details at a pharmacy vaccination appointment to have the cost of your shot billed to them. Health systems like Kaiser are the exception to this, and so you almost certainly won’t be able to get your new COVID vaccine at a pharmacy like CVS or Walgreens, the way you can’t get your flu shot covered by Kaiser at a pharmacy either.
Instead, “Kaiser Permanente recommends members receive their updated COVID-19 vaccinations at a Kaiser Permanente facility,” a Kaiser spokesperson told KQED, adding that the cost of the new COVID vaccines would be covered “according to the coverage of routine vaccinations provided by members’ plan benefits when administered at a Kaiser Permanente facility.” This has meant that those who have health insurance through Kaiser have faced a longer wait for their new COVID vaccine than folks with other types of insurance, unless they were prepared to pay these large costs up-front. CVS, for example, charges $190.99 for the new COVID vaccine “if CVS is not in network with your insurance plan.”
Since the new Novavax COVID vaccine was authorized several weeks after Moderna and Pfizer’s, you should expect it to take a little while for Novavax supply to reach health care providers and vaccination locations.
How is this new COVID vaccine different from the last one I got?
The last COVID booster shots were offered back in September 2022. This “bivalent vaccine” was so-called because it targeted both the original strain of the coronavirus and the widespread BA.4/BA.5 omicron subvariants, and was also referred to as “the omicron booster.”
This new fall COVID vaccine is an updated shot that supersedes and replaces the bivalent booster, which you should now consider outdated. The “recipe” for this new vaccine will address a single, newer target: The XBB.1.5 subvariant of omicron.
XBB.1.5 is no longer the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the United States — so what does that mean for how much this new COVID vaccine is going to protect you from the newer strains doing the rounds, like EG.5 (unofficially called “Eris” by some online)? Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF, says that because EG.5 and other strains like it are all subvariants of the omicron variant, this means that you should think of these most recent COVID variants as “all kind of flavors of XBB.”
“COVID hasn’t really changed too much. … since winter to now,” said Chin-Hong. And because recent strains have “just been variations on the theme,” he says, the fact that this updated vaccine is targeted towards XBB.1.5 means it “is going to be pretty decent at targeting these variants” too.
“We have more tools than ever to prevent the worst outcomes from COVID-19,” said CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen when authorizing the shots on Sept. 12, after review and approval by the FDA and the CDC’s advisory panel. The agency was, she said, “now recommending updated COVID-19 vaccination for everyone 6 months and older to better protect you and your loved ones.” Unlike with the bivalent booster, there is no specific guidance for certain age groups, but, as with other vaccines, children under 12 will be offered a pediatric (smaller) dose of this vaccine.
I know the new COVID vaccine is recommended for basically everyone. But do I really need it?
“If somebody’s timing their vaccine around the holidays, or a big trip? In addition to the chronic symptoms, that might be a justification for some young folks,” said UCSF’s Chin-Hong. “Risk is very personal.”
Ultimately, if you’re unsure whether you should get the updated COVID vaccine, or when you should get it, as with all matters relating to your health it’s best to speak directly to your health care provider about the best options available to you.
What’s the cost of the vaccine, whether I have insurance or not?
The CDC says people without insurance will be able to visit the federal government’s vaccines.gov site to find a location where they can get the new COVID vaccine for free. When searching for a vaccination location near you using this site, be sure to check the box marked “Participating in Bridge Access Program.”
Uninsured children ages 18 and under can still get free COVID vaccines — and other free immunizations — as part of the Vaccines for Children Program.
I got COVID recently. Do I have to wait before getting my new COVID vaccine?
This means, that if you had a COVID infection after mid-June 2023, you may wish to delay getting your new COVID vaccine until you hit your three-month mark. But as with all matters relating to your health, it’s best to speak directly to your health care provider about the best option for you.
Should I get my 2023 flu shot at the same time as my new COVID vaccine?
It’s totally fine, and safe, to get your flu shot at the same time as your new COVID vaccine, and you’ll often find that COVID vaccine appointments will prompt you to “add on” a flu shot at the same session — especially at pharmacies. Although, if you’re trying to schedule your kid’s vaccinations, the CDC advises that you first talk to your pediatrician about the best schedule for the COVID and flu vaccines (and now the RSV — respiratory syncytial virus — preventive treatment too).
That said, the recommendations medical professionals make about when to get a flu shot are based on the fact that, like with your COVID vaccine, it takes about two weeks after you get vaccinated for antibodies to develop and provide protection against the virus.
This 2023–2024 season, the CDC says that “ideally” September and October are good months to get your flu shot. UCSF’s Chin-Hong says that his “optimal sweet point” for getting this shot is “sometime before Halloween” — but notes that this is based on traditional predictions of flu season starting in November and peaking around January or February. If flu cases start to rise earlier, you should seek out your flu shot sooner, he says.
All this means that if you can trust yourself to remember to seek out your flu shot by the end of October (or schedule an appointment for October in advance), you might consider getting your new COVID vaccine earlier, separately from your flu shot. And if not — or if life is getting hectic, and a two-for-one vaccination appointment ensures that you actually will get your shots rather than forgetting — go ahead and get your COVID and flu shots at the same time, when you can.
Can I ‘mix and match’ COVID vaccines for my new shot?
So, for instance, someone 5 or older who originally got the Moderna vaccine can now get a new updated vaccine from either Moderna or Pfizer — and vice versa.
Where can I find a new COVID vaccine this fall?
Don’t assume you’ll be proactively contacted about getting the new COVID vaccine.
Remember that a certain location may only be offering a certain brand of the new vaccine, whether that’s Moderna or Pfizer (or soon, Novavax). So be sure that the location you’re walking into or making an appointment for offers the type of updated vaccine you need or want, particularly if you’re trying to find an updated COVID vaccine for a child under 5. Read more about “mixing and matching” COVID vaccines.
Also make sure the appointment you schedule for your new vaccine is at least two months after your last COVID vaccine shot, or three months after your last COVID infection. (When you’re making an appointment for a new vaccine, you’ll likely be asked for the date of your last COVID vaccine dose or booster dose for this reason, to ensure you’re not getting your shot too soon.)
1. Find a new COVID vaccine through a local pharmacy
For future reference, pharmacies are usually the first place new vaccine shots become available when announced because pharmacies take their cue from the federal government, not the state. Several pharmacy chains, including CVS and Walgreens, are now offering online appointments for the new COVID vaccine, and some may also accept walk-in appointments with no prescheduling required.
Remember that pharmacies can’t vaccinate kids under 3, except for CVS MinuteClinics, who are permitted to vaccinate kids as young as 18 months old.
If you have health insurance, you should be able to give your insurer’s details at a pharmacy vaccination appointment to have the cost of your shot billed to them. One big exception to this: If you get your health care through a health system like Kaiser Permanente, you almost certainly won’t be able to get your new COVID vaccine for free (i.e., covered by your insurance) at a pharmacy like CVS or Walgreens, the way you can’t get your flu shot covered by Kaiser at a pharmacy either.
Instead, “Kaiser Permanente recommends members receive their updated COVID-19 vaccinations at a Kaiser Permanente facility,” a Kaiser spokesperson told KQED, and that the cost of the new COVID vaccines would be covered “according to the coverage of routine vaccinations provided by members’ plan benefits when administered at a Kaiser Permanente facility.” Otherwise, you’ll almost certainly be asked to pay out of pocket to get your shot at a pharmacy.
If you don’t have health insurance, some pharmacies will be offering appointments that don’t require health insurance. Visit the federal government’s vaccines.gov website to search for a location near you, and be sure to check the box marked “Participating in Bridge Access Program,” (the name of the federal program that’s funding new COVID vaccines for uninsured people). For example, a CVS spokesperson confirmed to KQED that the pharmacy chain is participating in the CDC’s Bridge Access Program.
2. Find a new COVID vaccine through your health care provider, when available
If you have health insurance, check with your health care provider to see whether they can offer you an updated COVID vaccine. The San Francisco Department of Public Health stresses that “Health care providers are the first place to go for COVID-19 and flu health care.” That said, you could still be looking at a wait for supplies to reach your health care provider, even this long after the new shots were first authorized.
If you don’t have health insurance but get medical care through a city- or county-run provider, you should check with that location to see whether they can offer you the new COVID vaccine.
In addition to trying to talk with your health care provider directly, check the website of your provider to see whether it’s offering the ability to make appointments, and sign up for their vaccine notifications if that’s an option.
3. Find a new COVID vaccine through vaccines.gov
Visit the federal government’s vaccines.gov website to see when appointments for the new updated COVID vaccine in or near your zip code become available. Right now, the majority of Bay Area appointments visible on vaccines.gov appear to be at pharmacies.
Using vaccines.gov is also the CDC’s recommendation for finding a vaccination site if you’re uninsured. When searching for a vaccination location near you using this site, be sure to check the box marked “Participating in Bridge Access Program,” because that’s the name of the federal program that’ll be funding new COVID vaccines for uninsured people.
4. Find a new Moderna or Pfizer COVID vaccine through My Turn
Throughout the pandemic, My Turn has been the state’s site for all Californians to schedule vaccination appointments or find walk-in locations, regardless of health insurance status.
Because the new COVID vaccines are now being distributed through the traditional health care market, My Turn’s services are now geared primarily toward uninsured people. The site’s homepage says that “if you don’t have insurance or your plan doesn’t cover routine vaccinations, My Turn will provide a list of locations that offer vaccines at no cost for the uninsured.”
If you visit the My Turn page, select “Make an Appointment.” My Turn will ask for your information, and the ZIP code or location you’d like to use to search for vaccine appointments. You can give your home location, or input other locations to see which sites might be available farther away.
If you can’t travel to a clinic for your new COVID vaccine because of health or transportation issues, you can note this when registering on My Turn, and a representative from the CDPH is supposed to call you to arrange an in-home visit or transportation.
My Turn will ask you to provide a cellphone number and an email address. The state says this is so you can use two-factor authentication to confirm your identity and make your appointment, and to prevent bots from automatically scooping up available appointments online.
If you don’t have an email address or a cellphone number, or you have questions, you can call the California COVID-19 hotline at (833) 422-4255 (Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m.–5 p.m. PT) and sign up over the phone. Both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking operators are available. Callers needing information in other languages will be connected to a translation service that offers assistance in over 250 languages.
5. Find a new COVID vaccine through your county (when available)
So tell us: What do you need to know more about? What questions didn’t you have answered in this guide? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site, and on KQED Public Radio, too.
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