This article was last updated in October, 2023. As we push through another cold, flu, and (likely) COVID season, I wanted to share the major updates on the current availability status and pricing of COVID tests, flu shots, and COVID vaccines – and whether they are still free and for how long. Communication around the original COVID vaccines was not great, in part, because of constantly moving science and guidelines, limited initial availability, and phased rollouts for different age groups. Messaging around COVID booster shots has been a little bit better but public interest has definitely waned. Hopefully, this article will help clear up some common questions about COVID vaccines and boosters that are still out there.
Is the COVID Vaccine Free for Everyone?
Mostly. In early 2023, COVID vaccinations were still free to everyone, and the CDC website stated:
There is no charge for your COVID-19 vaccine. Your COVID-19 vaccine is free. COVID-19 vaccines are paid for with taxpayer dollars and are given free of charge to all people living in the United States, regardless of health insurance or immigration status. If anyone asks you to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s a scam.
That has changed, however. Now, official CDC messaging is:
Most Americans can still get a COVID-19 vaccine for free. For people with health insurance, most plans will cover COVID-19 vaccine at no cost to you. People who don’t have health insurance or with health plans that do not cover the cost can get a free vaccine from their local health centers; state, local, tribal, or territorial health department; and pharmacies participating in the CDC’s Bridge Access Program.
What changed? COVID vaccine funding at the federal level has run dry. Now, the burden of covering vaccination costs has shifted to public and private health insurance plans.
Are COVID Booster Shots Free for Everyone?
Both COVID original (1st and 2nd) doses as well as the first round of COVID Omicron booster shots shared the same COVID federal funding source. That funding has run out, so now the cost of COVID vaccinations and updated boosters has shifted to public and private health insurers.
Most immunizations, including the flu vaccine, are classified as a preventative care benefit under the Affordable Care Act, and come with no charge as long as you are covered buy an Affordable Care Act approved health insurance plan (most employer-sponsored insurance and all health insurance marketplace plans).
As noted earlier, those who do not have health insurance or with health plans that do not cover the cost of vaccines should be able to get a free vaccine from local health centers; state, local, tribal, or territorial health department; and pharmacies participating in the CDC’s Bridge Access Program.
How Effective are COVID Vaccines?
The CDC publishes the latest COVID-19 effectiveness data regularly. There will always be anecdotal exceptions and the vaccines certainly proved to be less effective against infection than almost everyone was hoping, however, the overwhelming data shows that COVID-19 vaccinations were highly effective against critical illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. And the mRNA vaccines (e.g. Moderna, Pfizer) have shown to be more effective than other types of vaccines on the market.
Should You Get the COVID Vaccine or the COVID Booster Shot?
After seeing a number of people close to me and my friends have really bad extended cases of COVID and some even die (and seeing the staggering numbers nationwide), my personal view is that getting the original COVID vaccination doses and new bivalent boosters are absolutely worth it. Even if you do not receive 100% protection from infection, the data strongly shows that those who have kept up with their vaccinations are much more likely to avoid critical illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. It’s one of the easiest decisions I’ll make all year. Who wants to be sidelined for weeks or longer – and miss important events or gatherings, if they don’t have to, in exchange for a little arm soreness for a day or two? Not to mention, the enhanced Wi-Fi is outstanding. ;-)
Who Can Get the New COVID Booster Shot?
The CDC currently recommends the following individuals get vaccinated or boosted:
- Everyone aged 5 years and older should get 1 dose of an updated COVID-19 vaccine to protect against serious illness from COVID-19.
- Children aged 6 months–4 years need multiple doses of COVID-19 vaccines to be up to date, including at least 1 dose of updated COVID-19 vaccine.
- People who are moderately or severely immunocompromised may get additional doses of updated COVID-19 vaccine.
Here’s a helpful schedule that covers when the best time to get a COVID vaccine is.
Where Can you Get a Free COVID Vaccination Shot?
The best resource on where to get a COVID vaccination shot is the CDC’s vaccines.gov vaccination search site. Just enter your zip code and you will see a list of COVID shot providers near you. That list will likely include any major pharmacy chains near you, including:
Other COVID shot providers near you may include:
- Doctor’s offices
- Independent pharmacies
- Urgent care clinics
- City, county, or state health departments
- Community health centers
- Schools, colleges, universities
- The VA: veterans and family members can get a free COVID vaccination at any VA facility
- Local library
Can you Get the COVID & Flu Vaccine at the Same Time?
Yes, there is no conflict between the COVID-19 and flu vaccines. You can get both within the same season, and even at the same time. However, it is recommended that if you get both the flu and COVID vaccinations at the same time, you get them in separate arms as the same arm can result in double the soreness. There has even been discussion about combining the two vaccines together at some point.
And, yes, you can get infected with the flu and COVID-19 at the same time too. All the more reason to get both vaccines.