This article has been updated for 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?
Yes, as of January of 2023, COVID vaccinations are still free to everyone. The CDC is definitive in a statement about this:
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.
However, this likely will likely change in the near future. Or, at least who pays for the shot will be transferred from taxpayers to whomever is paying for health insurance. More on that in a bit…
Are COVID Booster Shots Free for Everyone?
Yes, as of January of 2023, COVID booster shots are also still free for everyone. Both COVID original (1st and 2nd) doses as well as booster shots share the same funding source. If that funding runs out, neither the original COVID vaccination doses nor the boosters will be taxpayer funded, and the cost will shift to insurance plans.
How long will COVID vaccination funding last? As an HHS staffer shared in a public post, COVID vaccine funding could run out as early as January of 2023, without new authorized funding from Congress:
As early as January 2023, the Administration anticipates no longer having federal funds to purchase or distribute vaccines and will need to transition these activities to the commercial market, similar to seasonal flu or other commercially available vaccines.
In early December of 2022, HHS announced $350 million in funding to boost COVID vaccinations through community health centers.
My prediction is that if hospitalizations remain fairly manageable during the winter COVID season, we will not see additional Congressional funding for COVID vaccinations and individuals will need health insurance coverage if they want to continue to receive free COVID vaccinations. If COVID gets really bad again, we’ll likely see new Congressional funding for vaccines and tests to continue to make COVID vaccinations free for everyone living in the United States.
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).
What About the New Bivalent Omicron Booster Shot?
Bivalent boosters from Moderna and Pfizer were authorized on September 2, 2022 and also fall into the “free” (covered by taxpayer funding) category at the moment.
100% of all COVID booster shots now given are bivalent variations that offer protection against the original COVID-19 virus and the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants of COVID-19. Previous boosters and the original 1st and 2nd dose vaccinations were considered “monovalent” as they were designed to protect against the original COVID-19 virus. They did provide some protection against Omicron, but not as much as the updated bivalent boosters.
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.
Are the COVID-19 Bivalent Boosters Effective?
Over two-thirds of Americans got the original doses of the COVID vaccine – with overwhelmingly positive results. Early data on the effectiveness of the new bivalent COVID booster is promising and the booster should even offer some protection against future COVID sub-variants.
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 Bivalent Omicron Booster Shot? And When?
The CDC currently recommends that people ages 5 years and older receive one updated (bivalent) booster if it has been at least 2 months since their last COVID-19 vaccine dose, whether that was:
- Their final primary series dose, or
- An original (monovalent) booster
People who have gotten more than one original (monovalent) booster are also recommended to get an updated (bivalent) booster.
There are some exceptions to this recommendation:
- Those who have recently had COVID: may consider delaying their next dose (primary or booster) by 3 months from start of symptoms, or, if you had no symptoms, when you first received a positive test.
- Those who are immunocompromised: have different recommendations for COVID-19 vaccines.
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.