Berkeleyside reporter Ally Markovich got her COVID-19 booster last week at a Berkeley Walgreens. “The process was simple; the shot itself, unremarkable,” she writes.

In the last few weeks, millions of Americans became eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot after the Food and Drug Administration expanded criteria for who qualifies for the extra dose of the vaccine. Those who are recommended for the booster shot include adults 65 years and older, those with an underlying medical condition, people who live or work in high-risk settings, and anyone who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine more than two months earlier.

I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in April before we knew that the one-shot vaccine was less effective in preventing hospitalizations and may be less effective in preventing infection, too. I signed up for an appointment right away, wanting to do my part to reduce transmission. For one thing, I live in a cooperative home with 10 other people, and I was planning to visit my mom, dad and grandmother soon.

Vaccines are not perfect — multiple friends and family members have gotten breakthrough infections — but they remain an effective tool in combatting the spread of COVID-19. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines reduce the risk of infection by 91% (though their effectiveness may be waning) and they tend to make illness milder and shorter.

But, for those who received the less effective Johnson & Johnson vaccine, getting a “booster” shot is actually closer to getting a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, according to Dr. Kim Rhoads, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California San Francisco. Rhoads is also the founding director of Umoja Health Partners, which unites community organizations in the Bay Area to fight COVID-19 in the Black community.

“It’s not just a booster shot, it’s actually the rest of your regimen, in the same way we would talk to people who had one dose of Pfizer or one dose of Moderna,” Rhoads said. She said if you only have one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, “you’re not fully protected.”

When it comes to deciding which booster to get, Rhoads advised individuals to choose either Pfizer or Moderna over Johnson & Johnson when possible. “If you get a Johnson & Johnson as a booster, you don’t get as much bang for your buck. Between Pfizer [and] Moderna, it’s pretty much the same,” she said.

Once I decided to get the shot, I tried to get an appointment, but the closest available one was a 45-minute drive away. I turned to the Walgreens website and booked an appointment for a Pfizer booster two days later. I tacked on the flu vaccine, too, just for good measure. The process was simple; the shot itself, unremarkable. The clerk at the pharmacy told me that appointment slots filled up quickly since the booster shots became more widely available.

As I did when I received my first dose, I had a strong immune response that started about 12 hours after getting vaccinated. Most people experience some side effects from the boosters: 60% reported feeling fatigued and half had a headache. When I got the first shot in April, I spent that evening on my couch eating brownies for dinner, because that’s what I felt my stomach could handle. This time, I got the chills and felt crummy enough to take half a day off work.

Am I eligible for a booster shot?

The FDA recommends that individuals who fall into the following categories get a booster shot:

  • 65 years of age and older
  • Adults 18 and older who are at high risk of severe COVID-19 (the list of medical conditions considered high-risk is the same as for the initial shot)
  • Adults 18 and older who work in high-risk settings, including first responders, grocery store workers, and education workers
  • Adults 18 and older who received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine more than two months ago

Can I get any booster shot?

The FDA approved a mix-and-match approach to getting booster shots. You can sign up for whatever dose is available, regardless of which vaccine you got before.

Where can I get a booster in Berkeley?

Eligible Berkeley residents can get a booster shot for free at a number of locations, including:

  • Your local pharmacy, such as Walgreens, CVS and Safeway
  • Your private healthcare provider. Kaiser and Sutter Health are offering appointments for COVID-19 booster shots

The city of Berkeley offers a number of pop-up vaccine clinics each month, where you can drop in or make an appointment. Here’s where you can get a booster shot in November:

  • South Berkeley Clinic, Nov. 2, 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. 
  • Ann Chandler Public Health Center, Nov. 3, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
  • Bayer Parking Lot, Nov. 17, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. 

What if I am not yet eligible for a booster?

The FDA has not announced a timeline for making booster shots more widely available. Rhoads said that the current focus is on vaccinating children 5 to 11 years old.

Should I really get a booster shot?

Whenever I brought up the topic of booster shots to friends, they expressed concern about global vaccine inequity and racial disparities in vaccination status locally. Rhoads said these concerns are valid, but that getting vaccinated or getting a booster dose was still the best way to protect others.

“On the local and domestic scale, we are awash in vaccines and it is kind of embarrassing and decadent,” Rhoads said. But “you’re not contributing to anything except diminishing the public health by not fully protecting yourself.”

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...