COVID-19 Vaccines for Seniors – What Experts are Saying

Collage of senior citizens happy to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Text center says "Which COVID vaccine is right for seniors?"

How serious is the coronavirus? Are the vaccines safe? What can I do to protect myself and my loved ones? These questions and more are common, and it’s easy to see why: many people are concerned about the current pandemic and how they can best protect themselves and the people they care about.

While the current situation may seem overwhelming, knowing a bit more about what experts recommend and how protections against the coronavirus actually work can ease anxieties about the pandemic and encourage people to take actions that protect themselves and those around them.

Keep reading to learn more about which vaccines seniors should get, how the vaccines work, and the unique risks older adults face from the coronavirus.

What Experts Recommend

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that older adults be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and receive a booster when they are eligible. For the immunocompromised, an additional dose may be necessary for better protection.

Which COVID Shot Should Seniors Get?

There are currently three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States:

  1. Moderna, NIAID vaccine (Moderna)
  2. BioNTech, Pfizer vaccine (Pfizer)
  3. Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine (J&J)

The CDC recommends that people get one of the mRNA vaccines (Moderna or Pfizer) due to the risk of rare but serious side effects associated with the J&J vaccine. There are, however, some cases where the J&J shot may be a better option:

  • Someone is allergic to any of the ingredients in either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines
  • Someone already had a severe reaction to one of the mRNA vaccines
  • Someone would otherwise not be vaccinated against COVID-19 since access to both rounds of the mRNA shots are restricted
  • Someone simply wants the “one and done” J&J vaccine more than any other option, despite knowing the potential side effects

When Should Someone Get a COVID Booster?

When people should get a booster shot will vary based on age and what type of vaccine they initially received. According to the CDC:

  • Anyone 12+ who received the Pfizer vaccine should receive a booster at least 5 months after finishing their primary COVID-19 series (full vaccination)
  • Adults (18+) who received the Moderna vaccine should receive a booster at least 6 months after their primary series
  • Adults (18+) who received the J&J vaccine should receive a booster at least 2 months after their primary series (mRNA boosters are preferable in most cases)

Other Vaccinations for Seniors

COVID-19 isn’t the only condition experts recommend that seniors vaccinate against. For older adults without underlying health conditions, the CDC usually recommends the following vaccinations:

Blue infographic explaining that the CDC recommends older adults without underlying health conditions typically should get the following vaccinations: COVID, flu, shingles, Td/Tdap, pneumococcal polysaccharide shot (PPSV23).

Getting Vaccinated in Missouri

Getting vaccinated doesn’t have to be a hassle.

In Missouri, the state government has partnered with local Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) to create a vaccination portal specifically for Missouri seniors (60+), which people can access here. This portal can connect seniors with resources for scheduling appointments, arranging trips to appointments, and setting up reminders about appointments and when to schedule future doses.

People who need help finding transportation to and from appointments can visit our page on senior transportation in the St. Louis area to find an option that works for them.

How Do the Vaccines Work?

All three vaccines available in the United States are effective at reducing the odds of serious illness and death from COVID-19. Each vaccine helps achieve that goal in different ways, though.

mRNA Vaccines

The Moderna and Pfizer shots are mRNA vaccines. That means that they use mRNA (messenger RNA) to tell the body how to make harmless pieces of spike proteins found on the coronavirus. Once these spike proteins are produced, the body launches an immune response to these proteins, fighting them off. The body remembers this response so it knows how to effectively fight against the coronavirus in case of future exposure.

The mRNA vaccines are highly effective at preventing symptomatic infections. When infections do occur, the resulting illnesses are typically much less severe than if someone were not vaccinated at all. The largest drawbacks to these vaccines are that they require two rounds of shots to reach full efficacy. The Moderna vaccines are taken 28 days (4 weeks) apart and the Pfizer vaccines 21 days (3 weeks) apart. The Pfizer shot also requires incredibly cold storage conditions, making it more difficult to distribute.

Viral Vaccine

The J&J shot is a viral vector vaccine. Scientists add genes for the coronavirus spike proteins into another harmless virus, Adenovirus 26. When this adenovirus enters the human body, it releases viral DNA, which triggers an immune response. This way, the body knows how to fight back against the coronavirus should someone be exposed to it in the future.

The primary benefit of this vaccine is that it is more easily stored than the other two vaccines and it only requires one dose. The drawbacks are that it is associated with incredibly rare but serious side effects and some studies show it is not as effective as the mRNA vaccines. That said, the J&J shot is still efficient at reducing rates of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

Coronavirus and Seniors – What’s the Risk?

Most people know that older adults are at heightened risk for getting COVID-19 and experiencing more severe symptoms. What many people might not know, however, is just how severe those risks are.

Infographic that explains people 85+ are 10x more likely to be hospitalized and 370x more likely to die from COVID-related cases than people ages 18 to 29.

Coronavirus Hospitalization Rates by Age Group

People across all age groups aged 5 and up experience similar rates of COVID, according to the CDC. The outcomes for those cases, however, drastically change with age. Compared to those aged 18 to 29, the hospitalization rates for cases involving COVID-19 are:

  • 4x for people aged 50 to 64
  • 5x for people aged 65 to 74
  • 8x for people aged 75 to 84
  • 10x for people aged 85+

Coronavirus Death Rates by Age Group

The rates of death for COVID are even more startling when broken down by age group. Compared to people aged 18 to 29, the rate of death for cases involving COVID-19 are:

  • 25x for people aged 50 to 64
  • 65x for people aged 65 to 74
  • 150x for people aged 75 to 84
  • 370x for people aged 85+

Why are Older Adults at Risk?

There are several reasons why older adults are at greater risk for experiencing worse outcomes of COVID-19 than younger people. Some of those reasons include:

  • The immune system typically weakens with age
  • Older adults are more likely to have preexisting conditions that put them at higher risk of complications or further weaken their immune systems, such as dementia or diabetes

How Can Older Adults Protect Themselves During the Pandemic?

The numbers on seniors and the coronavirus might be scary, but there are plenty of actions older adults, their caregivers, and loved ones can take to reduce the odds of getting COVID-19 or experiencing serious illness.

These actions include:

  • Being fully vaccinated and receiving a booster when eligible
  • Washing hands regularly with soap and water, or using hand sanitizer when washing hands isn’t an option
  • Wearing a face mask over the nose and mouth while indoors or in crowded outdoor areas
  • Standing 6 feet apart from other people
  • Disinfecting high-traffic areas and surfaces
  • Getting tested when potentially exposed to the virus or when experiencing COVID-like symptoms

Many older adults are also now choosing to visit doctors virtually (telemedicine or telehealth), which can reduce their potential exposure to the virus.

These simple actions are easy to incorporate into everyday life and can help keep loved ones safe.


Disclaimers – This article does not constitute professional, legal, financial, or medical advice; it is for informational purposes only. While information is correct at the time of writing, given the nature of the subject matter, data and official recommendations mentioned above may change over time.