An Additional Dose of the COVID-19 Vaccine Recommended for Cancer Patients With Weakened Immune Systems: Latest Information

Patient receives a COVID-19 vaccine

People with cancer may need to receive an additional dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

As you may have heard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended an additional dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for people who are immunocompromised.

Mini Kamboj

Mini Kamboj

Mini Kamboj, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Chief Medical Epidemiologist, has answers to your questions about who is eligible and how you can schedule an appointment to receive your additional shot.

Why do immunocompromised people need an additional dose of the COVID-19 vaccine?

For a vaccine to protect you, it must activate your immune system. In some immunocompromised patients, this ability is impaired, so an additional dose can boost the immune response.

According to the CDC, among severely immunocompromised people who had undergone solid organ transplant and had virtually no protection after receiving two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine (Comirnaty®) or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, 30 to 50% developed antibodies protecting them from COVID-19 after getting an additional dose.

MSK researchers have found that the COVID-19 vaccines may not be as effective in people with certain blood cancers. A study led by medical oncologist David Chung found that people with blood cancers have a weakened antibody response to the vaccines, both due to the cancer itself and because of treatments for the disease. Another study, led by Roni Tamari and Gunjan Shah, found that people who had received bone marrow transplants or other cellular therapies for their cancer within the previous year also got less protection from the vaccines.   

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Who is eligible for an additional dose of a COVID-19 vaccine?

People who have moderate to severe immunosuppression qualify to receive an additional dose, usually because of an organ or stem cell transplant, HIV infection, steroid therapy, or certain cancer treatments that impair the body’s ability to fight infections.

Cancer patients who are considered immunocompromised include:

  • Patients being treated for blood cancers currently or within the last six months
  • Patients who were within 12 months after treatment with B-cell depleting drugs (for example, rituximab or Rituxan®) at the time of their initial vaccination
  • Patients who have undergone a stem cell transplant or received CAR T therapy within the last two years
  • Patients being treated for solid tumors with chemotherapy — and some patients on immunotherapy — currently or within the last six months

These eligibility criteria cover the most common indications. Your provider will be able to order the additional vaccine dose for other immunosuppressive treatments or conditions if they decide that the extra dose will benefit you. 

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When should eligible patients get an additional dose?

If you meet the criteria for being moderately or severely immunocompromised, you can receive an additional dose 28 days or later after completing your first vaccine series. To ensure the best immune response to the additional dose, MSK experts recommend that patients discuss the optimal timing of the extra dose with their clinical care team. 

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Are other people with cancer eligible for another dose as a booster shot?

Yes. Under new guidelines, cancer patients 18 and older who were given two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines at least six months ago, or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago, are eligible to receive a booster shot. Learn more here

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How do I make an appointment?

To check your eligibility and to schedule an additional vaccination at MSK, please use this link. If you have questions about an additional shot, please call your MSK doctor’s office.

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When and where will MSK begin administering additional doses?

MSK is offering the additional vaccine doses at the David H. Koch Center for Cancer Care at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, located at 530 East 74th Street.

We are also scheduling appointments at:

  • MSK Westchester, located at 500 Westchester Avenue in West Harrison, New York
  • MSK Nassau, located at 1101 Hempstead Turnpike in Uniondale, New York
  • MSK Bergen, located at 225 Summit Avenue in Montvale, New Jersey

Learn more about our locations and hours here »

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I’m an MSK patient who was vaccinated outside of MSK. What should I do? 

If you think you meet the criteria for getting an additional vaccine dose because of a severely weakened immune system, you should call your provider’s office to confirm your eligibility, and an appointment will be scheduled for you. You should be prepared to share your vaccination card or a photo of it. Please present information from your card, rather than the Excelsior pass, which does not have the details about what vaccine brand you received and on what dates.

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Are pediatric patients with weakened immune systems eligible to receive an additional vaccine dose?

Yes, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted emergency use authorization for patients 12 and older to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 18 and older to receive the Moderna vaccine.

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Should I expect side effects?

The side effects from an additional COVID-19 vaccine dose are similar to those experienced after receiving the original vaccines. Scientists in Israel recently began giving an additional dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to people with compromised immune systems. Side effects were reported by 31% of people, the most common being soreness at the injection site. Other side effects included fatigue, headache, body aches, and fever. These symptoms don’t last long — about one to three days.

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Should I get an additional dose if I’ve had a breakthrough infection after previously being vaccinated?

The safety of an additional dose in people who’ve had COVID-19 breakthrough infections is not known, therefore an additional dose for those patients is not recommended at this time. Some patients in whom initial vaccine responses are expected to be severely blunted, such as stem cell transplant or CAR-T recipients or those treated with B-cell depleting therapies, may benefit from an additional dose after breakthrough infection. Discuss your situation with your clinical care team.

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After receiving an additional dose, what more should I do to protect myself?

Even after the additional dose, people with weakened immune system must take precautions to protect themselves from COVID-19. You should:

  • Wear a mask.
  • Stay 6 feet apart from others you don’t live with.
  • Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces until advised otherwise by your healthcare provider.
  • Encourage your close contacts to be vaccinated.

If you develop symptoms of COVID-19, contact your clinical care team and get tested.

October 26, 2021

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