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Many Seniors are Wondering What’s Next with COVID: Get a Booster Now, or Wait a Bit Longer?

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Almost two and a half years into the pandemic, we’re still talking about COVID – and increasingly debating what’s the best “booster strategy” to help stave off a seemingly endless array of viral variants. Millions of seniors are fully vaccinated and have had one booster shot, with many (including President Biden, who tested positive anyway) having received a second booster as well. But for those trying to decide the best preventative strategy, the recommendations from experts at the CDC seem unclear. In short, many are asking, “Do I get a booster now or wait until some new vaccine formula is brought to market?”

Since your friends here at the AgingOptions Blog are in that befuddled camp – boost now or boost later? – our attention was drawn to this recent article from the Kaiser Health News website, written by reporters Sam Whitehead and Arthur Allen. Whitehead and Allen acknowledge that the public is completely confused by the booster issue, and they suggest that medical officials aren’t helping much. They also a good job of sorting out the question of when to get that next booster.

COVID Mutations Make it Hard for Health Officials

As Kaiser explains, COVID’s ability to mutate rapidly has made communication between health officials and the public a bit of a conundrum, to put it mildly. For example, federal health recommendations suggest four shots for maximum protection against COVID. But many Americans seem perfectly comfortable with three shots, and do not plan to get a fourth, while others are wondering what the best timing is for adding another booster to their roster. Wait until new formulations emerge, or boost again now?

“What we’re seeing now is a little bit of an information void that is not helping people make the right decision,” Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University School of Medicine told Kaiser. According to del Rio, the vaccines’ value in preventing severe disease isn’t quite getting through to the public. Instead, people are seeing their vaccinated friends and relatives contracting COVID anyway, not understanding how the boosters help to prevent fatalities.  

Most Older Americans Still Waiting for that Second Booster

The Kaiser article states, “About 70 percent of Americans age 50 and older who got a first booster shot — and nearly as many of those 65 and older — haven’t received their second COVID booster dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency currently recommends two booster shots after a primary vaccine series for adults 50 and older and for younger people with compromised immune systems. Last week, multiple news outlets reported that the Biden administration was working on a plan to allow all adults to get second COVID boosters.”

Worryingly, the BA.4 and BA.5 variants are proving highly contagious and can escape immune protection from vaccinations or prior infections, according to a  recent study published in Nature. The same study found “BA.5 was four times as resistant to the currently available mRNA vaccines as earlier omicron subvariants,” according to the article.

Experts Differ, Leaving a Confused Public

The other issue in vaccine messaging has been lack of consistency across experts in the field. “Although physicians like del Rio and Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine see the value in getting a second booster,” the article states, “Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the FDA’s vaccine advisory committee, is skeptical it’s needed by anyone but seniors and people who are immunocompromised.”

This leaves Americans to try to translate the mixed messaging themselves. And it seems that when they can’t make heads or tails of it, they opt not to get the booster. Janet Perrin, a 70-year-old resident of Houston, is one such confused citizen. “I haven’t found a consistent guiding voice from the CDC,” she told Kaiser, and, to her skeptical ear, the agency’s statements sound like “a political word salad.”

CDC Official Says, “Don’t Wait!”

The latest White House COVID briefing did give a clear message: don’t wait. Get boosted now. “There are many people who are at high risk right now, and waiting until October, November for their boost — when in fact their risk is in the moment — is not a good plan,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, head of the CDC.

The FDA has called upon drugmakers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to develop a new vaccine to target the new aggressive strains of Omicron, and both companies have said that they can make the new vaccines available to the public by October. But the article notes, “Experts think that deadline could slip by a few months given the unexpected hitches that plague vaccine manufacturing.”

“I think that we have all been asking that same question,” said Dr. Kathryn Edwards, scientific director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program. “What’s the benefit of getting another booster now when what will be coming out in the fall is a bivalent vaccine and you will be getting BA.4/5, which is currently circulating? Although whether it will be circulating in the fall is another question.”

She adds, “People at very high risk for COVID complications might want to go ahead and get a fourth dose, with the hope that it will temporarily prevent severe disease while you wait for BA.4/5.”

Many Americans Have “Tuned Out”

Whitehead and Allen write, “Although some Americans are pondering when, or whether, to get their second boosters, many people tuned out the pandemic long ago, putting them at risk during the current wave.”

As a result of this collective apathy, according to some experts, the areas with low vaccine acceptance could be set for a “rude awakening” in the coming weeks and months as new variants continue to emerge.

“Nothing is simple with COVID, is it? It’s just whack-a-mole,” said Edwards. “This morning I read about a new variant in India. Maybe it’ll be a nothingburger, but — who knows? — maybe something big, and then we’ll wonder, ‘Why did we change the vaccine strain to BA.4/5?’”

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(originally reported at www.khn.org)

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