Booster shots evolve in fight against virus

Gary Fleck, right, of the Village of Monarch Grove, gets a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine booster shot from Nathan Mularsky at The Villages Health Colony Care Center. Experts are recommending that boosters could help protect people who are considered high risk.

Booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine could help prevent mild to moderate illness, a University of Florida professor says. The added dose is seen as enhanced protection, especially for seniors considered at high risk. Some Villagers are consulting with their doctors to inquire if they need a booster dose, although the need is not yet widespread, thanks to the effectiveness of the initial vaccination. “It should be emphasized that people who have received one of the COVID vaccines still have very effective protection against serious infections, hospitalizations and death,” said Dr. Michael Lauzardo, deputy director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. “However, the risk of mild infections does appear to increase over time.”

Boosters could help resolve increasing risks, as numerous health officials have said they see fewer people taking precautions such as masking and social distancing in recent weeks and months. For now, boosters are limited to patients with health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19, including those whose immune systems are compromised. A panel of independent advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday voted against making boosters available to all Americans, yet voted in favor of widespread Pfizer boosters for people who are age 65 and older or who are at high risk for a severe case.

To help protect his wife, who manages an ongoing health condition, Gary Fleck got a booster dose earlier this month at The Villages Health. He had discussed it with his doctor, and it was a quick conversation.

“They told me about the booster, and I think it’s fine,” said Fleck, of the Village of Monarch Grove. Six days later, Fleck said he hadn’t seen any side effects that were significantly worse than his first two doses, just achy joints all over his body the next day. His wife’s side effects were similar.

“It’s a small price to pay to get protected,” he said. “We’re both alive, that’s the main thing. People are dying from it.”

Several major pharmacies and primary-care practices make booster doses available with no prescription needed. Have your vaccination card in hand when making an appointment to be sure you get the same brand you had previously. Also bring the card to your provider when getting a shot to properly record it.

Cases remain lower than last month’s peaks despite slight rises that occasionally interrupt overall gradual declines. Florida’s seven-day average of cases is less than half its Aug. 16 peak, down 55% as of Saturday, while national cases since peaking Sept. 1 are down 19% as of Saturday.

At UF Health Central Florida’s two hospitals, 66 patients were being treated for COVID-19 on Monday. That includes 30 at The Villages Hospital. Both numbers are down by about 60% since each peaked in mid-August.

Florida has made monoclonal antibody treatments available to those who test positive and have symptoms, regardless of their vaccination status. More than 5,000 treatments have been given in 26 days at a state-sponsored site in The Villages, located at Barnstorm Theater at Brownwood Paddock Square. Daily numbers have been lower in recent days as cases have declined.

U.S. health officials continue to study whether booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are needed for the general public, with a key Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meeting planned Wednesday.

The White House has stated a goal of making boosters available to the general public this month. Research has shown the vaccines as approved or authorized for emergency use remain largely effective at preventing hospitalization or death. But the advisory panel to the FDA only voted in favor of widespread Pfizer boosters for people who are age 65 and older or who are at high risk for a severe case.

Unvaccinated people are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than a vaccinated person with a “breakthrough” case, according to the CDC. They must rely on medical treatment or the body’s own mechanisms to fight the virus after becoming infected, medical experts say, rather than having immunity from a vaccine before exposure.

“The strength of that immunity may wane over time and the booster will make it even more effective - especially to prevent mild to moderate illness,” Lauzardo said, adding that the vaccines have done a good job of warding off severe cases even as variants have evolved.

“Drug companies are looking at the possibility of modifying the current vaccines so they are better targeted against the delta variant and other new variants that may appear,” he said. That includes Moderna, which has looked at combining two formulas of mRNA in hopes of protecting against new variants.

Moderna said recently its vaccine, which is being given out under emergency-use authorization, loses 36% of its effectiveness after a year. It’s been more than nine months since the first COVID-19 vaccines in the tri-county area were given to UF Health Central Florida staff.

“There are still not clear recommendations as to when or if this initial third shot is needed,” Lauzardo said.

Specialty Editor Bill Zimmerman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5284, or The Associated Press contributed.