COVID numbers are on the rise and boosters are on the way. Here's what you need to know
As the calendar shifts to September, health experts say they expect an influx of respiratory viruses to circulate this fall and winter. Public health officials said Tuesday the best way for most people to avoid becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 and avoid other respiratory infections is to get vaccinated or boosted later this fall.
“For the average person, waiting for the new [COVID-19] booster is going to be better because it’s more tailored to what we see circulating right now,” said Dr. Donald Dumford, director of infection prevention at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital.
Dumford's advice comes as the nation has seen an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. Ohio reported about 5,400 new cases last week, up from the three-week average of 4,100 cases, according to Ohio Department of Health figures. Hospitalizations due to the virus increased 18.8% nationally between Aug. 13 and 19, according to the CDC.
Especially for those who are vulnerable to the virus, the decision whether to get boosted now or to wait until the new vaccines are available should be made with a doctor, said Dumford. Overall, he said most people should consider waiting for the new shots.
Regardless, he urged people not to become complacent about COVID-19.
“It still can cause significant effects for the average patient, whether it’s long COVID, or for elderly patients or immunocompromised patients," Dumford said. "I think it’s still important to get that vaccine to protect yourself and protect those around you."
Here's what you need to know about the new variants
As numbers rise, public health experts are monitoring new variants that have been detected in the U.S.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a risk assessment for the new BA.2.86 COVID-19 variant, nicknamed “Pirola.” The CDC added Pirola to its watch list and noted that the variant may pose a greater risk for breakthrough infections.
Nine cases of Pirola have been confirmed worldwide, with two occurring in the United States, according to the report.
The reason officials are concerned about Pirola is because it’s highly mutated compared to previous strains, said Cuyahoga County Board of Health Medical Director Dr. Prakash Ganesh.
“That means it could evade some of our vaccinations. We don’t know if it’ll be more transmissible, more aggressive or cause more disease,” Ganesh said, adding that it’s hard to predict the impact of Pirola due to the low number of cases.
The Eris variant remains the most prominent strain in the U.S., accounting for 20.6% of cases, according to CDC data. Eris, a descendant of XBB omicron, was first reported in February and was designated as a variant on July 19. The World Health Organization deemed it a “variant of interest” in its initial risk evaluation released Aug. 9.
Northeast Ohio has built its capacity to monitor and track COVID-19 strains locally with methods such as wastewater surveillance and test sequencing in hospital labs, said Dumford.
“I think we’re well-positioned to identify new variants of concern or continue to track the 2.86 variant to see what sort of impact it’s having on the community and the nation,” he said.
When will the new boosters be available?
New COVID-19 vaccines are expected to become available in mid-September, Ganesh said. Early clinical trials of Moderna’s newest vaccine were determined to be effective against the Eris variant and another variant FL 1.5.1, nicknamed Fornax, according to the company.
“With this new trial data, Moderna has now confirmed an antibody response against current strains of concern,” the biotech company said in a news release. Pfizer has also confirmed it has a vaccine update in the works. Both companies need approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before their new vaccines can be administered.
How much will the new vaccines cost?
Updated COVID-19 vaccines will remain free to those without health insurance at public health departments and community health centers. Cuyahoga County will continue its community clinics to provide shots, although the county has no formal plans for an official push to get people vaccinated, Ganesh said.
The boosters will also likely be covered by private health insurance or by Medicaid, a public insurance program for those with low incomes, and Medicare, insurance for those over 65, according to theKaiser Family Foundation. In 2022, the Biden Administration announced it no longer had funding to purchase additional vaccines and began preparing for the transition of the COVID-19 vaccines to the commercial market.
The cost of vaccines will be borne by public and private vaccine payers, KFF said.
The federal government has paid an average of $20.69 each for 1.2 billion doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, KFF reported. On an investor call last year, Pfizer indicated it expected a commercial list price per dose to be between $110 and $130 dollars.
What about the flu and RSV?
Flu shots and a new Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) vaccine will also be available this fall. The vaccines can be administered at the same time, Dumford said.
Ganesh previously told Ideastream Public Media that properly timing the vaccine can also contribute to increased protection during the upcoming holiday season and can help combat a “tripledemic” of COVID-19, RSV and the flu, which occurred last year.
“I think having it done a few months prior to the peak of the winter season or holiday season is good,” he said. “We think most of your immune response is there or activated two weeks after the immunization.”
How long does protection last?
How long one's immune response lasts depends on a variety of factors, including age and whether an individual is immunocompromised. Generally speaking, Ganesh said individuals vaccinated or boosted during the fall should be protected through the peak of respiratory virus season.
“I think we have pretty good coverage for six months, which will get you out of the season,” he explained.
What about masking?
Cuyahoga County does not currently follow CDC risk levels for mask advisories, according to Ganesh. However, he noted that self-risk assessments and consideration of others should remain factors when deciding to wear a mask.
Akron General is playing it by ear and tracking the number of cases when determining any mask mandates inside the hospital, Dumford said. He noted that care providers are required to wear masks in certain units involving high-risk patients.
“It’s hard to mandate these requirements but we’ve always recommended them, and people do still do what they can to minimize transmission,” Ganesh said.