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More COVID-19 variants are likely. Ohio health officials say it's time to get boosted

 Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff on a call with news reporters
"Living with COVID means using the tools of prevention that includes vaccination and boosters," said Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff.

COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations are down across the Buckeye state, but health officials are eyeing new variants popping up in Europe and China and encouraging the public to get vaccinated and boosted.

"This virus has proven its ability to mutate," said Ohio Department of Health (ODH) Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff during a press conference Thursday.

"With so many Ohioans now vaccinated or having some natural immunity we have much more immunity than we did last year," he said, but noted that even a mild case of COVID-19 can disrupt your life and puts vulnerable people at risk.

The good news is that we have more tools to fight spread and prevent severe disease and death, said Dr. Steven Gordon, a Cleveland Clinic infectious disease doctor.

The vaccines and the updated booster that targets the omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which ODH figures show continue to circulate widely in Ohio, seem to continue to do a good job preventing severe illness even if you catch a newer different variant, Gordon said.

Therapeutic medicines like Paxlovid, an antiviral pill that can be prescribed to high-risk people who are infected, also appear to be effective against the variants, he said.

ODH's variant tracker indicates that some of these newer variants are already here. As of the end of September, seven omicron "variants of concern" had been detected in Ohio.

The omicron variants are able to evade some of the body's defenses, like antibodies, but the immune system has more tricks up its sleeve to fight off infections, Vanderhoff explained.

After vaccination, the body creates white blood cells, which provide cellular immunity that comes with long-lasting memory. So far, the new mutations have not been able to successfully evade that cellular immunity, said Vanderhoff.

"We’re going to have to watch because they’re new variants," he said. "But broadly … we maintain a lot of confidence in the ability of our vaccines to protect against these new variants."

People can also get immunity against the virus by being infected. It's less risky, however, to get immunity from vaccination, the health experts said.

The key to staying healthy, as the weather turns colder, will be to use both high-tech and low-tech tools to fight the virus. Vanderhoff said.

Vaccinations, booster shots and therapeutic drugs help to prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death. Staying home when you're sick and improving ventilation are also important ways to keep the virus from spreading, he said.

And a mask — especially on public transportation or in healthcare settings — is always an option.

"You should not feel stigmatized in any place where you feel more confident wearing a mask," Gordon said.

Stephanie is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.
Taylor Wizner is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media.