The holidays are coming and omicron is spreading. It's time to get a COVID-19 booster, officials say

Early data shows that the vaccines protect against serious illness and death even when infected with the omicron variant, a Cleveland Clinic doctor said Thursday.
Health officials are urging the public to consider getting a vaccine or a booster as COVID-19 surges and the holidays approach. [Teeradej / Shutterstock]

Northeast Ohio hospitals are bracing for a tidal wave of COVID-19 patients as the omicron variant takes hold, cases surge on the back of the delta variant, and families prepare to gather for holiday celebrations.

“Here in Northeast Ohio, we have the highest census in COVID patients that we’ve ever had -- the highest intensive care,” said Dr. Steven Gordon, who chairs that Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Infectious Disease. “Omicron is also here… We’re preparing for a respiratory tidal wave.”

Across the state, 6.8 million people, about 62% of those eligible, have received at least one dose of the vaccine, said Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, during a Thursday press conference on the state of the pandemic.

Officials urged the public to get the vaccine or a booster if they are eligible, noting that early signs indicate that the shot offers protection against both the delta and omicron variants of the disease.

Boosters are common, Gordon said. 

"It's routine in [pediatrics]. They get their series of shots before 18 months, and then they're brought back at four years," he said. "Some of those are boosted and then some of those are boosted again... If we look at adults, probably our most common booster I would say is our tetanus shot, right? Every 10 years."

Booster are especially important as the omicron variant proliferates.

Some early information from South Africa and the United Kingdom, where omicron has become the dominant variants, are encouraging, Gordon said.

“Two doses in South Africa are still 70% effective against severe illness and death,” he said.

Booster shots for those who received Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are recommended six months after the second shot. Those who received Johnson & Johnson vaccines should get a booster two months after their shot.

Whether hospitals will be flooded with patients is largely up to the public, said Vanderhoff.

“Personal responsibility is a very important part of making any community work,” he said. “There’s more all of us can do beyond getting vaccinated. What about those holiday gatherings? Is this perhaps not the year to have that extended gathering… It’s a lot for each of us to consider.”

Gordon, of the Cleveland Clinic, also reminded the public that vaccines are not the only tool we have to fight the virus. Social distancing and masking also prevent the spread, he said.

“We’re hoping there won’t be this tidal wave,” he said, adding that it’s possible that omicron, which is more transmissible than delta, will cause only light symptoms, leave patients with natural immunity against the disease and in that way help fight the virus' spread."

“Hopefully, people with vaccination or immunity won’t get horribly sick,” Gordon said. “But hope is not a plan.”

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