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What Good Are Booster Shots?

I look back on this whole pandemic and I see a succession of personal decision points that were based on information and guidance from many sources . . . sources that were evaluated and given weight dictated by our own individual experience, institutional trust, religious beliefs, and even political views. We faced questions at every step.

Initial discovery of COVID-19 – Did we need to wear a mask, social distance, wash our hands, clean the containers that were delivered to our door, was this whole thing a worldwide conspiracy?

Vaccine approval – Was the approval rushed, were there life-threatening side effects, was the government injecting us with small computer chips?

Post Vaccination – Was it OK to venture out, take plane flights, did we still need to wear masks, how should we treat those who weren’t vaccinated?

At each of these steps we each made our own personal decisions. For older Americans, those 65 and older, our decisions, more than any other age group, were often decisions of life and death. More seniors per capita died from COVID-19 initially but we have become the age group that has the highest percentage of fully vaccinated individuals. 88% of seniors are fully vaccinated and the death rate for us has plummeted. At each of these decision points I tried to offer my evaluation of the information and encouraged you to initially hunker down, then to get vaccinated, and the results indicate it was good advice.

As a side note, I was surprised that some of my friends and relatives, as well as business and religious acquaintances, evaluated the COVID-19 guidance and information much differently than I did and their actions, or lack of actions, reflected those differences. I had no idea that there could ever be this big of a difference in our reactions. It brought home to me that this country has multiple ideologies and multiple levels of trust in our government and institutions.  We need to first recognize that our country, and even our friends, have a broad spectrum of ideologies and trust. We need to talk about these differences and more importantly listen to each other. We should strive to find common ground from which we can work to build a better government and better institutions that deserve our restored trust. Now, back to the pandemic.

Just when we felt like there was light at the end of the tunnel, we get the Omicron variant, and now we’re faced with another step that needs to be evaluated. This variant, while highly infectious, seems to be much less lethal for those who were fully vaccinated. Dr. Rahul Sharma, emergency physician in chief for New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital said, “We are seeing an increase in the number of hospitalizations, but the severity of the disease looks different from previous waves. We’re not sending as many patients to the I.C.U., we’re not intubating as many patients, and actually, most of our patients that are coming to the emergency department that do test positive are actually being discharged.” The New York Times pointed out that doctors in high Omicron infected states like Florida, Texas and New York have said that, while Omicron is less severe, the lower proportion of severe cases is also happening because, compared with previous variants, Omicron is infecting more people who have some prior immunity, whether through prior infection or vaccination. The vast majority of Omicron patients in I.C.U.s are unvaccinated or have severely compromised immune systems.

So, where do booster shots fit into this new threat. As I pointed out, almost 90% of us are fully vaccinated and 60% of us are fully vaccinated AND have had a booster. So, what does this mean. For the 90% of us who are fully vaccinated, our protection against catching the Omicron variant of COVID-19 has dropped over the last 6 months to around 35%, and it’s important to note that being fully vaccinated has shown to still help limit the chance of hospitalization and death. For the 60% who are fully vaccinated and boosted, the protection against catching Omicron goes back up to almost 80% while also further reducing the chance for having a severe Omicron experience. Those are pretty impressive numbers.

With your permission, allow me to describe my personal experience with COVID-19.

I realize that when people write that phrase, they really haven’t asked anyone’s permission and thus they’re taking a big chance that the readers won’t want to read about a personal experience, and they’ll quit reading. My hope is that by staying with me just a little longer, you’ll be rewarded with one positive anecdotal case to refer to and possibly find some similarity in my experience to yours or to someone you know.

I got the first Pfizer shot in January 2021 and the second a month later in February. I got the booster shot, along with my flu shot, in October 2021. I hunkered down in the beginning months of the pandemic but slowly ventured out after being vaccinated. I don’t have any health issues that would increase my risk from COVID-19. I even took some plane trips for business reasons but remained cautious. When the Omicron variant hit, I decided to limit excursions, no sit-down restaurants, no large gatherings, no Sunday church. Late last Tuesday I began to feel like I had a cold, had a low-grade fever and some chills early Wednesday morning. I went to get tested and tested positive for COVID-19 using the ra[id test. My COVID-19 illness consisted of two days of cold- like systems and some fatigue, the third day was much better, allowing me to get back to doing projects with only a small cough. Within five days I had no symptoms. I don’t know where I caught the virus but here is what I do know. Whatever steps I took early on allowed me to not catch the virus before I was vaccinated and boosted. When I finally caught the virus, I experienced what can only be described as a light cold. I now feel like I have the protection of the vaccine, the booster shot, the flu shot, and the antibodies generated by the virus itself. I feel like I experienced exactly what the science projected I would experience. My experience last week seemed to prove, at least to me, that my advice during the pandemic was accurate.

Given my self-proclaimed history of successful advice, I feel safe in saying that the clear answer to the question asked in the heading to my blog is – the booster, in the parlance of the day, is WAY GOOD. It goes a long way towards keeping people out of the hospital and saves lives. My advice to the 10% of older Americans who haven’t got vaccinated – go get it done. My advice to the 30% who haven’t got the booster – go get it done. Encourage your loved ones to get boosted. The vaccination and follow-on booster represent a one, two punch that keeps you and me out of the hospital and keeps us alive.

Best, Thair