new COVID-19 variants and fall vaccines

A late summer increase in COVID-19-related hospitalizations and the emergence of new coronavirus variants raises concerns about how best to counter infection and who should receive the newly-approved vaccines. Although data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the recent surge of cases remains far beneath peak pandemic-era numbers, worries have circulated about what precautions might be necessary to protect public health.

Lisa M. Lee, a professor of public health at Virginia Tech, answered questions about factors for concern and the importance of vaccination. Lee is an epidemiologist and bioethicist who has worked in public health and ethics for 25 years, including 14 years with CDC.

Q: When will the new COVID vaccine be available and who should get it?

“The newest COVID vaccines were deemed safe and effective by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Sept. 11, 2023. On Sept. 12, CDC recommended the vaccinesfor all persons over six months of age.  The new vaccines should be available in less than a week.  The data showed clear benefits of vaccination in reducing serious illness, hospitalizations, and deaths. This is especially important for persons at high risk for severe COVID — young children, older adults, people with chronic conditions including obesity, and people with compromised immune systems. CDC recommends that everyone over six months of age get this year’s new COVID vaccine, as it is effective against the newer variants we are seeing in circulation this year. If you’ve recently had COVID or recently gotten one of the older COVID vaccines, check with your health care provider about the best timing for getting the updated shot.”

Q: Does coronavirus remain a major threat to public health?

“COVID-19 remains a risk this fall and winter season, especially for people with less robust immune systems—people 65 and older, people undergoing chemotherapy, folks with chronic illness and conditions that create a compromised immune system. It is also a risk for people who have not been vaccinated and have not had COVID. While there are far fewer hospitalizations today than we had this time last year, it is in large part because of the protective effect of vaccine and previous infection.”

Q: How much risk to public health do the new variants pose?

“New variants are always a threat, as they are usually more contagious or evade our existing immunity. Although we have not yet seen it, the major concern with new variants is that they could cause more severe disease or make the virus more likely to cause death. CDC, in collaboration with international agencies and state and local public health departments, continues to monitor variants and vaccine makers are trying to stay a step ahead so the new COVID vaccines are effective against circulating variants.”    

Q: Does COVID testing, surveillance, and reporting positive cases remain important to maintaining immunity?

“Yes, counting and analyzing COVID case data is extremely important for public health officials. It is only through observing the case data and information on positive tests, hospitalizations, and deaths that public health personnel can provide timely and useful information to communities, advocate for resources needed to respond to community needs, and request state or federal assistance should local communities need it.”

Q: Should people receive COVID, flu and RSV vaccines at the same time?

“There is evidence that receiving the COVID and flu vaccines together is safe and effective. Since the RSV vaccines are new this year and are approved only for people over 60 and infants, we do not have a great deal of data on how the vaccines are taken together. That said, if you have only one chance to get an older person vaccinated, check with their doctor to see if getting all three together is reasonable for them.”

About Lisa M. Lee
Lee serves as associate vice president for research and innovation, and director of the division of Scholarly Integrity and Research Compliance, at Virginia Tech.  She is also a research professor for the Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. During the Obama administration, she served as director of the presidential bioethics commission and, most recently, served as the inaugural Chief of Bioethics at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

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