Why the latest COVID-19 vaccine booster might mark beginning of annual inoculations
State and local public health officials in Illinois were not too surprised this week when the head of the White House COVID-19 Response Team suggested the latest booster shot aimed specifically at the highly transmissible omicron subvariants was likely the beginning of annual inoculations for Americans.
"As COVID-19 stays with us and new variants emerge, our hope at IDPH will be that an annual COVID-19 shot -- similar to an annual flu shot -- will allow our residents here in Illinois to be protected with the most advanced vaccine available and to stay safe and healthy," said Dr. Sameer Vohra, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health. "This new bivalent booster is the latest tool, in addition to our initial series and therapeutics, to protect people from the most harmful effects of COVID-19."
The new booster is available free to anyone 12 and older who has already received the original vaccine course. More than 700,000 doses of the newest booster were shipped to Illinois providers last week. It is specially designed to fight the current version of the virus.
Earlier this week, Dr. Ashish Jha, who heads the White House Task Force, told reporters that Americans would likely get a single shot every year going forward because of the virus's ability to mutate and replicate so easily.
"This week marks an important shift in our fight against the virus," Jha said Tuesday. "It marks our ability to make COVID vaccines a more routine part of our lives as we continue to drive down serious illness and deaths and protect Americans heading into the fall and winter."
Illinois is averaging roughly 9 deaths a day from the virus over the past week, according to IDPH figures. Since last Friday, 64 more Illinois residents have died from COVID-19, bringing the state's death toll to 34,811 since the outset of the pandemic.
August saw 350 Illinois residents die from COVID-19, the most recorded in a single month since March.
"Reducing acute illness deaths seems to be the main goal driving COVID policies these days," said Dr. Emily Landon, head of the University of Chicago's infectious disease prevention and control program. "If you're interested in preventing infections, then you would have a different policy and a different plan."
Landon said local, state and federal health officials should re-emphasize masking protocols, particularly in poorly ventilated indoor settings, in order to reduce the transmission levels.
"Look, there's no good news about the long-term effects of COVID," she said. "If you get infected over and over again, you're rolling the dice every time."
Doctors have noted that some COVID-19 patients' lungs are in worse shape after an infection than those of some smokers they have treated.
IDPH recorded 19,933 new infections over the past week. That's down from 26,127 cases diagnosed the week before.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 hospitalizations are trickling back up after a recent dip.
Currently, there are 1,314 COVID-19 patients being treated in Illinois hospitals, 163 of whom are in ICU beds. A week ago there were 1,263 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, with 154 in the ICU.
"Most people who get COVID are not progressing to severe symptoms, but the elderly and medically frail, who are not able to handle milder symptoms, sometimes will, and they make up the majority of our patients," said Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, medical director of infection control and prevention at Edward Hospital in Naperville.
Edward Hospital saw its COVID-19 patients increase from 19 on Aug. 31 to 33 a week later.
"Vaccines have been enormously effective in keeping people from becoming severely ill," Pinsky said. "As variants emerge, they haven't been as good at keeping people from getting infected."
While Illinois has a higher vaccination rate than many other states, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports less than 70% of the state's total population is fully vaccinated still, despite the widespread availability and proven efficacy of the vaccines.
An annual booster series was always inevitable, some public health officials said.
"I think those of us who track these things have believed we were headed this way to begin with," said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, chief operating officer at the Cook County Department of Public Health. "The only nuance is that COVID has not presented as a seasonal pattern like the flu."
Hasbrouck said this winter will provide a bellwether to determine if the current level of vaccination provides enough protection to prevent another surge in patients that might overwhelm the state's health care system.
"Let's get through this winter and see what the collision is between the flu and COVID, and if we can make it through this season without significant surges or spikes, by next year we'll be looking to have this as a seasonal thing," he predicted.
Doctors and public health officials are encouraging patients to get the COVID-19 booster and a flu shot simultaneously.