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Health officials stress vaccination as virus season escalates

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Sep 15, 2023

Pfizer via AP

This photo provided by Pfizer in September 2023 shows single-dose vials of the company's updated COVID vaccine for adults. U.S. regulators have approved updated COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, shots aimed at revving up protection this fall and winter. The Food and Drug Administration's decision Monday, Sept. 11, 2023, is part of a shift to treat fall COVID-19 vaccine updates much like getting a yearly flu shot.

Officials from University of Utah Health on Friday said new COVID-19 vaccines should be available in the state as early as next week and they are very effective at keeping people out of the hospital with severe illness.

"COVID has continued to evolve. It's a very dynamic virus that continues to change, but the recent news is pretty good," said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at U of U Health. "The new Eris variant got our attention because it has more than 30 mutations, and that suggested it would cause more trouble. But data shows we might not have much to worry about because it's been pretty well neutralized by people who got previous vaccines or infection in the past few months."

However, Pavia said because the vaccine only provides limited protection, it's important for people to get the updated vaccine as soon as it's available. It can be given at the same time as the influenza vaccine.

"We don't know how long protection will last with the new vaccine, but will know more as we go forward," Pavia said. "The bivalent last fall protected for two to three months -- longer if you're younger, shorter if you're older -- but it did protect against hospitalization up to a year."

Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at U of U Health, said there was a decline of COVID in the spring and first week of June, but the state is now seeing a gradual trend upward.

"Last week, we had over 200 people test positive," he said. "What's more concerning than that are the hospitalizations are starting to creep up. A lot less people are going out and being tested because there are home tests, but we're still following the trends."

Pavia said the home tests are pretty good, but far from perfect. For those who do conduct a home test, he said, if it is negative, you should repeat the test a second time within 24 hours.

Kavish Choudhary, chief pharmacy officer at U of U Health, said anyone 6 months of age and older should consider getting the new vaccine. Some pharmacies and clinics require an appointment while others will take walk-ins. Be sure to call ahead to make sure, he said.

The influenza vaccine is now available and all three experts said it should be given as soon as possible since it takes about two weeks to get full immunity.

"The optimal time is two to three weeks before the virus arrives, but we don't know when they'll arrive," Pavia said. "Latin America and Australia had a pretty robust flu season, so we're predicting we'll have a pretty good flu season as well. They also had a pretty solid RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) season and it showed up early in some places, so we'll be watching for it in November instead of December this year."

The RSV vaccine should be available for children and adults in the coming weeks. People over the age of 60 are being asked to strongly consider getting that vaccine as well as pregnant women, infants and children, especially those under the age of 2.

"One shot protects babies for five to six months," Pavia said. "Some hospitals will be giving it to infants just being born, and those born after April of this year should also get it as soon as it becomes available."

And, as always, health officials say if you get sick, stay home to reduce the risk of spreading it to the community. Masking also is an option.

"Masks remain very effective at preventing the spread of respiratory illnesses, but these are individual decisions people can make," Vinik said. "We certainly encourage people at risk of severe consequences to wear them and to wear the higher-quality ones like the KN95 or N95."

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