‘Coronavirus is not going away:’ Area doctors recommend bivalent booster

Updated recipes for the two COVID-19 vaccines were approved this month, and area doctors encourage people to consider taking the shot.

COVID-19 is now more likely to present as a mild illness than before, but people shouldn’t be complacent. Area doctors said getting the new booster is another layer of protection that can help prevent serious illness by boosting immunity as the virus continues to evolve.

The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended a new bivalent booster for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The booster incorporates the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 spike protein components to make the vaccine more effective against those strains of the virus, which are much more contagious, though less severe than earlier strains.

CDC officials say the new booster improves immune response to the new variants and props up immunity that has naturally weakened as time passes between the last vaccine dose.

“The updated COVID-19 boosters are formulated to better protect against the most recently circulating COVID-19 variant. They can help restore protection that has waned since previous vaccination and were designed to provide broader protection against newer variants,” CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky said in a statement on the booster recommendation. “This recommendation followed a comprehensive scientific evaluation and robust scientific discussion.”

People can get the booster as soon as two months following their last vaccination. Those 12 and older may get Pfizer’s bivalent booster and people 18 and older can get Moderna’s bivalent booster. Adults previously vaccinated with Moderna or Pfizer can mix and match boosters brands.

COVID today

Officials from Johnson Memorial Health, Franciscan Health Indianapolis and Community Health Network say they’re seeing fewer hospitalizations recently. Those hospitalized are typically older or are young people with preexisting conditions or compromised immune systems, they said.

At Johnson Memorial Hospital on Monday, there were two people primarily hospitalized with COVID-19 and another patient who is COVID-positive but was hospitalized primarily for a separate condition. This represents a decrease in patients from a summer surge that started to wane a few weeks ago, said Dr. David Dunkle, the hospital’s president and CEO.

Cases tend to be less severe and people are more likely to survive a severe case than before. Dunkle says the vaccines have played a large role in that.

“The important thing is to remember that we’re not seeing the deaths and hospitalizations that we did early in the pandemic, and that is directly related to the number of people who have been vaccinated,” Dunkle said.

Hospitalization numbers at Franciscan Health Indianapolis are down to the teens and low 20s recently, as opposed to over 100 during earlier surges. The hospital is also seeing fewer people who need to be put on ventilators and fewer cases that end in death than before, said Dr. Christopher Doehring, vice president of medical affairs for Franciscan Health Central Indiana.

“It is still tying a fair number of beds, but patients aren’t requiring as long of a hospitalization and the people who are severely ill are few and far between,” Doehring said.

At Community Health locations across the Indianapolis area, about 40 people were hospitalized Friday, which represents a significant decrease from previous surges when counts were over 250. The number of people, as well as the severity of cases, is now similar to something the health system would see during flu season, said Dr. Ram Yeleti, chief physician executive.

“It’s kind of like what we would actually see with other viruses like the flu, you know, the flu affects all of us. But it’s the sicker people, the older people that have other health problems that get admitted,” Yeletis said. “So not too dissimilar from those. That’s kind of what we’re seeing with COVID, as well as coming in more like a cold or flu-like illness where a lot of people who are otherwise okay, do okay with it.”

COVID’s future

It is especially important for people who are most at-risk to get boosted, the doctors said.

“Most likely it’s a combination of underlying susceptibility due to age, underlying medical illness and then also likely it’s been a while since they’ve been vaccinated,” Dunkle said. “Which is more reason to get boosted if you haven’t done so. I think for a lot of people this COVID thing is kind of out of sight out of mind.”

COVID-19 was scary to the medical community because it was an unknown and potentially deadly virus, despite most viruses in the coronavirus family causing much milder illness. Since the virus has evolved to be much milder, the booster could represent the next stage in treating COVID-19. Shots could become routine, like the annual flu shot, area doctors say.

“Coronavirus is not going away. What people do need to remember is that common colds have been caused by a few different viruses. There’s something called RSV and a few other viruses and coronavirus has always been there for a long, long time. This particular coronavirus is what’s caused problems,” Yeleti said.

“So, the coronavirus is going to go back to being its usual common cold type of thing. So, we’re going to continue seeing coronavirus over the next many, many years. But the question is, is it going to be deadly? And if it looks like it’s still going to be deadly, then we’ll need to take the annual coronavirus shots.”

Like the flu shot is formulated to protect against dominant flu strains, the bivalent booster is also. Since the omicron variants are most dominant right now, area doctors say it would be helpful to add that layer of immunity.

“If we’re going to continue to keep COVID from becoming a worsening crisis, again, we have to be sure to encourage people who are eligible to get boosters,” Dunkle said.

Some experts aren’t expecting another surge of COVID-19 in the fall, but that could largely depend on whether the virus mutates again, which is always a risk, Dunkle said.

The doctors also recommend getting a flu shot. The CDC says it is safe to get both shots at the same time, so people can get both shots during one visit.