COVID-19 booster

COVID-19 testing and vaccines are offered outside of one of the Main Campus Student Center ballrooms at East Carolina University.

As the COVID-19 delta variant continues to surge throughout the United States and North Carolina, a third booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for high-risk populations.

Chief Medical Officer at ECU Physicians Jason Foltz said the booster shot is intended to strengthen the immune system six months after the primary Pfizer-BioNTech shot series. Scientists have noted a slight decrease in the antibodies produced by the initial series of two shots, Foltz said, which can lead to an increase in hospitalizations and infection. Foltz said the booster shot helps the body produce additional antibodies that, in theory, protect an individual against COVID-19.

Outside of the booster shots authorized on Aug. 12 for the immunocompromised, Foltz said Pfizer-BioNTech’s booster shot is the only booster shot that is currently authorized by the FDA. He said the booster shot is currently available for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) high priority list, which includes those aged 65 and older, those in long-term care facilities, those between 50-64 with underlying medical conditions and those aged 18-49 who are at high risk due to disease or work in high-risk settings.

“We’ve seen the initial efficacy of the vaccine’s drop just a tiny bit with the new Delta variant surge,” Foltz said. “And so, because of that scientists have said that we believe there’s a benefit for creating more antibody response to hopefully see our efficacious prevention of infections improve again.”

The administration of the booster will look the same as the original dose individuals received, Foltz said, and the potential side effects will be similar as well. He said pharmacies, physicians and any vaccine provider throughout Greenville, North Carolina, will have available boosters for eligible individuals. ECU Physicians was authorized by the state to distribute booster shots on Sept. 24, Foltz said, and since then the clinic has begun to administer booster shots to those eligible.

Foltz said when ready to receive their booster shot, individuals just need to ensure it has been six months since they have received the Pfizer-BioNTech’s primary series, assess if they fall under a high-risk population as defined by the CDC, find a local pharmacy or physician that administers Pfizer-BioNTech and self-attest to the eligibility criteria. 

“The only thing that’s going to improve those case numbers (ECU’s) is if the folks that have not been vaccinated go ahead and get their primary series. I think what this is going to do is help just provide additional protection to the vaccinated on future asymptomatic infections or hospitalizations, it’s just providing an additional layer,” Foltz said. “The only thing that’s going to really drive the downward spiral is if everyone else does their part.”

Susan Kansagra, acting senior deputy director for the Division of Public Health within the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS), said although the initial Pfizer-BioNTech primary series has proven high protection against severe illness, the CDC and FDA made the recommendation for the booster shot as immunity begins to wane in individuals six after their initial vaccine. 

Individuals are required to self-attest to receive Pfizer-BioNTech’s booster shot, Kansagra said, though individuals aren’t required to show proof of their eligibility. She said the NCDHHS has a site locator on their website that interested individuals who live in North Carolina can use to find vaccine sites that offer Pfizer-BioNTech near them. Many sites now offer flu vaccines alongside COVID-19 vaccines, Kansagra said, and individuals are able to receive both in a single visit.

Kansagra said the booster shot is currently only available for high-risk populations who meet eligibility requirements, though the NCDHHS will follow future recommendations made by the CDC and FDA if eligibility is extended.

“We know the Delta variant is a really contagious strain of COVID-19, it’s up to double the contagiousness that was seen in previous variants, and so that’s why it’s been really important to make sure that we are promoting vaccines and as many people are getting vaccinated as possible,” Kansagra said. “Booster doses will certainly help continue to keep protection in our community.”

Vidant Health announced in a press release on Oct. 1 that online scheduling for the booster shot is currently available to community members who meet the NC DHHS guidelines. Those who meet the criteria can now schedule to receive their booster shot through Vidant Health at VidantHealth.com/Vaccinate or by calling 252-847-8000. 

The press release also states that a third dose is available to the immunocompromised who may not have responded to their initial Pfizer or Moderna vaccine series, but is not recommended to those who received Johnson and Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 vaccine. Individuals must wait 28 days after their second dose before pursuing the third. 

“In addition to the new booster shot eligibility, Vidant previously announced it is closely following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance to provide third doses to eligible community members,” the press release said. “A third dose may prevent serious and possibly life-threatening complications of COVID-19 in immunocompromised people who may not have responded to their initial vaccine series.”

The third dose is recommended for those who have had an organ or stem cell transplant, are receiving chemotherapy, taking biologic agents, high doses of prednisone, have a disease which weakens the immune system or if a doctor has said you’re immunosuppressed.  

Junior public health major Madeline Blohm spent time last summer as a caretaker in Charlotte, North Carolina. Blohm’s primary patient was a 78-year-old woman with parkinson's and dementia. With boosters and third doses now available, Blohm said everybody needs to look into getting the additional protection against the virus. 

“I think it is extremely important for not only the 65 and up age group to get vaccinated and receive the booster, but I think everyone should be vaccinated,” Blohm said. “The 65 and up age group is especially at risk because many of them have other chronic health conditions that can make the side effects of COVID-19 more serious.”  

The caretaking experience Blohm said enabled her to witness first hand just how vulnerable the 65 and older age group is to the virus. Blohm pointed out that the facility she worked at required masks outside the resident’s apartment and daily temperature checks before employees were allowed inside and made it a point to get every single resident vaccinated. 

Blohm said she was already fully vaccinated, but getting all of the residents vaccinated took some crafty thinking on the facility’s part. 

“Yes I am fully vaccinated,” Blohm said. “All of the residents had to be vaccinated and that caused some issues since a lot of them couldn’t drive to get a vaccine. The solution was to have CVS workers come to the facility and vaccinate all of the residents there.”

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