Health experts: COVID vaccine boosters important in Tri-Cities region

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As the Food and Drug Administration voted unanimously to recommend a booster dose of the Johnson and Johnson and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, local health experts say these doses are important for the Tri-Cities region as vaccine turnout remains low.

“It will prevent you from getting a severe disease, something that could be fatal or catastrophic to you – it will prevent you from getting that,” said Dr. Amit Vashist, Ballad Health’s Chief Clinician.

But the unfortunate reality for health care workers in the Tri-Cities region is the low uptake of the original doses of the vaccine, much less the booster shots.

“Here’s the deal, the majority of the patients who end up in our ICU end up in the ventilators as such and who are dying, they are unvaccinated,” Vashist said. “That is not happening because they did not take their booster shot, but it has nothing to do with that very vast majority, who end up where they are on ventilators in the ICU because they never took the first shot, they never had the vaccination in the first place.”

In Southwest Virginia, the percentage of booster doses administered to people 65 years and older is just over half the entire state’s percentage.

“Our uptake of boosters has been relatively lower so far, but that hasn’t been a huge surprise to us because we primarily gave Moderna at our clinics. So if/when a Moderna booster is approved, we expect there to be a bigger demand, but we just don’t have as many Pfizer doses to boost,” said Breanne Forbes Hubbard, Population Health Manager for Mount Rogers Health District, Virginia Department of Health.

Most people over the age of 65 years have been eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine since early 2021.

“They’re some of the ones that were eligible first because they were so vulnerable. So it’s really, it’s really sad whenever there’s any unnecessary suffering, illness and death that could have been prevented with the vaccine,” Hubbard said.

With a local population that is poorer, sicker and more prone to serious COVID-19 disease due to low vaccination rates already, doctors said they hope to curb the confusion about booster shots.

“The more important issue at hand is ‘Will I be protected if I took a booster shot against a severe disease?’ The answer is ‘absolutely yes.’ The jury is very clear on that,” Vashist said.

“The booster shot has been approved for half the dose than the regular shot. Just because the levels of antibodies produced by Moderna are so high, they don’t require the full dose that will enable us to have more vaccines to people who need it, so I think that would be a good point.”

As an FDA panel approves emergency authorized use for J&J and Moderna’s booster shots, all three major vaccine providers in the U.S. could soon provide that, breaching the gap for those most vulnerable populations from getting seriously ill from COVID-19 and being hospitalized.

“We’ve seen multiple cases of reinfections,” Hubbard said. “With the Delta variant over, the last surge of cases, the best possible protection is still to get our vaccination coverage up and that’s really the way that we can get back to life the way we want it to look. I mean, we know that the whole community is sick of COVID, is sick of hearing us talk about COVID; we are sick of it too. You know, we share all those same feelings, but the best thing we have is vaccination.”

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