The Wright Medicine: Vaccines remain best weapon against COVID-19

A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

It’s hard to believe and disheartening that we are now two full years into the COVID-19 pandemic without a clear end in sight. Without question, COVID-19 fatigue has set in — not just amongst the general public, but amidst our health care providers as well.

Nonetheless, we cannot afford to let our guard down now and tire, as we’re facing another surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, both locally and nationally. The delta variant remains the predominant strain, while the new omicron variant has begun to emerge throughout the United States with its severity still being determined.

We must remain vigilant, especially now that we’re fully into the holiday season and people are gathering socially more often. This is a special time, and family and friends are everything, so we have to be mindful to protect them and ourselves. The best way to do that is for everyone eligible to get vaccinated.

Here in Northeast Pennsylvania, our COVID vaccination numbers have been good, but there still remains a segment of the population who remain skeptical of the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness. So, it’s incumbent upon those of us in the medical field, and for you members of the public who have been vaccinated, to continue to stress their safety and efficacy while generating and respecting sacred space necessary to explore and transform vaccine hesitancy of our fellow citizens with compassion and honor.

The last several months have seen new developments regarding the available COVID-19 vaccines and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are clear but evolving. Patients 18 years of age and older who received their two primary shots of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines are now encouraged by the CDC to receive a full additional dose of the same manufacturer vaccine if moderately or severely immunocompromised 28 days after the second primary dose and, for the general public, a half-dose Moderna booster shot (18+ years of age) or full-dose Pfizer booster (16+ years of age) shot six months after the last primary dose to bolster their immunity against the virus and its continually evolving mutations.

The CDC does notably allow changes of the manufacturer for boosters. Although additional primary doses for immunocompromised patients are not advised for those who received a single primary dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, boosters of any COVID-19 available vaccines are advised two months after the primary dose.

Thankfully, children ages 5 to 17 can now receive the Pfizer vaccine, and additional third full doses of the Pfizer vaccine are recommended 28 days after the last dose for patients 12 years of age and older who are immunocompromised. Boosters of the Pfizer vaccine are available for those 16 and 17 years of age six months after their second dose.

Here at The Wright Center for Community Health, we have been welcoming the opportunity to vaccinate the children of our community and delayed adult adopters. These prevention efforts generate daily hope of counteracting the recent unprecedented high positivity rates of COVID-19 testing and escalating therapeutic monoclonal antibody infusions in our daily workflow.

At this time, patients younger than 16 years of age without any moderately to severely immunocompromised state are not eligible for a booster.

It is also heartening to see local school districts’ administration and nursing leadership continuing to do a very admirable job of promoting vaccination, meticulously contact-tracing and quarantining when necessary to optimize keeping their schools open and their teachers and students as safe as possible.

Thankfully, we have and continue to learn at unprecedented rates during this pandemic. While breakthrough cases of COVID-19 can and do happen amongst the vaccinated, the data overwhelmingly shows with undeniably clarity that vaccinated individuals are much less likely than those unvaccinated to develop severe symptoms, become hospitalized, develop long-term complications, or die.

Obviously, like with most vaccines, some people experience a variety of side effects after receiving their shots, but for the vast majority of cases they go away within a day or two. In clinical trials, side effects remain mild and similar to those seen with other vaccines. The most common side effect is a sore arm. COVID-19 vaccines have undergone the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. medical history. No question, the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh the risks.

Getting vaccinated and boosted affords the most confidence to resume many of the activities that you enjoyed pre-pandemic, while still being mindful to wear masks in indoor areas, especially at high-volume events where the virus can spread more easily. Staying mindful with mask precautions is still important as our region remains an area of high current transmission.

Overall, it’s important to continue to stress that the COVID-19 vaccines are remarkable scientific breakthroughs that have been produced and scaled in record time, and that we need to trust the science and allow the vaccines to do their job of protecting us and delivering us through the pandemic. For those of you who have loved ones or friends or colleagues who remain vaccine hesitant, kindly but persistently encourage them to explore and overcome their hesitancy to get vaccinated. They can easily get their shots at any number of health care facilities throughout our region, including here at The Wright Center for Community Health.

Since this is my final column of the year, I’d like to wish everyone a happy, healthy holiday season, filled with family, friends and good cheer. Let’s all take a moment of silence for those we have tragically lost to COVID-19 and their families. Let’s be mindful of our health and the overall health of our community, and let’s do our part to end this tragic pandemic. Hopefully, 2022 will be a year of great promise and renewal. We have a lot of work to do catching up on overdue attention to our health needs because of the pandemic. It’s a long haul for sure and a crucial time to be more united than ever.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, is president and CEO of The Wright Centers for Community Health and Graduate Medical Education. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

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