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By Robert Scott
If you are like me, you are tired of hearing about COVID-19 and just want to let it go. But we can’t. We may think we are finished with COVID, but unfortunately it is not finished with us.
Within the past month, both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) have updated their forecasts for this fall and winter. DHEC in particular has updated its recommendations for vaccines.
Why do the recommendations about COVID-19 and its vaccines keep changing? As a mathematician, I can answer that: it’s because we are learning more about the disease and gathering data, data that just did not exist a few months ago or a year ago. Too often, we are acclimated to saying a person is inconsistent or, worse, a flip-flopper if they say something one time only to same something even partially different six months or a year later. But that’s how science works. When COVID-19 vaccines first came out, nobody knew – nobody, not CDC, not DHEC – whether the vaccines would last for a lifetime, for a year, for six months. There was no data. There were no patients who had been given the vaccine five years or one year or even six months previously. Tests had shown the vaccines were both safe and effective – very safe, but the idea of “effective” depends on the calendar. Would it be effective for a week, a month, or a decade? That’s something that is educated guesswork until the medical community has sufficient data, real patients who had the vaccine that long ago. And, of course, the disease itself could be expected to mutate and to evolve unpredictably, as all living species do – including viruses, much more rapidly than most organisms because of their rapid reproduction cycle.
So, what is this latest vaccine, a booster, all about? Should you get it if you have already had the basic vaccine, perhaps even two doses and a booster or two? The short answer: yes, you should.
According to the CDC and to DHEC, the latest COVID-19 strains that have evolved from the Omicron variant are expected to “cause a resurgence this fall and winter,” and the latest booster – safety tested so far for all Americans aged 12 and over – will “restore protection that has waned since previous vaccination by targeting variants that are more transmissible and immune-evading.” Just as flu shots are recommended each year, different vaccinations from last year because we have the data about evolving influenza variants each year, all Americans can expect a recommendation to get an updated COVID shot as new versions are produced. The trick that the pharmaceutical industry is working toward is this: to have those new vaccines developed so that one only needs an annual vaccination rather than two or three times a year, as we have been doing for COVID-19 the last 18 months or so.
Will they be successful in doing that? Will the COVID-19 variants settle down, so to speak, to require only an annual vaccination update? We don’t know yet, because we don’t have the data. The disease just hasn’t been around long enough for us to know how it evolves over periods of three years or longer. The signs indicate it is becoming less virulent rather than more, but we don’t know for sure.
One thing you can rely on, though: you can trust the system. Ours is the most developed and trustworthy system in the world for fighting known diseases like cholera, typhus, typhoid, mumps, chicken pox, the flu – and now, COVID-19. Listen to the recommendations of the CDC and, here in South Carolina, follow the recommendations of DHEC. If you are aged 12 or over, get the latest booster.