Food and Drug Administration authorization and Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation for a second booster dose of Pfizer-BioNTech and Modern COVID-19 vaccines for people age 50 or older, and for certain people whose the immune system is weakened, is good news for groups most exposed to this still dangerous virus. But that can’t distract us from the real fight we face: Building widespread immunity against COVID-19 by increasing the number of people vaccinated.
Based on what we know and continue to learn about the virus, we will most likely have to manage COVID-19 as an endemic disease, instead of completely eliminating transmission and bringing the number of cases down to zero. Our experience with several variants and subvariants of SARS-CoV-2, including the Delta and Omicron variants and the BA.2 Omicron subvariant, tells us that another surge may well occur in the coming months. It would be stupid of us to think otherwise.
Vaccination remains our most powerful weapon to mitigate the impact of the virus today, this fall, next year and beyond. As physicians, we must continue to encourage our patients and those within our spheres of influence to get vaccinated and to receive a booster. We build confidence in vaccines by taking our patients’ questions or concerns seriously and directing them to the mountains of credible, science-backed data which shows the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
As the United States steadily moves toward the once unthinkable total of 1 million COVID-19 deaths, the sad reality is that a stubbornly low rate of nationwide COVID-19 vaccination continues to limit our response. At the end of March 2022, CDC figures showed that 65.5% of the eligible US population was fully vaccinated. In some states, the rate was just over 50%. And of those who are fully vaccinated nationwide, less than half of those recommended to receive a booster have done so.
As a family physician with decades of experience in my native South Carolina, I know firsthand the consequences of misinformation and vaccine resistance. I am disheartened that the politicization of this pandemic, along with a well-coordinated disinformation campaign about the virus, effective treatments and the vaccines themselves, have been major obstacles to putting this tragic chapter behind us. . The truth is, when unvaccinated people see the horrors of this virus up close – when a family member has trouble breathing in the ICU – they often ask how quickly they can get the vaccine. It shouldn’t be like this.
Make no mistake: The decision to offer a second Moderna or Pfizer booster to the elderly and people with compromised immune systems is a good step. But there is an urgent need to bring unvaccinated people into the fold while convincing everyone who is eligible to get their initial booster dose to get it.
One of the positive aspects of the COVID-19 vaccination effort that began in December 2020 has been the willingness of so many of our fellow citizens to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Now that a second booster has been authorized for certain populations, we can expect a significant number of these people to seek one without the need for persuasion or prompting.
Those who need convincing to accept a first vaccine, however, are another story. Those who remain unvaccinated will continue to unnecessarily endanger their own lives while endangering others, including those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or who are not eligible for other reasons. Widespread vaccination remains the best way forward for all of us, and it is important to keep up to date with vaccinations. Physicians are trusted voices when our patients suddenly face a health emergency. And that confidence in these difficult times makes it essential that we continue to be outspoken ambassadors for science and evidence in the fight against COVID-19. Our role and our voice are crucial until we can say with confidence that the worst of this pandemic is behind us.