Latest on COVID-19 Omicron Boosters

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this month approved two new booster vaccines specifically formulated to target the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, so our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter want to bring you up to date on the latest information.

What’s different about this vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccines that have been in use since they were first rolled out in 2021 were all designed to target the original strain. They also effectively reduced hospitalizations and deaths against the different variants that emerged in the following months, including the widespread delta variant.

As the newest omicron subvariants emerged and are now responsible for 90 percent of COVID-19 infections, vaccine makers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna developed new, more tailored versions to specifically target them.

The new formula is defined as “bivalent,” meaning it protects against both the original strain as well as the highly contagious BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. They are the first updated COVID-19 vaccines to be cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“The updated COVID-19 boosters are formulated to better protect against the most recently circulating COVID-19 variant,” said CDC director Rochelle Walensky.

“They can help restore protection that has waned since previous vaccination and were designed to provide broader protection against newer variants,” she added. “This recommendation followed a comprehensive scientific evaluation and robust scientific discussion.”

Tests in mice have shown they produce a good immune system response to omicron’s BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.

Are they safe?

Some have questioned the safety of the new versions of the shots because they haven’t been tested in humans, only in mice. But the new vaccines have merely been “tweaked” to “change the recipe,” as the University of Colorado’s UCHealth website explains.

The original Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been fully tested in humans, and more than 600 million doses in the U.S. and millions more around the world have been given safely. The advisors and experts at both the FDA and the CDC have determined that the newly formulated booster shots are safe.

UCHealth infectious disease and COVID-19 expert Dr. Michelle Barron compared the new boosters to the flu shot, which is updated every fall as vaccine makers guess which strains of the flu will be circulating, and change the recipe to match. But the vaccine itself is not entirely new, she explained.

“We don’t test the flu shot each year. We just change it slightly,” Barron said.

“This new COVID-19 booster just tweaks the formula. The technology is the same. The safety of the vaccines will be exactly the same because it’s not a new vaccine,” she explained.

Who can get them?

The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for anyone ages 12 and older; the Moderna vaccine is authorized for adults 18 and older.

Like the previous coronavirus vaccines, the new boosters are free to the public. They will be available to anyone who has already had their primary vaccine series from any authorized U.S.-approved company regardless of how many boosters they’ve already received.

Public health officials recommend that those who are pregnant or have been pregnant recently should also get the updated boosters because they are at a slightly increased risk of more severe illness and death from COVID-19.

For those who recently received a booster of the previous vaccines, the FDA has set a minimum waiting period at two months, but advisers to the CDC recommend waiting longer: at least three months for those at high risk, or as long as six months for everyone else.

It’s also recommended that anyone who has recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection should wait at least three months to be vaccinated, not only to boost the effects of the vaccine but also to avoid the possibility of a rare side effect, heart inflammation, that sometimes affects teen boys and young men.

“If you wait a little more time, you get a better immunologic response,” CDC adviser Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University told CBS News.

According to the CDC, side effects are expected to be similar to those associated with the current vaccine, including headache and muscle soreness, occasional fatigue, and redness and swelling at the injection site.

What about other vaccines?

As we head into the fall flu season, several of our clients have asked whether they can get a coronavirus vaccine along with a flu vaccine. The answer is yes, one in each arm.

In fact, health officials have recommended this protocol, and the government is preparing to launch a campaign that will urge Americans to do just this, due to the possibility of the high spread of flu and COVID-19 this season.

As for the Jynneos monkeypox vaccine, the CDC suggests that adolescent and young adult men consider waiting four weeks after receiving the monkeypox vaccine before receiving a Moderna, Novavax, or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, because of the risk of inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart (pericarditis).

However, the agency adds that the monkeypox vaccination “should not be delayed” due to recently receiving a coronavirus vaccine.

If you have any questions about whether or not to get the new booster, don’t hesitate to contact us for advice.

New Guidance on COVID-19 Can Be Confusing

Sometimes it seems as though we need a spreadsheet to keep track of all the changing information and recommendations on COVID-19.

  • Masks/no masks?
  • Boosters? Maybe not, maybe now, maybe later.
  • Quarantine? Yes, no, who, and how long?

Our primary care concierge doctors in Jupiter don’t mean to criticize the researchers and public officials who are responsible for keeping us healthy. The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is, after all, a disease we’d never seen until early in 2019. No one knew how to deal with it.

And thanks to the combined efforts of scientists around the world, we’ve made tremendous strides in the effort to combat it.

But one thing few counted on was “pandemic fatigue,” which meant many people rapidly grew tired of taking precautions and radically altering their lifestyles to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

Which may be what’s behind the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p0811-covid-guidance.html

A new approach

This month the CDC relaxed many of its coronavirus recommendations, leaving measures to battle to limit viral spread largely up to individuals.

According to The Washington Post:

  • “No longer do schools and other institutions need to screen apparently healthy students and employees as a matter of course.
  • “The agency is putting less emphasis on social distancing—and the new guidance has dropped the ‘six-foot’ standard.
  • “The agency’s focus now is on highly vulnerable populations and how to protect them—not on the vast majority of people who at this point have some immunity against the virus and are unlikely to become severely ill.”

In releasing the new guidance, the CDC cited improved tools like vaccination, boosters, and treatments to better protect ourselves from the virus.

“We also have a better understanding of how to protect people from being exposed to the virus, like wearing high-quality masks, testing, and improved ventilation,” Greta Massetti, a CDC epidemiologist, said in a statement.

“This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” she added.

Isolation changes

In one fairly substantial shift, for example, the CDC no longer recommends quarantine if you’re up to date with your vaccines and have been exposed to COVID-19. Instead, you should mask for 10 days and get tested on Day Five.

Additional CDC guidance on isolation includes the following:

  • If you’ve tested positive and have a healthy immune system, regardless of your vaccination status, you should isolate yourself for five days. On Day Six, you can end isolation if you no longer have symptoms or have not had a fever for 24 hours and your symptoms have improved.
  • Once isolation has ended, you should wear a high-quality mask through Day 10. If you test negative on two rapid antigen tests, however, you can stop wearing your mask sooner.
  • Until Day 11 at least, you should avoid visiting or being around anyone who is more likely to have severe outcomes from COVID-19, including the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

These changes stem from a new statistic, according to Massetti: 95 percent of the U.S. population has at least some level of immunity against the virus, either from vaccination or previous infection.

What about boosters?

As for booster shots, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally decided last month against allowing adults younger than 50 to become eligible for a second booster vaccine (for a total of four mRNA shots).

Currently, only those age 50 and older and children at least 12 years old with impaired immune systems can get a second booster.

This is because the agency expects to have reformulated mRNA boosters available by next month that will contain components from both the original virus and its variants, as well as from the currently circulating (and highly contagious) omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.

Meanwhile, the FDA still recommends that anyone under age 50 receive a single booster shot, and people older than 50 or those with weakened immune systems receive a second mRNA booster.

The mask question

No one likes wearing masks, especially in the heat. However, our primary care concierge doctors believe it’s better to err on the side of caution, especially if you’re immunocompromised or older than 65.

Especially given the new CDC guidance revisions, there’s no harm in wearing a mask in crowded indoor situations with poor ventilation.

It’s true that we now have effective treatments for COVID-19, but given the risk of long COVID—one recent study found that as many as one in every eight people who contracted it had lingering symptoms—what’s the point in taking unnecessary chances?

It’s up to you, of course, but in a recent interview with The Post, Ziyad Al-Aly, an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, compared the current state of the country to “the Wild West.”

“There are no public health measures at all,” he told the paper.

“We’re in a very peculiar spot, where the risk is vivid and it’s out there, but we’ve let our guard down and we’ve chosen, deliberately, to expose ourselves and make ourselves vulnerable.”

Why Monkeypox Is Not Like COVID-19

Last month, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the newly spreading monkeypox virus a global health emergency.

This has prompted many to fear we’re heading into another coronavirus situation, as our concierge primary care doctors in Jupiter have found from talking with our patients.

While this is a debilitating, painful, and—occasionally—deadly virus, there are many reasons why it’s very dissimilar to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The history is different

Although both originated as “zoonotic” diseases—that it, they began in animals and spread to humans—we have a far longer history with monkeypox, meaning we know more about it than we did when the coronavirus first appeared.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks of a pox-like disease occurred in colonies of monkeys kept for research, thereby giving the disease the name “monkeypox.” Its typical animal hosts, however, are rodents and other small mammals.

The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo during a period of intensified effort to eliminate smallpox. Since then, monkeypox has been reported in humans in other central and western African countries.

Although relatively new to the U.S., a large monkeypox outbreak occurred here in 2003 as a result of imported rodents.

Transmission is different

Next, the ways the two viruses are transmitted are completely different.

Unlike the largely airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through aerosols that linger in the air, the monkeypox virus can only be spread through close contact with an infected person or animal, or materials such as bedding or towels that are contaminated with the virus.

In addition, monkeypox appears to be far less transmissible than COVID-19. One study found that just three percent of those in close contact with an infected person would develop monkeypox.

It appears at this time to be spreading primarily among gay and bisexual men following sexual encounters, but anyone who comes into close and prolonged, direct contact with the pox sores can become infected.

Even women, and at least two children, have been reported to have contracted monkeypox, as a result of being in close proximity to men who have sex with other men.

The symptoms are different

Unlike the stealth infections of the coronavirus, it’s very apparent when a person is infected with monkeypox. As with COVID-19 and other viruses, they develop fever, headache or body aches, chills, muscle aches, and exhaustion.

These symptoms are also similar to those of smallpox, a cousin of monkeypox, with one difference:

“A feature that distinguishes infection with monkeypox from that of smallpox is the development of swollen lymph nodes,” the CDC says.

Otherwise, however, both smallpox and monkeypox exhibit the same signature fluid-filled lesions (the so-called “pox”), which the coronavirus doesn’t produce. Some individuals have these sores all over the body, while others may have only a single lesion. This rash can be extremely painful.

The vaccines are different

When COVID-19 first appeared two-and-a-half years ago, it was a brand new virus (i.e., “novel” coronavirus).

We knew nothing about it, and at the time had no way to combat it in the form of either effective treatments or vaccines.

Because of our long history with monkeypox, however, we do have vaccines and antiviral treatments. Monkeypox and smallpox come from the same family of viruses (although monkeypox is not as severe as smallpox). That has allowed us to utilize the stockpile of smallpox vaccines and antivirals to fight monkeypox.

And, unlike the coronavirus vaccines, the vaccines for monkeypox are effective even after infection, if given within four days of exposure. Even if the vaccine is given as late as two weeks after exposure, it can still lessen the likelihood of severe illness.

Not to worry?

Does all this mean we don’t have to panic about monkeypox? Panic is never a good idea because it prevents thoughtful responses in a crisis. But at this time the monkeypox outbreak still appears to be confined largely to men who have sex with men and those who are closest to them and who may come in contact with the open sore or infected linens.

If you fall into one of those categories, it’s important to take precautions until the supply of vaccines and antivirals becomes sufficient to cover everyone at high risk of exposure, because cases are spreading rapidly in the U.S. At the end of July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 3,500 confirmed cases but noted that is probably a significant undercount.

Experts advise that, if you’re at risk, you temporarily reduce your number of sexual partners, reconsider sex with new partners, and exchange contact details with any new partners to enable follow-up, if necessary.

Infected people are encouraged to self-isolate from other humans as well as pets, and to wear a mask and long clothing over any sores.

Although there is currently a limited supply of vaccines in the U.S., the government has purchased 2.5 million doses, which should be available in the coming weeks. This means it isn’t yet enough available to offer shots to all high-risk individuals.

So until there is, take precautions, and let us know if you think your symptoms might be those of monkeypox. It’s a painful, debilitating, and sometimes deadly disease, but we can treat it if it’s caught in time.

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