The people of Lahaina in Hawaii’s Maui County are justifiably angry that the unmistakable tall, green sirens posted all around the island’s coast were not activated last month to warn everyone of impending wildfires. Many lives could have been saved. On the mainland, residents have benefitted from timelier alerts made possible by technical advances in forecasting hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods more accurately. As in wartime, civilian populations can receive early alerts of danger and later warnings to seek shelter. Americans of my generation may recall the DEW line, a string of radar installations that would provide Distant Early Warning should hostile bombers cross the Arctic Circle toward North America.
Laboratory tests show that the updated vaccines, which have replaced all prior versions are effective against the currently circulating COVID variants called EG.5 and BA.2.86. (The now-withdrawn primary vaccines and boosters we received from 2020 until earlier this month are not good matches to the current variants, and most people’s vaccine-induced immunity has waned considerably, as have antibodies in people who contracted COVID before this summer.)
Here’s what you can do. The CDC recommends that all Americans six months and older receive the updated 2023-2024 vaccine. This may be done two months after your most recent COVID-19 immunization and three months (or as soon as you feel better) from a COVID-19 infection. Evidence presented to the CDC in support of this universal recommendation demonstrated that people in all age groups, including newborns and pregnant people, are at risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19, even when they have no underlying conditions. Of course, the groups at highest risk are older adults and people of any age with underlying and/or immune-compromising conditions.
The CDC also recommends that all Americans six months and older receive the annual flu vaccine that is now available. It may be given at the same time as the updated COVID-19 vaccine, ideally in different arms. Younger children and older adults are most at risk of serious influenza-related complications, for which the flu vaccine provides significant protection.
In addition to flu, winter also brings significant numbers of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases. Infants, young children, and older adults are at risk for severe illness and hospitalization from this virus that targets the lungs. For the first time, there is now an RSV vaccine for people over age 60, and eligible individuals should talk with their healthcare providers about receiving it. Multiple options exist to protect infants and young children, including vaccines given between pregnancy weeks 32 and 36 to protect newborns. Expectant and new parents should discuss which RSV options are best for them, their infants, and young children.
Your role in protection is to get vaccinated. Beyond that, get tested for COVID-19 and influenza when you have respiratory illness symptoms. Antiviral medications are available early on when you test positive for either. Stay home when sick, and with COVID-19, that means for at least five days. Wear a mask when infected (for at least 10 days with COVID-19) and more generally, when indoors in crowded public places during the winter respiratory season.
Despite being privately marketed for the first time this fall, COVID-19 vaccines will not cost anything out-of-pocket to all who get immunized. Private and government health insurance will cover the shots in full, so long as they are administered in-network. Uninsured people can receive no-cost COVID-19 vaccinations through the federal “Bridge to Access” program at local sites including pharmacies, the State Health Center at Water Tower Square (phone 570-327-3400, where free at-home COVID-19 tests are also available), and Federally Qualified Health Centers like River Valley Health & Dental.
Please visit vaccines.gov to find Bridge details and conveniently located COVID-19 vaccinations (and flu shots, too.) The Bridge program continues through December 2024, before which time Congress needs to do its duty to enact a free Vaccines For Adults program similar to Vaccines For Children that has served American youngsters without charge since 1993.
We are grateful that as we go about our lives, our defense department keeps constant watch over possible attacks on the U.S. We are grateful that without fuss or clamor, community and federal agencies continually perform safety tests on the air we breathe, the water we drink, the foods we eat, and the medicines we take. We should be grateful that careful, medical monitoring has assured us that the respiratory virus vaccines we will receive this fall are safe and highly effective in preventing serious illness, death, and long-lasting complications. Please do your part. Get the shot.
Barbara Hemmendinger, MSS, a member of the Lycoming County Health Improvement Coalition and a retired family medicine educator, belongs to Let’s End COVID!