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Here's what to know about booster shots, now available for 3 COVID vaccines in Louisiana

A vaccinator draws a shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Phoebe Jones/WWNO
A vaccinator draws a shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Public health officials are urging many fully vaccinated people in Louisiana to get a booster shot in the wake of new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Thursday.

The move dramatically expands access to extra doses regardless of which coronavirus vaccine someone originally received.

Boosters are now recommended for anyone 18 years of age or older who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine two or more months ago.

People who were fully vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines at least six months ago are also advised to get a booster shot if they meet the CDC’s criteria:

  • Age 65 or older
  • Age 18 or older and have one of many underlying medical conditions that may increase their risk for a severe COVID-19 infection
  • Age 18 or older and live or work in a setting that places them at risk of being exposed to COVID-19, including long-term care settings

A key piece to the CDC's announcement is the ability to mix and match vaccines, which a study funded by the National Institutes of Health found to be safe.

State immunization director Dr. Frank Welch stressed in a briefing with reporters Friday that the regular series of one and two-shot COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective, but he said boosters can help.

“These are some of the most effective vaccines that we've had in history,” he said. “However, we have seen that immunity wanes to these vaccines a little bit.”

That’s a particular concern for people at high risk of contracting COVID-19, those at high risk of severe disease and people with compromised immune systems.

Unvaccinated people still comprise the vast majority of deaths, cases and hospitalizations, said state epidemiologist Theresa Sokol. She pointed to data from the CDC showing that in August, unvaccinated people were about 6 times more likely to be infected with COVID and about 11 times more likely to die from the virus.

But a significant number of fully vaccinated people are still dying, mostly as a result of their immune system responding less robustly to the vaccines — and the fact that COVID-19 is still spreading widely in Louisiana, where vaccination rates lag behind the national average.

As of this week, 733 people who were fully vaccinated in Louisiana have died of COVID-19, out of 14,462 total coronavirus deaths, Sokol said. And the vast majority of the vaccinated deaths — 75% — were 70 years of age or older.

“The single greatest risk factor for severe health outcomes among fully vaccinated individuals continues to be advanced age,” she said.

The most common underlying health conditions among the deaths of the vaccinated were the same illnesses that have been making people more at risk of getting seriously ill from the disease: diabetes, chronic kidney disease, chronic liver disease and immunocompromised health status.

The ability to mix and match vaccines will make it easier for people to get a booster shot, but Welch said there isn’t enough information on the longer-term impacts of mixing boosters to know which combination provides the best protection.

That leaves the decision up to individual people, and he advised those eligible for a booster to talk to their doctor about which shot might be best. The state also has a COVID-19 hotline.

“It really just is about exposing your body to those antigens of COVID,” Welch said.

Among those eligible for a booster are pregnant women and those who are trying to become pregnant or recently had a baby. Pregnancy suppresses the immune system, making it one of the underlying conditions that can lead to an increased risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

In September, the health department announced it had recorded 6 maternal deaths and 10 fetal deaths. Pregnant people remain one of the least vaccinated groups in the U.S. currently eligible for a vaccine: only 31% of expectant patients have received the jab, according to data published in September from the CDC.

The booster doses come as many in Louisiana remain unvaccinated. A little over half of adults — 58.5% — are fully vaccinated. Among children ages 12 to 17, only 31% are fully vaccinated.

Welch said the state is continuing to urge everyone eligible for the vaccine to get their shot. Vaccination remains “the best protection against COVID and what is going to bring this pandemic down to a manageable level,” he said.

But the boosters, in the meantime, will help those already vaccinated who continue to be the most vulnerable, and dampen the spread of the virus overall.

“The opportunity we have now for these booster doses will further reduce the occurrence of COVID related hospitalizations and deaths among Louisianans,” Sokol said.

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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