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Here's an update on COVID-19 vaccines

Rebecca Smith
Rebecca Smith
COVID vaccines continue to be updated to best combat new and emerging COVID-19 variants.

The new, updated COVID-19 vaccine was approved yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control & Preventionand is expected to be available in coming days.

The new formulation is designed to better fend off the omicron subvariants of the disease currently causing increases in cases across the country – and in Missouri. As of Sept. 2, 2023, the CDC COVID Trackers shows hospitalizations in Missouri increased 20% from the prior week.

The CDC recommends everyone six months or older get the updated Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine – especially those who are at the most risk: people older than 55 years, the very young and those who have underlying conditions.

A hand holds a COVID-19 test that shows a strong positive result.
Anna Spidel
An important step to protecting yoruself and your community against COVID-19 is testing regularly if exposed. This test shows a positive result.

“If you have not received a COVID-19 vaccine in the past two months, get an updated COVID-19 vaccine to protect yourself this fall and winter,” the CDC release stated.

Research shows vaccination has been shown to reduce the chance of severe illness and death from COVID-19, as well as the likelihood of catching the illness in the first place.

The CDC expects most private insurance to cover the cost of the new COVID-19 vaccine, but they launched the “Bridge Access Program” in July to cover the costs of the shot for underinsured and uninsured Americans.

“CDC is partnering with state and local public health agencies, health centers, and pharmacies to ensure that all adults nationwide maintain access to lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines. Ultimately, we know that vaccines save money and lives,” Director Dr. Mandy Cohen said in a news release.

Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services and MU Health Care do not yet have the vaccine in hand, but they anticipate doses arriving soon.

KBIA’s Rebecca Smith sat down with epidemiologist Nathan Koffarnus, the Assistant Bureau Chief for the Bureau of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention at the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to talk about the current surge and the updated vaccine.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Rebecca Smith: Here we are, you know, 2023 September – still talking about COVID-19. Where are we at with these current variants? What are we seeing driving infections? And have we actually seen a new surge or increase in cases, hospitalizations, etc.?

Nathan Koffarnus: Sure. Well, I certainly think, you know, based on the surveillance that we have available to us, we're seeing an increase in cases, and I don't think that's unexpected or unusual.

It's pretty typical to see a little bit of a bump in late August and September, and we're certainly seeing some of that. Our cases started to really tick up a little bit in kind of, like, late July, so that would even be before the school bump.

"These vaccines – they can prevent you acquiring the illness at all, but for a lot of other people, even if they get it, it helps make it much more mild."
Nathan Koffarnus

So, I do think we're going to have more cases this fall and winter than what we had the last few months, and again, that's pretty expected just with any kind of respiratory disease. Fall and winter – cold weather months – tend to be when things spread the most.

Smith: Can you talk a little bit about what you think is maybe driving that push, I mean, are we seeing, like, more virulent strains?

Koffarnus: I don't know that I'd say they’re markedly more virulent, and I should also clarify that all of these variants that we're talking about right now are subvariants of omicron.

And that means that if you've had a previous infection with a type of omicron, if you've had a previous vaccination that was based on the omicron variant of COVID – you still got some pretty good protection because your body is going to recognize at least pieces of that virus and basically fight it off.

So, I don't think COVID is going anywhere. I think we'll be living with this for decades to come – maybe the whole rest of our lives.

But I do think that there may at times be scarier strains that pop up – just like sometimes we have a really bad flu year, but, you know, we've got better tools to deal with it. We just move on from there.

Smith: Now, you know, you mentioned this – that it's not going anywhere, you know, that's going to be much more like flu. I guess, you know, one of the questions that people have is why should we keep caring? Or are we at that point that it should just be a normal part of our fall/winter preparations?

A graphic that reads: "How to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19. Stay home when you are sick. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines. Wear a well fitting mask if you are feeling unwell. Wash your hands regularly." Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Created by Rebecca Smith

Koffarnus: That is the goal – is to kind of handle it more like flu or more like just any of the other respiratory viruses that circulate. I do think that the future is more of a seasonality, where we look at: 'What is COVID season look like for this year? For this season?'

I think what people have to remember is deaths due to COVID have definitely dropped a lot since the early days of the pandemic, but it's still deadlier than flu – particularly for folks with preexisting medical conditions, for folks that are, you know, I'd say over about 55.

We would love for more people to get the flu vaccine too, you know. These vaccines – they can prevent you acquiring the illness at all, but for a lot of other people, even if they get it, it helps make it much more mild.

And it also helps protect the people around you because, you know, you want to keep your elderly parents from picking it up from you or you don't want to give it to your children or the little lady in church that sits next to you or things like that.

Smith: Wonderful. And then just the last question I had for you, Nathan – are we gaining a better understanding of long COVID?

Koffarnus: The one thing I would say is: it's still probably not super well understood.

And I think it's going to take us years to really understand because, I mean, I feel like I've lived a couple of lifetimes since 2020 when all this started, for sure. I think most people are there. It seems like so long, but that's not a lot of time to study long-term effects. So, that’s just kind of how research works.

Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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