Overrun hospitals, widespread illness may return if few Ohioans get new COVID booster

A new COVID booster could prevent cases from spiking again this fall and winter, but public health leaders and doctors worry fatigue and a lack of people getting the new shot could stunt its success.

The new booster shot, dubbed "bivalent" for its ability to protect against the original strain of COVID-19 and the now-dominant omicron variants, aims to bolster immune responses. Anyone age 12 and up is eligible for a reformulated booster so long as they've had at least two previous doses of any COVID vaccine and it's been two months or longer since their last COVID shot.

For some, it could be their fourth or fifth COVID shot in less than two years.

New COVID vaccines:Columbus doctors answer 3 major questions about new COVID 'bivalent' boosters

Related COVID-19 information: How to get a COVID-19 vaccine for children under 5 in the Columbus area

When it comes to the COVID pandemic, the "lay of the land six or seven months from now" is going to largely depend on how many Ohioans get the retooled booster, said Dr. Joe Gastaldo, medical director of infectious diseases at OhioHealth.

"I think everyone knows COVID fatigue is real," Gastaldo said. "I do think there's going to be a significant drop-off, especially for younger people."

State data shows Gastaldo has reason to worry about a lack of interest in getting the new booster.

With each successive COVID shot that's been recommended to the public, fewer Ohioans have gotten another jab.

More than 7.45 million Ohioans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine since the shots became available, according to the Ohio Department of Health. That accounts for 63.8% of the state's population.

But, just 6.9 million Ohioans completed their primary COVID vaccination regimen by getting their second doses, meaning 546,000 people never finished, state data shows. Even fewer received a booster shot, with the state health department reporting 3.77 million having done so as of Sept. 8

The drop-off from one shot to the next is worrisome, said Columbus Public Health commissioner Dr. Mysheika Roberts.

"I am concerned because it's another vaccine that our community has to be willing to accept," Roberts said. "We need to encourage people and make the case for why you should get this one too."

OhioHealth: OhioHealth to eliminate 637 jobs in its biggest layoff ever

The new COVID booster shots are widely available at area pharmacies. The Summit and Portage County health departments also are hosting vaccine clinics to get the shots in more arms.

Summit County Public Health is hosting the second of a two-day drive-thru booster clinic 9 a.m. to 3 pm. today at 1867 W. Market St. in Akron.

No walk-ins will be accepted and masks are required.

To schedule an appointment online, go to https://scph.link/bivalentvax Those without computer access can call 330-926-5795 to register.

The Portage County Health District also is offering community clinics with free COVID-19 primary vaccines and boosters (as well as flu shots) throughout the months of September and October. Visit https://www.portagecounty-oh.gov/portage-county-health-district for information and to make an appointment.

New COVID booster 'definitely going to protect you from being hospitalized and dying'

However, convincing the public to get another booster could be more difficult this time around.

In the nearly three years since the pandemic began, health departments have faced more than just COVID. Throughout the summer, a nationwide monkeypox outbreak left health departments "stretched thin," Roberts said.

Few pandemic precautions remain in place and many people have returned to their pre-COVID habits, which Roberts said may make a new booster seem like less of a necessity to some. While Roberts knows some may question the reformulated booster, she said the vaccine remains the best defense against another surge overwhelming hospitals and disruptions to daily life.

"Why wouldn't you further protect yourself by getting this bivalent booster?" Roberts said. "It's safe, it's effective and it is definitely going to protect you from being hospitalized and dying."

Ohioans can find a location for a shot through the federal vaccine finder website or the Ohio Department of Health's clinic directory.

Interest has been slow so far, but it's expected to pick up in the coming weeks, said Alexandria Jones, a registered nurse, assistant health commissioner and director of prevention and wellness for the Franklin County Health Department.

Ohioans should start making a plan to get one, Jones said. Preparing now may help people avoid the potential for long clinic lines, scarce appointments and possible supply issues as the holidays draw closer, she said.

"You never know what will happen between now and then so there's no reason to put it off," Jones said.

Health news: 'Something is happening': As suicides rise among Black girls, local leaders take action

Any amount of protection will prove helpful, she said.

That's especially true when it comes to preventing a new variant from emerging that can sneak past a person's immunity, Jones said. Such was the case with the highly contagious delta and later omicron variants that recently spread rapidly among Ohioans.

If enough people get this latest booster, not only could it prevent hospitals from being overrun later this year, but Jones said it could fend off the development of another threatening variant for now.

"We are kind of putting that kink in the transmission chain. Some is still better than none," Jones said.

mfilby@dispatch.com

@MaxFilby

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: More urged to get COVID boosters to prevent overrun hospitals