As summer ends, millions of Americans should pop around the corner for a healthy double — that is, a pair of vaccinations, one targeted against the latest, widely circulating coronavirus Omicron variants and the other shot to fight the seasonal flu, federal health officials say.
The newest booster for the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants should be available at drug stores, clinics, and doctors’ offices this coming week, regulators at the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Infection have decided.
The coronavirus shots, as occurs with annual flu vaccines, will be based on existing products that have been given to huge populations globally — safely, with great effectiveness, but now without extensive clinical trials that were conducted of previous formulas of the vaccines.
The public health messaging about these latest coronavirus shots is mixed — and, as always, comes with criticism. Experts this time around are declining to stress that vaccinations will serve in major ways to prevent coronavirus infection and quell the pandemic. Instead, they underscore that the vaccines, combined with an array of antiviral treatments, prevent patients from experiencing the maximum harms of a virus that has killed more than 1 million Americans and infected more than 94 million of us.
Getting vaccinated, boosted, wearing face coverings in crowded, indoor settings, and minimizing the socializing with others will reduce infections and slash hospitalizations, as well as the persistent pandemic toll — 500 deaths per day, a figure that has stubbornly stayed at disconcerting levels that are far lower than the grim numbers seen earlier.
The prospects, though, don’t look great for public health officials and the Biden Administration to refocus regular folks’ attention on quelling the pandemic heading into the fall and winter, especially with a campaign for increased vaccinations and boosters for significant numbers of grownups, and including those as young as 12.
Adult and youth vaccinations and boosters have plateaued, and, despite the high hopes that experts had for inoculating kids 6 and younger, shots have lagged in that age group, too. This is true, even as young people have flocked back to schools, colleges, and universities.
Public health officials, based on the reverse-season experiences of people “down under” (in Australia and New Zealand), also are concerned that the United States may face a ferocious flu season. Because so many people around the globe took pandemic precautions, the flu has waned in severity in recent times. That is a fading phenomenon, according to the experiences of those experiencing cooler winter in the Southern Hemisphere and a rugged flu season. While many Americans skip annual flu shots, which can vary in the annual effectiveness, public health officials are pushing the public to get these shots and the latest coronavirus vaccine to avert yet another unhappy wave of illness, hospitalizations, and deaths.
In the meantime, congressional Republicans — who have regarded as theologically anathema almost any federal role in the nation’s health care and health systems — have fought against further funding the fight against the pandemic. This has forced the administration, the White House says, into slow cuts in programs, notably in providing free, fast coronavirus tests. They no longer are available for no-cost, home delivery through the U.S. Postal system.
The GOP intransigence on pandemic fighting soon, too, will set up more serious consequences for regular folks. They will be hit with tough, real costs of dealing with the coronavirus, as the administration cannot sustain indefinitely a declared, public health emergency that allows the federal government to underwrite many pandemic costs.
After the fall push for coronavirus shots, medical insurers and Big Pharma will step in a big way into vaccination efforts. For insured patients, this may not have such a bite, as their coverage likely will pay for coronavirus and flu shots. The poor, working poor, and uninsured won’t have an automatic extension of such benefits — and they will struggle or forgo important safeguards, risking their wellbeing, as a result.
The impending changes in the federal and state roles in dealing with the coronavirus can have a significant financial sting, too, for those who get sick enough to require hospitalization. The tab for caring for a serious coronavirus case can be hefty, especially since these incidences too often involve patients with underlying conditions that contribute to or worsen their situations.
The administration has asked Congress for $47 billion for supplemental spending to combat the coronavirus, a worrying outbreak of monkeypox, as well as to fund U.S. aid in Ukraine’s war with Russia and to assist Kentucky flood victims. Analysts expect a Capitol Hill row over this budget request.
Those who choose to ignore the perils of the pandemic and who have returned to “normality” also put themselves and their loved ones, friends, and colleagues at risk of exposure to infection with Long Covid. Doctors and medical scientists are knocking away at determining better care for this serious, chronic condition that afflicts as many as 1 in 5 people infected with the coronavirus, or tens of millions of Americans to some degree. It is sufficiently debilitating that experts estimate it has kept as many as 4 million people out of a U.S. economy strapped for workers.
In my practice, I not only see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the clear benefits they may enjoy by staying healthy and far away from the U.S. health care system. It is fraught with medical error, preventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses. Patients also suffer far too many harms due to bankrupting and dangerous drugs
In pre-pandemic times, medical errors claimed the lives of roughly 685 Americans per day — more people than died of respiratory disease, accidents, stroke and Alzheimer’s. That estimate came from a team of researchers led by a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins. It meant that medical errors ranked as the third leading cause of death in the U.S., behind only heart disease and cancer. (The coronavirus, of course, has risen has a leading killer of Americans.)
Under pandemic duress, wrong determinations about patient conditions, no doubt, occurred, likely with greater frequency. Just to remind all of us of further pre-pandemic research findings in this area: Diagnostic errors affect an estimated 12 million Americans each year and likely cause more harm to patients than all other medical errors combined, studies have found. And misdiagnoses boost health costs through unnecessary tests, malpractice claims, and costs of treating patients who were sicker than diagnosed or didn’t have the diagnosed condition. Experts recently noted in a health care online report that inaccurate diagnoses waste upwards of $100 billion annually in the U.S.
We are not done with the pandemic — and the infection doesn’t care how casual we wish to be about the death and debilitation it can cause. Those with heightened vulnerability — those who are older, immunocompromised, overweight, and with underlying conditions, or individuals from hard-hit communities of color — still should stay careful, including by keeping on their masks. One-way masking has protective benefits.
The vaccines remain life changers and life savers. If you have not gotten your coronavirus shots, please do so, boosters and all, pronto. Those who had hang-ups about the existing, novel shots, notably with their innovative underlying technology, soon may have access to a late-arriving vaccine made in more traditional ways.
If you haven’t chatted with your doctor for a bit, you should — especially about whether your individual health would benefit from the latest dose of vaccine and when might be the time to get it. (For more information, click here for a New York Times FAQ or here for the Washington Post’s 411 on the latest vaccine).
Parents should discuss with pediatricians the potential shots for and boosters for the little kids’ older siblings. (Get the young folks caught up on their shots now if you can, too.) If you have been exposed or think you have gotten infected, please get tested — and quarantine or isolate to protect yourself and others. as recommended. Get in touch with your doctor, urgently, if you test positive to see if you may benefit, too, from treatments now available for the coronavirus