Booster doses are now available for many vaccinated Mississippians, providing an extra barrier against transmission of COVID-19 for those vaccinated at the beginning of the year. But health-care professionals are also encouraging Mississippians to remember their flu shots as flu season approaches.
On Thursday, the Mississippi State Department of Health announced the availability of booster doses of Pfizer vaccine, available for anyone who received their second dose of Pfizer vaccine more than six months ago, and who falls into a broad category similar to the requirements for the original vaccine before the open enrollment period.
As Dr. Eric Topol explained in an extensive interview with the Mississippi Free Press, long-term vaccine protection against COVID-19 hospitalization and death remains strong, especially for individuals with healthy immune systems, but vaccine protection against transmission of the virus shows some slow waning over time. A booster dose can restore the antibody response and help prevent transmission in fully vaccinated adults.
Four groups qualify for a booster dose. Anyone over age 65 is automatically eligible for the additional shot, regardless of health conditions.
Any resident of a long-term care facility, like a nursing home, is also eligible for a booster dose, due to the importance of protecting the residents of such a high-risk environment.
Similarly, all workers in high-exposure environments are also recommended for booster doses. That includes a vast range of professions, including food service, teaching, transit and any other occupation that exposes the individual to large groups or the public. Workers in any health-care environment are automatically eligible for booster doses, regardless of age or health.
Finally, adults 18 to 64 years of age with a vast range of health risks also qualify for booster doses. The list includes numerous organ diseases, including kidney, lung and heart disease, but also common conditions that heighten the risk of complications from COVID-19, including hypertension, pregnancy, current or former smoking or drug abuse, or simply being overweight or obese.
While Pfizer-vaccinated Mississippians can currently seek a booster dose, those who received Moderna are in a slightly more complicated situation for the time being. Moderna has consistently lagged behind Pfizer during the approval process. While Moderna awaits regular booster dose approval, MSDH has made a third dose of the Moderna vaccine available to a much more limited pool of individuals.
Qualifying conditions for third doses are limited to circumstances that severely inhibit the function of the immune system, including active chemotherapy, organ transplants, advanced HIV infection and similarly debilitating diseases.
Flu Season Arrives
As Mississippi enters the 2021 flu season, however, medical experts are also urging everyone in the state to get a flu shot to reduce the effects of a potentially severe flu season. On Thursday, the Mississippi Free Press spoke with Dr. Jennifer Bryan of the Mississippi State Medical Association on the subject of the upcoming flu season.
“Particularly this year, we all really want to make sure that we get as much flu prevention on board as possible, in addition to COVID prevention, because we’re entering a season where we’re experiencing COVID fatigue, we’re tired of staying inside,” Bryan said.
An end to pandemic precautions may mean a return to regular spread of respiratory viruses like the flu. Last year, a combination of mask use, social distancing and a cutback on small gatherings helped crush the usual toll of the flu season.
The data show that 98% fewer individuals were hospitalized with the flu in the U.S. in 2020.
“Last year we didn’t see as much respiratory virus or flu transmission because we were taking a lot more precautions. This year looks to be more worrisome,” Bryan told the Mississippi Free Press.
After a year with significantly reduced transmission of the flu may result in a worse season, with the world missing a year of natural infections and the immune boost that follows. “You really need the seasonal waves to drive up population-level immunity and prevent large outbreaks,” immunologist Dr. Helen Chu told the Atlantic in late September.
“This will be the first season where we really have a significant concern of COVID-19 and influenza—a substantial amount—in the community, transmitting all at the same time,” Bryan said.
But there is one readily available option to help maintain that immune response against the flu: the flu shot. The flu shot is available now in doctor’s offices, pharmacies and other health-care settings around Mississippi. And those considering a COVID-19 booster have nothing to fear—experts state clearly that the two are entirely safe to take together.
“It’s perfectly fine, and actually recommended, to get these vaccines at the same time. We’re doing that a lot, putting the booster in one arm and the flu shot in the other one,” Bryan said.
Bryan’s advice is right in line with the medical consensus. Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN something very similar just this week. “You should get (the shots) as soon as you can, and in the most expeditious manner possible,” he said. “If that means going in and getting the flu shot in one arm, the COVID shot in the other, that’s perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.”
“It’s just smart,” Bryan said. “You can get COVID and flu at the same time. Nobody wants to be infected with either one of them, but those two together? That can really cause a problem.”