United Hebrew’s Medical Director Shares What You Need to Know
Late summer and early fall signal the transition to crisp weather, pumpkin spice lattes and… flu shots. In fact, according to the CDC, as of September 24th, 91.2 million doses of flu vaccine have been distributed in the U.S. for the 2022-23 season. Complicating things this year is the realization that flu season will likely coincide with the ongoing circulation of COVID-19.
In August, the FDA approved a new “bi-valent” COVID booster shot active against both the old, “original” COVID strain as well as the newer Omicron variants. Although the new booster shots were approved months ago, the New York Times reports that nearly half of adults have heard little or nothing about the latest vaccine.
To clear up any vaccine confusion and to discuss the importance of seasonal vaccines for older adults, we recently spoke with Dr. Elaine Healy, medical director and vice president of medical affairs at United Hebrew of New Rochelle. Dr. Healy emphasizes that individuals should also check with their physician for specific guidance on COVID booster and flu vaccinations.
Q: What vaccines should we all be thinking about now?
Dr. Healy: We need to make plans now to get both the flu vaccine and the new COVID booster. United Hebrew works diligently to protect its residents from influenza by administering the seasonal vaccine. We also offer the new COVID booster to our residents at our monthly COVID vaccine clinics. We also recommend that all adults, whether they’re part of the UH family or not, receive both the flu shot and the COVID booster. There are very few health-related reasons not to receive either vaccine.
Q: Why is it important to get the new COVID booster, especially for older adults?
A: The original vaccine is active against the original strain of COVID. This new formulation is bivalent, meaning it has the same ingredient as the initial vaccine plus an added component that protects against the Omicron Ba4 and Ba5 sub-variants. Since the booster diminishes the risk of serious complications, it offers a great benefit, especially for older adults who are at the highest risk due to weakened immune systems and comorbidities. For those who have been boosted, there is a lower rate of hospitalization and death due to COVID infection.
Q: Do you anticipate COVID shots being recommended annually, like flu shots?
A: There are still a lot of unknowns, but we’ll have more data on the new bivalent vaccine in the coming months. It’s fair to say that we will see an annual COVID vaccine based on current variants or what a new variant might look like, similar to how the flu vaccine works.
Q: Is it more important to get the COVID shot vs. the flu shot?
A: It’s essential to get both. Flu continues to be a health risk for older adults, and the vaccine offers important protection. For the COVID booster, the CDC has changed its definition of being up to date, and now it includes the newest booster. While the CDC recommends fully vaccinated people 12+ get the updated booster, it urges those 50+ to get it.
Q: Can you get the COVID booster and flu shot on the same day? What are the side effects?
A: Yes, you can. You can also mix and match the vaccines. If your original series was Pfizer, you could get the Moderna vaccine. Most people will have no side effects. Some may experience mild symptoms, like fatigue and soreness at the injection site.
Q: When should people get the vaccines?
A: We’re heading into flu season now, which will peak in February/March. So, getting the flu shot now gives you time to build immunity. It’s wise to get the COVID booster now and it’s easy to get them both at the same sitting.
Q: What should family members and caregivers of older adults know?
A: We encourage everyone to be vaccinated and boosted to avoid introducing a respiratory illness into our facility or a home where an older adult resides. Older adults are at greater risk for the complications that arise from these viruses, so we must do what we can to protect our loved ones. At United Hebrew, we have extensive protocols and plans in place if an outbreak occurs, but we’re hopeful that if we all take the proper steps now, we’ll have a safe and healthy season.
Dr. Elaine Healy is on the infection advisory committee for the American Medical Directors Association (AMDA) and the board of directors of New York Medical Directors Association (NYMDA), has presented at dozens of state and national industry conferences, and has authored white papers and book chapters on a range of topics in geriatric medicine. She was also presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award as a Doctor of Distinction by the Westchester/ Fairfield County Business Journals.