By Philip Wegmann for RealClearPolitics
The coronavirus is evolving and so could what it means to be immunized — or “fully vaccinated,” in the parlance of this pandemic. President Biden’s science advisers are already considering whether two shots are enough to meet that requirement.
But for now, even as the new omicron variant emerges, the public health guidance remains straightforward.
White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients boiled down the current health guidance for reporters on Tuesday as the administration braces for omicron to make landfall in the U.S. (if it’s not already here, as many experts believe).
“Our message is simple,” Zients explained. “If you were fully vaccinated before June, go get a booster today — getting boosted will give you the highest level of protection from COVID and this new variant.”
The prescription comes while researchers are still trying to determine whether the latest strain can evade the vaccine to some extent and what level of protection those immunizations will offer. Already more than 450 million doses have been administered in the United States: Nearly 60% of adults have gotten two shots while just over 70% have received one, according to the Bloomberg vaccine dashboard.
And that is good progress. For months, infectious-disease experts had promised that a vaccination rate between 70% and 85% would be enough to achieve herd immunity. (According to the most recent CDC numbers, 36 million boosters have been administered.)
Raising the bar by making a third shot necessary to qualify as fully vaccinated, and thus to comply with government vaccine mandates, would be incredibly controversial. Asked twice on Tuesday if that is in the works, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said that the standard hasn’t yet changed — but it could.
“As that science evolves,” Walensky said of ongoing research about omicron, “we will look at whether we need to update our definition of ‘fully vaccinated.’”
Her agency announced Monday that all adults who are eligible should get a booster. Previously, the CDC only said publicly that adults “may” get a booster dose. But two days before Thanksgiving, before South African officials broke the alarming news that a new variant had emerged, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor was musing that standards might soon change.
“Right now, officially, ‘fully vaccinated’ equals two shots of the mRNA and one shot of the J&J, but without a doubt that could change,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told Reuters. “That’s on the table for discussion.”
While more research is needed, the Biden administration has already started coordinating with pharmaceutical companies if a new modified vaccine or booster is needed to combat omicron. If that is in fact necessary, Zients told reporters that vaccine manufacturers could have an updated dose in production in “a few months.”
Why then would getting boosted or vaccinated with the existing crop of vaccines be necessary, or even protective, against the new variant? Fauci welcomed that question and answered it directly.
The current vaccines are designed to combat the original coronavirus, which Fauci identified as the “Wuhan strain.” Get dosed, and you receive the necessary antibodies to fight that initial virus. As for the delta variant, that strain has diminished, “somewhat, the protection that is induced by the vaccines.” But even against delta, Fauci explained, the vaccine provides a “degree of protection.”
Health officials have stressed for months that a vaccinated individual who comes down with a so-called breakthrough case from delta still enjoys protections against serious illness from the disease. Notably, they say, the chance of hospitalization is significantly reduced.
Using that past experience with delta as a potential guide for future encounters with omicron, Fauci added, “We know that when you boost somebody, you elevate your level of protection very high. And we are hoping — and, I think, with good reason to feel good — that there will be some degree of protection.”
As an academic question, that scientific discussion is simple enough. But the guidance that influences government mandates is already stoking a red-hot political controversy. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said last month that individuals who have received only two doses of the vaccine “will be determined to be unvaccinated very soon.”
He predicted that anyone who doesn’t receive a booster shot could lose their “fully vaccinated” status in the eyes of the law and, therefore, “could potentially face loss of employment or other types of penalties.”
For that, DeSantis was roundly mocked. And at least one independent fact-checker flagged the claim by the Republican governor as false. The debate raged on regardless, with two Democratic governors weighing in.
New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham said two weeks later that the standard should be three shots. Her state doesn’t have a vaccine mandate, but she said officials were “analyzing what we can do to create those incentives — and potentially mandates — for making sure that people are fully vaccinated, which means three vaccines.”
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont expressed the same sentiment. “From my point of view,” said Lamont, “if you were vaccinated more than six months ago, you’re not fully vaccinated.”
Multiple doses of immunization are nothing new when it comes to other diseases. The World Health Organization, for instance, recommended that to prevent against hepatitis B, infants should be vaccinated within 24 hours of birth and then two to three more times within the next six months. Those standards, of course, were not developed amid a contentious pandemic.
Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.
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