By KAMMONKE OBASE-WOTTA and ROBYN H. JIMENEZ
The Dallas Examiner
The Dallas-Fort Worth remains code yellow, along with most of the country, which means the current risk level of COVID-19 in the area is medium according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The best form of protection has been vaccination, according to the CDC.
“Approximately 16.4% have received the updated booster dose with the omicron variant. And so, we are at a much better state than we were at the end of last year,” said Dr. Meenakshi Ramanathan an associate professor of pharmacotherapy. Her current practice site is the Medical Center of Arlington, where she works as an antimicrobial stewardship pharmacist.
Ramanathan was the key speaker during a webinar, “COVID Vaccination Update: What the Past Two Years Have Taught Us,” breaking down the recent developments across the United States and Texas regarding COVID-19. The event was presented by the Area Agency on Aging of North Central Texas.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, The U.S. has had 102,697,566 COVID cases and 1,117,054 deaths. At the height of the pandemic, early January 2022, the U.S. saw as many as 5,650,933 cases in one week. Those numbers have continued to decrease – with a few highs and lows on the way.
More recent weeks have seen around 150,000 cases across the country with 4,989 in Texas and close to 2,000 deaths across the country with 79 statewide. However, it is important to note that Texas has reported 1,194 individuals with COVID symptom severe enough to need to be hospitalized. Over 200 of those patients are in ICU. Yet, the numbers are lower than in the past.
“We are much down from the little wave that we had back in November and December from the variants that were circulating at that time in terms of cases, deaths, hospitalizations, etc.,” Ramanathan said.
Currently, the most circulated variants are subvariants of Omicron; primarily the XBB 1.5 strain, but the BQ 1.1 is also high in circulation.
These strains have seen some decrease in efficacy, even in our patients who have been fully vaccinated with the Omicron booster,” she explained. “But if you do a multiprong approach, in terms of preventing COVID-19, it shouldn’t be much of a problem.”
The United States ranked 10th in the world in terms of vaccine administration, with Texas at 76.6% total population that has had at least one dose of the vaccinations. However, Ramanathan said that improvement was needed in terms of getting people boosted.
When broken down into age groups in Texas, the largest percentage of vaccinated group was 65 years old and older at 95% receiving the initial vaccination, 89% completed the primary series, and about 32.4% have received the updated booster.
“Fully vaccinated, however, is not the same as optimally protected. To be optimally protected, a person needs to get a booster shot when and if eligible,” she said.
She went on to explained how COVID-19 vaccines help the body develop immunity to the virus without giving the person disease. There are several types of vaccines, and they work in different ways to offer protection against the illness. Before they reach the public, there are several steps involved that are required.
There are three types of vaccines used in the U.S. – mRNA, viral vector and protein subunit. Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech uses mRNA to teach the body how to make a protein that triggers and immune response within the body. This immune response produces antibodies that help protect the body.
As with most vaccines, there are common adverse effects. Most have experienced pain, redness and swelling at the injection site. Other common side effects have been headache, muscle pain, fever, nausea and fatigue. Side effects may increase with the second dose “because the body has already been revved up with the first does.” Each person’s reaction to boosters will vary.
More severe reactions are rare, such as Bell’s palsy; myocarditis/pericarditis, which has been seen in male teens; and thromboembolism with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for women 18 to 49 years old, Ramanathan explained.
In all, the symptoms of COVID-19 and post COVID are overwhelmingly more severe than the side effects of the vaccine, especially for those with pre-existing conditions.
She said there were several chronic conditions made the disease more severe and would probably be hospitalized and possibly die if they weren’t vaccinated. She offered a top 20 list in alphabetical order – including cancer, chronic kidney disease, diabetes type 1 and 2, HIV and sickle cell disease – and referred to the website for additional conditions.
She went on to say that there is currently no preventative medication to stop someone from contracting COVID-19. The people are less likely to contract the disease, the purpose of the vaccines at this time, was to make the symptoms much less severe. She noted that the vaccines do not target the XBB 1.5 or BQ 1.1 strain, so the idea is to take a multi-pronged approach to keep the number of COVID-19 cases low.
This would include staying up to date on vaccines, maintain well ventilated areas where people gather, masking with a N95 mask in public or crowded places, staying away from someone who is coughing, and avoid contact with anyone who has been diagnosed or suspected to have COVID-19.
Moreover, she urged precaution by handwashing and/or use of hand sanitizer, and quarantine/isolation if exposed/infected.
Ramanathan asserted the importance of vaccines as “we have gotten back to a level of a pre-pandemic state, with COVID-19 becoming more endemic.”
The CDC recommends one updated bivalent Pfizer-BioNTech booster for children 5 years old and older if it has been at least two months since the last dose.
As of March 16, the new recommendation for children ages 6 months to 4 years to receive one bivalent Pfizer-BioNTech booster dose it they previously completed a three-dose monovalent Pfizer-BioNTech primary series if it has been at least two months after completion of the monovalent primary series.
The Area Agency on Aging of North Central Texas in conjunction with Uber Health will provide transportation to and from vaccination sites.
“If somebody needs help getting to a flu vaccine site or a pneumonia vaccine site, we can provide assistance with that. We can also help in scheduling the vaccine. If there’s somebody who’s homebound and is interested in receiving a vaccination in the home, we can help with scheduling of that as well,” Doni Green, the director of Aging at North Central Texas Council of Governments, said.
“If you are an older person or somebody who cares for an older person, you can call the area agency at 1-800-252-9240 to find out more about the vaccination assistance program in your community. If you are a younger person with a disability or care for a younger person with a disability, call 855-937-2372, that will connect you with the Aging and Disability Resource Center.”