TRAVERSE CITY — Cedar resident B.J. Christensen, who is 74, was fully vaccinated by the end of January, 2021. So was her 76-year-old husband, Tom Christensen, and her 99-year-old mom, Ann Mazurek.
They all got an additional shot as soon as boosters were approved for those over 65 years old by the Food and Drug Administration on Sept. 22.
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“We signed up and got it right away,” Christensen said. “I’m not willing to take the risk of getting it and spreading it to my family, especially my mom who is very vulnerable.”
By September it had been about eight months since their initial doses and, like many older residents, they likely by then had little protection against COVID-19, which has killed nearly 830,000 people in the United States since the pandemic began more than two years ago.
When it comes to omicron, the latest variant of the still-raging virus, those who got vaccinated more than six months ago and have not been boosted have very little, if any, protection, said Dr. Christopher Ledtke, infectious disease specialist with Munson Healthcare.
The situation is even more dire for older people who already have lowered immune systems because of their age, Ledtke said. The good news is that those who are vaccinated and boosted have very high neutralizing antibodies against omicron, he said.
By April 3 more than 72 percent of residents 65 and older in Grand Traverse County and more than 70 percent of residents 65 and older in Leelanau County were fully vaccinated, according to data at Michigan’s Vaccine Dashboard. Both counties led the state in overall vaccination rates.
The dashboard does not include data on how many Michiganders have gotten the booster, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the 206.8 million Americans who are fully vaccinated, just 72.3 million have received a third dose or a booster.
“Basically there are lots and lots of susceptible people,” Ledtke said. “Those with boosters are significantly more protected.”
The Grand Traverse Pavilions reported an outbreak that started Nov. 5 and killed five residents at the long-term care facility, as previously reported. During the outbreak 34 residents and 12 staff members tested positive for the virus, believed to be the delta variant.
It was the first outbreak at the facility since the pandemic started. The infected residents were fully vaccinated, but had not yet received boosters.
“The same day we received the boosters, that’s the day the outbreak started,” Deb Allen, chief development and community engagement officer, said this week.
Allen said there have been no further deaths from COVID or new cases since November. In addition, all residents who were able to get the booster have, as well as 90 percent of the staff, she said.
Ledtke cited a study that came out about a week ago and used laboratory data to measure those antibodies in blood samples taken from vaccinated people.
“That lab data shows that the protection is not enough to protect against omicron,” Ledtke said.
A similar response was found in people who had not been vaccinated but had been infected with COVID, Ledtke said. Those people had very low levels of antibody protection against omicron.
“Having a prior infection with COVID is not enough protection,” he said.
Another study from South Africa used “real life” data to look at people who received the vaccine but not the booster, he said. That study showed a 30 percent efficacy rate in preventing infection from omicron and a 70 percent efficacy rate in preventing severe infection.
Ledtke said it is hard to make generalizations about the results of the study as the ages of people studied, the dates they were vaccinated and their levels of exposure varied.
In addition, a study from the United Kingdom shows that the chance of getting infected a second time with the omicron variant is more than five times greater than for those who were infected with the delta variant, Ledtke said.
“The reinfection rate appears to be much higher with omicron,” he said.
Ledtke said it is not yet known how long the booster will last as it is relatively early and has only been in use for a few months. He suspects it will last longer than the initial series because of the robust response that has been seen in increasing antibodies against the disease.
Israel is looking at giving a fourth dose of the vaccine to high-risk people, he said.
In the U.S. a third dose in the vaccination series is recommended for people who are immunocompromised, followed by a booster six months later.
A third shot is a full dose, while a booster is a half-dose.
This week the CDC came out with recommendations for a booster for those 12 and older who received the Pfizer vaccine — the only one approved for children. The booster is given five months after the initial series.