Round two: COVID-19 booster vaccines

A+photo+illustration+showing+a+dose+of+a+COVID-19+vaccine.

Emily Early

A photo illustration showing a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

As the world goes through phase after phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, through stay-at-home orders, vaccine distribution and mask mandates, we prepare to enter a new stage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that certain groups of people receive an additional dose of the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson and Johnson vaccine as a booster to their original one or two shots. The introduction of vaccines has raised a lot of questions about vaccine efficacy and distribution and exposed an even wider rift among differing political opinions, adding yet another foil to a complex and ever-prevalent issue.

The CDC reported that while COVID-19 vaccines continue to be effective in lowering the risk for severe disease, hospitalization and death upon infection, the overall efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine has decreased due to time and the increased transmissibility of new variants. As a result, the CDC released new guidelines for who has access to booster vaccines, allowing social studies teacher Jeff Chazen to receive his.

“The peace of mind [is] if I were to get [COVID-19], I feel like I wouldn’t get a bad case of it, especially working around schools where you have more of an opportunity to catch that sort of stuff. I just like the feeling of safety of having it,” Chazen said. “I’m pretty good about wearing my mask so I feel like [the booster vaccine is] added protection compared to everything else that I’m doing.”

Chazen received his vaccine at the Walmart center in Chesterfield Valley. Previously, his mother had scheduled his vaccine at Mercy Hospital, but this time he scheduled it for himself. Similarly to Chazen, around 400,000 people received a booster at pharmacies during the weekend of Sept. 25 as President Biden recommended that everyone who is eligible for a booster receive one.

“[Getting a booster] to me is more of a personal decision. I would be more insistent upon people if they hadn’t gotten their first two shots or their first shot. That one I think is much more [important],” Chazen said. “I think the boosters are more for old people or for people who have medical issues that would necessitate it.”

In Missouri, 49.2% of the population is currently vaccinated. In the U.S., the vaccination rate is currently 57.6%, and worldwide, about 37.2% of people have been vaccinated.

What people don’t understand is that they had been researching this kind of vaccine for years and years and years, it’s just that we’ve never had a disease where we could actually step up and use it. So while it seemed like it was new, it really wasn’t.”

— Jeff Chazen

“This summer, I went to Boston, and up there [the vaccination rate is around] 70%. I think that that [is] where we need to be,” Chazen said. “I’m assuming that regular vaccinations for [diseases] like measles [are around] 80 to 90% and so I would say there should be no difference between the percentages for those diseases, and the percentage for COVID-19.”

America has faced criticism for its rollout of the vaccine, both domestically and in the international community. Within the U.S., vaccine rollout has been largely unequal among racial divides, with people of color often finding it more difficult to access vaccines, despite making up a large part of infections and deaths from COVID-19. Internationally, according to Duke University, richer countries made deals with vaccine manufacturers early on in the vaccine process, buying around 53% of near-term vaccines in April. This means that the 92 lowest-income countries may not reach a 60% vaccination rate until 2023 or beyond.

“I think it’s easier to get access to it for certain groups rather than other groups within America,” Chazen said. “But I know that there’s a concern that America has gone for shot three while other countries can’t get shot one. And I would argue that it’s not a zero sum game: we’re not winning and other countries are losing. It’s the logistics of trying to get those vaccines to those countries because of their infrastructure, it’s just a lot more difficult to do.”

Parkway West alumna, journalist and current wedding planner Kim St. Onge has also tracked the distribution of vaccines and attributes the excess amount of doses in Missouri to a lack of motivation to get the vaccine.

“I think you have to trace the money. This is not a free vaccine. You might not pay a penny out of your pocket when you go get the vaccine but someone is paying for it. These vaccine companies are raking in billions. They’re not just out of the kindness of their heart going and developing this vaccine and distributing all of these doses,” St. Onge said. “I think access is there. And I think the fact that there are a lot of clinics that were offering, in this case, the COVID-19 vaccine and they were closing because there wasn’t enough demand that tells you there are plenty of opportunities for someone to go get it and not enough people want it right now, because people are too scared.”

Even with such a large amount of available vaccines within the U.S., many Americans, including St. Onge, have chosen not to get vaccinated, and the divide is often dictated by party lines. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 68% of people who identified as Democrats said they would definitely get the booster vaccine, more than twice the number of Republicans, supporting a partisan correlation amongst vaccination opinions.

The CDC guidelines recommend that some groups should get booster vaccines while other groups may get them. (Mira Nalbandian)

“I think that certain politicians are pushing a secondary viewpoint that a lot of people are buying, and it’s unfortunate because from everything that I see and know and read, the medical community says this is no different than any other vaccine that we ask people to take,” Chazen said. “I get the hesitation that it came out so quickly, but what people don’t understand is that they had been researching this kind of vaccine for years and years and years, it’s just that we’ve never had a disease where we could actually step up and use it. So while it seemed like it was new, it really wasn’t. I’ve always been a believer. I trust my doctor, and if my doctor says, ‘get the shot,’ then I get the shot.”

President Biden has encouraged booster shots, saying they are important but still secondary to the first two doses. He issued new vaccine policies Sept. 9, requiring all businesses over 100 people to implement vaccine mandates with religious and medical exemptions. St. Onge left her job at KMOV after their parent company, Meredith Corporation, enacted a vaccine mandate.

“I’m not anti-vax or pro-vaccine. It’s specifically when we’re talking about the COVID-19 vaccine. To me, this has not been thoroughly tested. We don’t have long term effects of it and therefore people should not be forced to get this experimental vaccine,” St. Onge said. “And then on top of that, [those who are], in my case granted either religious or medical exemption, in some cases are then being ostracized, and in my opinion, I would go as far as say, being shamed for getting that exemption. They’re being separated from their colleagues, and they’re having to jump through all these hoops even though they have been granted that exemption.”

St. Onge reports that in order to keep working for KMOV under the religious exemption that she was granted, she had to agree to wear an N95 mask at all times, undergo COVID-19 testing twice weekly with proof of a timestamp and attend any in-person meetings virtually. St. Onge maintains that the choice whether or not to receive a vaccine should not be mandated by employers.

“I know that people have lost loved ones over COVID, I don’t deny that COVID is real. I don’t deny that COVID can be extremely serious. That is absolutely true. But you really need to weigh everything when you’re determining whether or not you’re going to get this vaccine,” St. Onge said. “That should be a personal decision that your employer nor the government should be forcing you to get and then, if you are granted [an exemption] you shouldn’t be forced to jump through all these additional hoops.”

As booster vaccines continue their rollout in the midst of new vaccine mandates, many Americans have begun to question if the necessity for a booster dose indicates that COVID-19 vaccines are not working. However, medical experts have been well aware of the possible need for booster vaccines since first doses were being given out, citing that the need for a booster dose is due to the fact that vaccine efficacy decreases over time, but that they are still working.

Where do you draw the line? How many of these shots are people going to need [before] they’re going to say, ‘okay, this is this is enough to protect you.’”

— Kim St. Onge

“I guess I’m looking at these boosters and I’m seeing that they’re saying that the efficacy of these vaccines is far lower than we initially thought, hence the necessity for these booster shots,” St. Onge said. “Now you’re telling me that after I get a shot that potentially had some sort of an adverse reaction even if it was minor, you’re telling me that after just a handful of months, I have to go get another booster shot, and then likely another and another and another. Where do you draw the line? How many of these shots are people going to need [before] they’re going to say, ‘okay, this is this is enough to protect you.’”

Booster vaccines can also be edited to protect against new strains of the infection, like the highly infectious Delta variant, prompting experts to encourage them. Many Americans do receive booster vaccines for common illnesses like chickenpox, tetanus, diphtheria, mumps, measles, and rubella.

“Now what I’m afraid is that people are going to not only not do the COVID vaccine but don’t do measles, don’t do all the others and so for those diseases that we don’t see a lot of now all sudden, I’m afraid we’re going to start seeing all of those pop up, which is just not good for us as a community,” Chazen said.

St. Onge is not opposed to vaccines other than COVID-19, and has stated that she knows many friends who have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I have friends who do not see eye to eye with me on this. And I will admit it’s been uncomfortable. You know, I was scared initially to tell my friends. I waited a while to tell some of my friends who staunchly disagree with this decision I’ve made. This is what I’ve done. This is my choice,” St. Onge said. “But ultimately, when I [watched] more people, especially those first responders lose their jobs, I got so frustrated and I [felt] like enough is enough. And I’ve had it and I’m going to stand by my decision.”

St. Onge says that if there was more testing done on the vaccine, and she felt it was a safe option, she would consider receiving it. The Kaiser survey reports that despite differences in opinion over vaccines and booster doses, 8 in 10 Americans believe that COVID-19 is a chronic problem, and that it will not be disappearing anytime soon.

“I think we’ve already had 700,000 deaths. It’s more than the Spanish flu, and why on God’s green earth that we have worse statistics than a 1918 society is beyond me. That saddens me and that concerns me,” Chazen said.“I think we’re going to live with this [disease] for the rest of our lives. I think it’s going to become just another regimented shot that we’re going to have to get. That’s how we’re going to deal with it.”