The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Despite the success of safety protocols and life-saving vaccines, vaccine inequality has allowed dangerous variants to develop, threatening the lives of people everywhere.
Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that the BA.5 variant is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States and has led to a surge in cases and hospitalizations.
“I completely understand the frustration and the pandemic fatigue; I’m feeling it, and I know other health care professionals are too,” Dr. Purvi Parikh told Global Citizen. “But the reality of the situation is, the virus is still here and we’re still seeing a lot of new cases.”
Parikh is an immunologist based in New York City, where she’s been involved with the COVID-19 vaccine trials at New York University since the beginning of the pandemic. Over the past few months, she has personally diagnosed patients with COVID-19 every single day.
More than 78% of Americans are at least partially vaccinated, but the latest wave of cases is making it difficult to know who is most at risk of contracting a serious case of COVID-19. For this reason, Parikh spoke to Global Citizen about adjusting to life with COVID-19 and how booster shots can help end the pandemic globally.
New Variants Are Concerning
According to a poll from the Pew Research Center conducted between January and May of this year, fewer Americans think COVID-19 is a major threat to public health than at the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, current data about the BA.5 variant suggests that it is the most contagious strain of COVID-19, with the added bonus of being able to partially evade immunity from past infection and vaccination.
“One thing I want to clarify (that’s a big misconception) is that the current variant is not mild,” Parikh said. “We are seeing an uptick in hospitalizations and deaths, though mostly in unvaccinated individuals.”
Pandemic fatigue has led some people to take risks they would not have taken before, such as forgoing masks or ignoring symptoms. Though fully vaccinated individuals may experience more protection than those who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine, the risks of contracting the virus still exist. This means that getting a booster shot is more important than ever.
“Don’t underestimate this virus even if you’re fully vaccinated because everyone’s risk profile is different. If you’re immunocompromised, elderly, have heart disease — you’re still at high risk,” Parikh added.
Long COVID Is a Genuine Risk
Additional risks that come with contracting COVID-19 are becoming clearer as health care professionals learn more about the virus. Parikh, in particular, is studying long COVID, or the illness in which people who have recovered from COVID-19 experience lingering symptoms.
Some of Parikh’s patients plagued by long COVID report neurological symptoms like brain fog, loss of taste and smell, and prolonged ringing in their ears. Others are experiencing extreme fatigue, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, and nausea, months or years after their initial diagnosis of COVID-19.
“It’s only been two years so we don’t really know the long-term effects [of COVID-19],” Parikh said. “But there are centers around the country studying long COVID.”
Boosters Are Effective Against COVID-19
Parikh shared that sensationalist headlines can make it seem like booster shots are futile when up against contagious subvariants, but the data doesn’t lie. According to the CDC, hospitalization rates are 4.6 times higher for unvaccinated adults than for those who are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccination.
“The boosters still protect you against hospitalization, death, and the people we’re mostly seeing getting admitted to hospitals haven’t gotten their boosters, or haven’t gotten vaccinated at all,” Parikh said.
Like many other vaccines, the COVID-19 vaccines lose part of their efficacy over time, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective at all. Ongoing research and clinical trials prove that receiving an additional dose of the vaccine after the initial two-shot series improves immunity, keeping people from getting extremely sick.
The doctor also pointed out that antibodies aren’t the only factors to consider when it comes to immunity.
“T cells [which are part of the immune system] are much more important for fighting viruses than antibodies and are still very effective against the newer variants,” she said. “You need that T cell immunity to keep you off a breathing machine in the ICU, to keep you from dying, or from getting bad complications.”
You May Need a Second Booster
Guidance about the COVID-19 vaccines cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all approach, which is why Parikh underscored the importance of speaking with a physician about your personal risk of COVID-19. Depending on your age and health status, getting one or two booster shots may be the best way to protect yourself and others.
“[Boosters shots] are very effective, especially if you’re in a high risk group. Most people should have a third [dose of a COVID-19 vaccine], and some people should have a fourth depending on their risk profile,” Parikh said.
Additionally, getting a booster shot now can help end the pandemic faster. According to Our World in Data, only 19.9% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 80% in wealthier nations. If COVID-19 continues to spread globally, newer variants will keep developing, putting more people at risk.
“One of my favorite sayings from the UN Foundation is: ‘An outbreak anywhere is an outbreak everywhere.’ This pandemic is case in point,” Parikh said. “The quicker everyone gets their vaccine, the quicker everyone is protected.”
Health Care Has Come a Long Way
COVID-19 has been a scary, daily part of life for the past two years. While we can’t let our guard down just yet, it’s important to recognize just how far we’ve come.
“We’re in a much better place than we were two years ago,” Parikh said. “If someone is diagnosed with COVID, I can treat them with an antiviral right away.”
She added: “The other good news is the vaccine. If you get sick, [being vaccinated] reduces your chances of death and hospitalization significantly.”
Parikh also shared that clinical trials are continuously taking place, helping health care professionals get one step closer to ending the pandemic. Until we get there, however, we all have to do our part to protect each other.
“Be up to date with your vaccines, whether that’s with one booster or two boosters. Wash your hands, wear a high quality mask, and have a plan in place if you get sick because we do have the tools to fight this virus,” she said. “If you take these precautions, you can still live your life normally.”
This article is part of a series focused on vaccine hesitancy funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.