Cold Iron Truth

Should I get a COVID-19 booster shot?


 

When I was in Florida a few weeks ago, I met a friend outside who approached me wearing an N-95 mask. He said he was wearing it because the Delta variant was running wild in Florida, and several of his younger unvaccinated employees had contracted it, and he encouraged me to get a COVID booster shot. In the late summer, although the federal government recommended booster shots for anyone 8 months after their original vaccination series, national confusion still reigns, with an Food and Drug Administration advisory panel more recently recommending against a Pfizer booster for all adults, but supporting a booster for those ages 65 and older or at a high risk for severe COVID-19.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron, a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon in Cincinnati.

Dr. Brett M. Coldiron

At the end of December, I was excited when the local hospital whose staff I am on made the Moderna vaccine available. I had to wait several hours but it was worth it, and I did not care about the low-grade fever and malaise I experienced after the second dose. Astoundingly, I still have patients who have not been vaccinated, although many of them are elderly, frail, or immunocompromised. I think people who publicly argue against vaccination need to visit their local intensive care unit.

While less so than some other physicians, dermatologists are also vulnerable to COVID exposure. You can’t look in someone’s throat, or examine facial skin if they are wearing a mask – and you must lean in to see anything. We take all reasonable precautions, wearing masks, wiping down exam rooms and door handles, keeping the waiting room as empty as possible, using HEPA filters, and keeping exhaust fans going in the rooms continuously. My staff have all been vaccinated (I’m lucky there).

Still, if you are seeing 30 or 40 patients a day of all age groups and working in small unventilated rooms, you could be exposed to the Delta variant. While breakthrough infections among fully vaccinated immunocompetent individuals may be rare, if you do develop a breakthrough case, even if mild or asymptomatic, CDC recommendations include quarantining for at least 10 days. Obviously, this can be disastrous to your practice as a COVID infection works through your office.

This brings us to back to booster shots. Personally, I think all health care workers should be eager to get a booster shot. I also think individuals who have wide public exposure, particularly indoors, such as teachers and retail sales workers, should be eager to get one too. Here are some of the pros, as well as some cons for boosters.

Arguments for booster shots

  • Booster shots should elevate your antibody levels and make you more resistant to breakthrough infections, but this is still theoretical. Antibody levels decline over time – more rapidly in those over 56 years of age.
  • Vaccine doses go to waste every month in the United States, although specific numbers are lacking.
  • Vaccinated individuals almost never get hospitalized and die from COVID, presumably even fewer do so after receiving a booster.
  • You could unwittingly become a vector. Many of the breakthrough infections are mild and without symptoms. If you do test positive, it could be devastating to your patients, and your medical practice.

Arguments against booster shots

  • These vaccine doses should be going to other countries that have low vaccination levels where many of the nasty variants are developing.
  • You may have side effects from the vaccine, though thrombosis has only been seen with the Astra-Zeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines. Myocarditis is usually seen in younger patients and is almost always self limited.
  • Breakthrough infections are rare.

This COVID pandemic is moving and changing so fast, it is bewildering. But with a little luck, COVID could eventually become an annual nuisance like the flu, and the COVID vaccine will become an annual shot based on the newest mutations. For now, my opinion is, get your booster shot.

Dr. Coldiron is in private practice but maintains a clinical assistant professorship at the University of Cincinnati. He cares for patients, teaches medical students and residents, and has several active clinical research projects. Dr. Coldiron is the author of more than 80 scientific letters, papers, and several book chapters, and he speaks frequently on a variety of topics. He is a past president of the American Academy of Dermatology. Write to him at [email protected].

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