“Should I get the COVID-19 booster?”: what to know

Nick DeMarchis, Print Managing Co-Editor

Booster vaccines are now available at multiple locations near the University – but how should you know whether to get “boosted”?

So far, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, 46 percent of Union County individuals are fully vaccinated; about 30 percent of those individuals have received a booster. The fully-vaccinated figure lags substantially behind the national vaccination rate of 59 percent, despite a lower booster rate of about 20 percent.

“The benefit to getting the booster shot is an even higher level of protection from getting infected, from spreading that infection, and from serious illness,” Professor of Biology Ken Field, an expert on immunology and cell biology from the biology department, noted in an email to The Bucknellian.

For young people, Field emphasized that a booster “increases the protection from getting ‘long COVID’,” a set of sequelae and chronic symptoms that “can last for months after infection.”

With the University requiring vaccinations for all students for the fall 2021 semester – barring religious and medical exemptions – so far 97 percent of the student body and 86 percent of faculty and staff report “full vaccination,” according to the University’s COVID-19 Dashboard on Dec. 1.

COVID-19 booster vaccines were approved by the FDA for fully-vaccinated adults in mid-November, and are currently produced by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson (J&J). Multiple countries have also approved booster administration, including Canada, Brazil, the UK and EU, as well as Israel and South Korea.

While many report feelings of exhaustion and other mild symptoms after receiving a vaccine, Field said “the risk when getting booster shots is extremely low and that the symptoms associated with it are usually lower,” than initial full vaccination.

Dean of Students Amy Badal emphasized in a November 29 email to students, “we strongly encourage all students to receive a booster shot.”

Individuals are currently eligible to receive boosters, she noted, if they “completed the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine series at least six months ago [June 3rd as of printing], or received a dose of the J&J vaccine at least two months ago [October 3rd].”

“If anyone got J&J as their first dose (like me), I recommend crossing over and getting Pfizer or Moderna as your booster,” Field added.

The American Medical Association reports on ongoing clinical trials regarding  COVID-19 immunity and vaccines. A recent report indicates that “the two mRNA [Pfizer and Moderna] vaccines seemed to do a better job of boosting than the J&J shot, triggering stronger antibody responses.”

The report added that “[a]ll boosters worked well in neutralizing Delta and Beta variants.”

Theresa Dollar ’22 received her booster last month. “It felt almost like a civic duty” to receive the booster vaccine, she explained, which was “the same reason I got vaccinated in the first place.”

In a lecture in Trout Auditorium last month, Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist who researches social networks and biosocial science, spoke briefly on booster vaccines for COVID-19. 

“We are likely to be getting boosters into the foreseeable future,” he said, and “periodically we’ll need boosters, perhaps for new variants.” 

The lecture primarily focused on the social effects of pandemic-related decision-making and was delivered shortly before the B1.1.529 “Omicron” variant was designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization.

The Omicron variant contains more than 30 spike protein mutations, which could potentially affect the disease’s transmissibility or vaccines’ protective efficacy.

While Field noted that the scientific community does not “know yet whether Omicron is more transmissible than Delta or if it evades the vaccines better,” he emphasized that “having stronger immunity is better than weaker immunity, and a booster will help with that.”

“If we find that Omicron (or the next variant of concern) does evade the vaccine,” he offered, “then we are in a position to have another round of boosters available — there is no need to wait to find out.”

University Business reports that even though over “1,000 colleges and universities that have vaccine requirements in place… none currently have mandates for booster shots.” Though “strongly encourag[ing]” students to receive their booster, University administration here has imposed no mandate for students to acquire the additional shot. 

According to the Chronicle for Higher Education, all nonmilitary Patriot League schools – except for the University – require full COVID-19 vaccinations for both employees and students, with exemptions for religious and medical reasons.

“As of this time Bucknell has no plans to adjust the current vaccination strategy,” explained Director of Communications Mike Ferlazzo, “but we continue to monitor the recommendations of the CDC which has been the primary resource for policy decisions to date.”

The University’s COVID-19 FAQ page offers a similar message: “Because University employees do not live in congregate settings like students and their risk of transmission is lower, Bucknell does not currently require faculty and staff to be vaccinated.”

“However,” it concedes, “this policy remains under discussion. We strongly encourage faculty and staff to get the vaccine, and many have taken advantage of increased local vaccine availability this spring.”

Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove also does not require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“As we prepare for the spring term, we will keep you updated on any changes to campus protocols for COVID-19. Pandemic conditions continue to fluctuate, so please be sure to check your email and stay alert for announcements in the weeks ahead,” Badal said.

From fall 2020 until now, the University has reported 623 positive on-campus student COVID-19 tests. Over 80% of those positive student tests were returned during the Spring 2021 semester, when recurrent severe campus outbreaks forced the University to limit campus operations and temporarily impose remote learning modality for all classes. Considering the graduating class of 2021, as many as 13 percent of students enrolled during the pandemic may have had COVID-19 at some point. 

Field described the “natural immunity” acquired from contracting the virus to be “quite short-lived (on the order of a few weeks).”

“Anyone who has had COVID should definitely get vaccinated (and boosted) as soon as they are eligible because ‘hybrid immunity’ from getting infected and then getting vaccinated is super-effective,” he said.

Regarding vaccine-hesitant individuals, Field said, “If you know anyone who hasn’t gotten that first dose yet, try to understand why they are still reluctant and see if you can help them understand how safe and important it is.”

“After getting everyone you know to start the vaccine series it is important to finish it.”

“We are so lucky to have these vaccines available and we should take advantage of them to help us all get this pandemic under control,” Field concluded.

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