Healthcare, Latest News, State Government

Clay Marsh: Are 3rd boosters on the horizon? Yes, but no one yet knows when

MORGANTOWN – Active COVID cases took a steady rise from the end of April to mid-May, soaring from 809 on April 30 to 2,570 on May 21. Since then the number has dipped a bit, to 2,117 Thurs morning.

So vaccines and boosters occupied a portion of Gov. Jim Justice’s Thursday briefing. The Dominion Post also spoke with COVID-19 Czar Clay Marsh before the briefing about what’s on the horizon for boosters.

Justice said, “This thing has not left. It’s probably not going to leave. We’ve got to find a way to live with it. The answer is the vaccines.”

He added a bit later, “I can’t fathom … how in the world could you have taken the time to have gotten your vaccines and now sit on the sidelines without your booster shot. You’re just freewheeling it just like you’ve never had a vaccine.”

In the U.S., second boosters are approved for adults age 50 and up and for others 5 and up who are moderately or severely immunocompromised – five months out for most people, three months out for the immunocompromised.

Talking about possible third boosters with Marsh, he said, “There are boosters in our future, there’s no question about it. The timing of the next boosters is not clear yet.”

He elaborated on the reasoning behind that. The current version of the omicron variant, BA.2.12.1, is the most infectious form to date, even reinfecting people who’ve been vaccinated.

But the vaccines are serving their most important purpose: saving lives and sparing those who get infected from the most severe consequences.

“But the ability to keep people from being infected by the incredible capabilities of this new variant is starting to not be as good,” which raises the the question of benefits of a third booster, or even an omicron-selective booster. “The answer is we don’t know.”

If we start to see a reduction in effectiveness of the booster regarding severe disease, hospitalization, ICU admissions or death, he said, then there would be a push among governments worldwide and the agencies for next booster dose. But if it comes to just protecting people from infection – which most vaccines, including flu, don’t do very well – there isn’t as much push to think about another dose.

Right now, he said, two doses reduce hospitalization risk by 85%, three doses by 95%.

An omicron-selective vaccine poses another problem, he said. The virus mutates so quickly that by the time a BA.2.12.1 vaccine was developed and tested, the virus will likely have moved on and changed again.

So right now, there are no studies to suggest the need for the third booster, but as the virus continues to improve and grow stronger, we’ll see the call for the next round.

Back to the briefing, Justice listed the most recent deaths. The number has reached 6,971, with 23 reported Thursday. Of those, 13 were reconciliations of earlier deaths just added to the list.

Justice noted a stark and sad contrast. Death number 6,970 was a 100-year-old woman from Mineral County. Death number 6971, a reconciliation, was a 15-year-old girl from Raleigh County. She died in January, Justice said, and the cause was just recently confirmed. The prior youngest death was age 17.

“We have a pathway to stopping it,” he said. “We’ve been doing better about getting our vaccines but we could do a whole lot better.” But be respectful to those who choose not to get vaccinated.

Justice said the state will be winding down free testing events staffed by the National Guard. The numbers are dwindling, sometimes only one or two people showing up in a day.

“If things happen to get worse, we’ll be right back out there,” he said. But there are many other free testing options. “We always want to mind the store the best we can with all your resources.”

Public Health Commissioner Ayne Amjad said one option is free home testing kits. The Department of Health and Human Resources online free testing map is being updated and she advised people to call ahead to make sure kits are available at locations.

While the case number has dipped since May 21, Marsh said during the briefing that a New York City study shows that will all the various options, including free home testing, case numbers may be vastly under-reported to state agencies. The New York study estimated the number may be 30 times higher with the highly infectious BA.2.12.1 than is being reported.

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