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UPMC doctors: Booster shots keep immune systems COVID-savvy

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Booster shots for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are very important — for certain segments of the population, according to Dr. Donald Yealy, UPMC chief medical officer and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, and Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC medial director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology.

The discussion followed weeks of speculation surrounding the topic of COVID-19 booster shots, as Pfizer has just recently received FDA emergency authorization for the use of a third vaccination in those who fall into high-risk categories.

“It’s essentially a review lesson for your immune system,” Yealy said. “It offers your body another chance to build upon the response that it had either from a previous vaccine or from having recovered from the illness.”

“With the latest news, we are talking about another purpose of the vaccine as Dr. Yealy mentioned.” Snyder said. “And that is for people within whom the vaccine is still working very well but we are starting to see some evidence that the immune system needs a reminder.”

The groups mentioned are in reference to the older population, those with medical conditions putting them at risk of complications and those with a high exposure risk due to their location and/or occupation.

For those who do not fall into those groups, Yealy had this to say about getting the booster shot: “It’s not so much that there’s a need — that you have a gap in protection, but your immunity does, over time, change. This will ensure that the lesson taught (by the initial vaccination) remains taught.”

Another reason brought up for getting the booster vaccine was the changing nature of the virus itself.

“We have seen that the SARS-COVID 2 virus has changed… The very first virus in Western Pennsylvania was not the same one that existed in Wuhan, China,” Yealy said. “What we’re doing right now is making sure that the really good response your body learned for 97% plus of the population stays that way.”

A common topic during the discussion was the sustained importance of getting those who have not already been vaccinated, vaccinated.

“What’s not in dispute at all — hasn’t changed yesterday or today, weeks ago when the president announced anything — is that vaccines are one of the strongest tools that we have to change this pandemic,” said Yealy.

“From our data at UPMC, across the system in all the communities, if you are unvaccinated, you have a five- to fifteen-fold increased chance of needing intensive care, breathing support and dying.”

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