Opinion: We can’t let down our guard on vaccinations

By each of us doing our part and rolling up our sleeves, lives will be saved and fewer people will suffer severe illness.

As we approach the end of year three of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s understandable that many of us just want to move on with our lives.

You can see it in local shops, restaurants and workplaces, where social distancing and masking are becoming less frequent. Many people are living like they did before March 2020. And that’s the case as well when it comes to vaccines.

A new, updated booster that targets the latest omicron subvariants is now widely available, but too many people are either waiting to get the shot or putting it off indefinitely. Booster fatigue is real, even for older adults who are most at risk of hospitalization and death.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 33% of adults ages 65 and over nationwide have received the updated COVID jab. That’s simply not good enough, particularly as we approach winter and public health officials watch closely for another cold-weather spike in cases and fatalities.

The concerns are real. The risk for severe illness with COVID-19 increases with age. Older adults in Georgia are much more likely to be hospitalized and die of COVID. Adults age 60 and older account for 81 percent of all COVID deaths in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Meanwhile, new omicron subvariants keep emerging. We don’t know when the next subvariant may turn more deadly. Plus, an early uptick in flu cases and a surge in respiratory syncytial virus infections (RSV), which can be serious in older adults, are leading some experts to fear a triple threat of respiratory diseases this winter.

The CDC’s advice has been clear: Anyone eligible should get the new COVID booster. And without this jab, you are not considered to be fully vaccinated. With this in mind, the Atlanta Regional Commission has launched an outreach effort that aims to encourage adults ages 60 and over to get the latest booster.

Our campaign, titled “Life Is Better with a Boost,” targets both English and Spanish speakers and features digital ads, billboards, newspaper and radio ads, banners at pharmacies and supermarkets and transit ads. This effort is supported through a grant from the Georgia Department of Human Services, with funds originating from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The ARC serves as the federally designated Area Agency on Aging for the 10-county metro area. We allocate more than $23 million a year to provide transportation to medical appointments, home-delivered meals, in-home support services and much more to keep older adults leading healthy and independent lives.

We have reasons to feel encouraged about older adults’ willingness to get the updated booster. Throughout the pandemic, this population has been more likely to get vaccinated than other age groups. In the 10-county metro region, older adults have been getting boosters at much higher rates than their younger counterparts. The lowest rate for the first booster among adults ages 65 and over is in Douglas County, with 63%, and the highest is in Fayette County, with 82%. In contrast, across the region, no county has more than a 29% rate for the first booster among the population under 65.

We know that it may take more than data points about hospitalization and death rates to convince booster-shy people to roll up their sleeves. That’s why we are keeping our messages simple, reminding people that with a booster, they can go back to doing the things they love most and spend more time with family and friends.

This is one of the reasons why I went to get the latest booster recently (and my flu shot, while I was at it. (Yes, it’s OK to get both shots at once). I don’t want COVID to get in the way of visiting my in-laws in Texas and my family in North Carolina over the holidays. When I contracted a mild case of COVID last summer, I felt that my life was interrupted and it kept me away from doing the things I enjoy most.

While some may think that having received the first and second boosters provides enough immunity, that is not true. The updated booster supersedes the previous ones and contains protection against the original virus strain and new ones. Even if you’ve had COVID, it’s important to get the new booster.

It’s hard to predict what the COVID pandemic will look like this winter, but by each of us doing our part and rolling up our sleeves, lives will be saved and fewer people who get COVID will suffer its severe effects.

Becky Kurtz is managing director, aging and independence services for the Atlanta Regional Commission and director of the Atlanta Area Agency on Aging.