Dr. Nikhil Bhayani has noticed a small uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations compared to earlier this summer. This time, he said, something’s different.
Many of the patients he’s treating now have been vaccinated and boosted, a shift from what’s become a normal storyline in the latter half of the pandemic: that people who aren’t vaccinated often require the most care. Still, he told the Report, these vaccinated, boosted patients aren’t staying sick for long.
“Obviously that tells me that, even though they were vaccinated and immunity has waned, still there is some degree of protection,” he said. Bhayani is an infectious disease physician with Texas Health Resources.
That degree of protection matters as omicron’s newest subvariant, BA.5, spurs a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Tarrant County and the country. Amid reports that omicron-specific boosters might be ready this fall, Bhayani advises people to seek the booster doses available to them now.
“We don’t know what the future is going to hold,” he said.
Staying updated with vaccines looks different for different people.
In the year and a half since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved for emergency use the first COVID-19 vaccine, vaccine options and eligibility criteria have continued to expand.
Since June, anyone who’s at least 6 months old can get a vaccine. Some people are now eligible for a second booster. And, adults can choose from four different vaccines for their initial jabs: Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and, as of mid-July, Novavax.
Complicating the shifting vaccine landscape is the ever-changing virus that causes COVID-19. By early July, omicron subvariant BA.5 surpassed an earlier subvariant, BA.2, as dominant in the U.S. BA.5 and BA.4, another subvariant, are the most contagious so far, according to Yale Medicine. Early evidence also suggests that BA.5 seems to be able to evade some of the antibodies made from vaccines or prior infections.
In late June, the FDA advised manufacturers to develop a vaccine that specifically addresses the most recent omicron subvariants. Those booster doses could be available this fall, according to an FDA statement. Who can access those doses and when is still unclear.
The usual strategies still work.
In the meantime, “common sense measures” like masking while indoors, avoiding large crowds and staying up to date with available vaccines can still help prevent severe illness, said Vinny Taneja, director of Tarrant County Public Health.
Those strategies matter because the virus’ continued circulation means more variants could crop up. When a person becomes infected, their body becomes a “replication factory,” he said. As it replicates, the virus makes mistakes, and those mistakes turn into mutations, which then turn into variants. “It’s going to be upon all of us to work together to defeat it,” he said.
Admittedly, he’s tired of talking about COVID-19, especially alongside murmurs of monkeypox and record heat waves across Texas. Still, he’s made long standing behavior changes to try to stay safe — like wearing masks when he attends weekly commissioners court meetings and opting for drive-in movies instead of the theater.
“We’ve all found different ways of going about our lives and finding a balance with COVID,” he said. “There’s not a set path.”
Despite shared exhaustion, he encourages people to “take COVID seriously,” especially when a new, local wave begins to form. The pandemic remains. He’s thankful for the progress people have made since it began.
“We’re filling our tool belt with all the tools that are normally available to fight any illness,” he said. “Eventually, we will overcome this.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.