New COVID-19 vaccines recommended for all Americans 6 months and older this fall

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Thursday that all Americans 6 months and older should receive one of the new COVID-19 vaccines as soon as they become available this fall. This recommendation comes amid a summer surge in COVID-19 cases, with infection rates rising in at least 39 states and territories.

While most Americans have developed some immunity to the coronavirus through previous infections or vaccinations, the new vaccines offer an incremental boost. However, their effectiveness wanes over a few months as immunity wanes and the virus continues to mutate.

Data presented at a recent meeting of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices showed that most Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 had not received the vaccines offered last fall. On Thursday, CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen accepted the committee’s unanimous recommendation for another round of vaccinations.

“This year’s vaccine is essential to protect against this year’s strain of the virus,” said Carol Hayes, committee leader for the American College of Nurse-Midwives. The new Novavax vaccine targets the JN.1 variant, while Pfizer and Moderna target KP.2. However, KP.2 appears to be giving way to related variants KP.3 and LB.1, collectively nicknamed FLiRT due to specific genetic mutations. These variants spread more quickly but do not cause more severe disease.

Recent data showed a nearly 15% increase in COVID-related emergency room visits and a 17% increase in deaths for the week ending June 15, compared to the previous week. Hospital admissions also appear to be rising, based on data from a subset of hospitals that continue to report to the CDC.

“COVID is still here, and I don’t think it’s ever going to go away,” said Dr. Steven P. Furr, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

The risk of severe disease is highest among adults 65 and older, who account for two-thirds of COVID hospitalizations and 82% of in-hospital deaths. However, only about 40% of this age group received the vaccine last fall. CDC researcher Dr. Fiona Havers said increasing vaccination rates among this group could prevent many hospitalizations.

Children, especially those under 5, are also vulnerable, but only about 14% were vaccinated last fall. Many parents mistakenly believe the virus is harmless to children, noted Dr. Matthew Daley, a panel member and senior researcher at Kaiser Permanente Colorado. Children can also contribute to the spread of the virus once they return to school.

Babies younger than 6 months are particularly affected by COVID, but are not eligible for the new vaccines. Dr. Denise Jamieson, dean of the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, stressed the importance of vaccinating pregnant women to protect both themselves and their babies.

Vaccine coverage is lowest among Native Americans, Black Americans and Hispanic Americans, the groups most at risk from COVID. Many Americans hesitant about the shots cite concerns about side effects, insufficient studies or distrust of the government and drug companies.

The CDC has identified only four serious side effects associated with the vaccines, although thousands of Americans have filed claims for other medical harms attributed to the shots. New data suggests that the Pfizer vaccine may have caused some additional cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome in elderly recipients, but the risk remains comparable to that of other vaccines. The potential risk of post-vaccination stroke is still inconclusive, but the benefits of vaccination outweigh the potential harms, CDC scientists said.

There has been a decline in the number of health care providers recommending the shots, partly because of concerns about patient refusal and rising health care abuse. Despite the unanimous recommendation for universal COVID vaccination, some speakers questioned the feasibility of such recommendations in the future, citing the high cost of vaccines.

The Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to cover CDC-recommended vaccines, but up to 30 million Americans lack health insurance. The Bridge Access Program, which helps underinsured and uninsured Americans access vaccines, will end in August. Ensuring universal vaccination may require a less expensive vaccine option in the future.

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