WASHINGTON — As the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus continues to rage through Utah and the rest of the United States, including among the fully vaccinated, pressure is increasing to make booster shots of the coronavirus vaccine available, including from Utah Sen. Mitt Romney.
"If COVID with variants becomes a multi-year reality, we (the @US_FDA) will need to move even faster to approve boosters and vaccines—especially if they are already tested and approved in other countries, as with the booster given today in Israel." Romney tweeted Monday.
If COVID with variants becomes a multi-year reality, we (the @US_FDA) will need to move even faster to approve boosters and vaccines—especially if they are already tested and approved in other countries, as with the booster given today in Israel.— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) August 2, 2021
The push comes as the Utah Department of Health is reporting 1,050 new coronavirus cases and eight additional deaths from the virus as of Wednesday. Utah's rolling seven-day average for positive COVID-19 tests is now at 907 per day, the highest since February.
Booster shots are being seen as extra protection against the delta variant that's now dominant in Utah and throughout the United States, New studies suggest it's as contagious as chickenpox and may be causing more breakthrough cases in the fully vaccinated even though the chances of severe illness or death remains rare.
Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the state health department, said the vaccines are doing their job.
"Breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated people are rare occurrences. We tend to focus on the few thousand people who test positive after being fully vaccinated, when we should be celebrating the nearly 1.5 million Utahns who are fully vaccinated and have not been infected," Hofmann said.
The two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or single dose of Johnson & Johnson, widely available throughout the state at no cost to anyone 12 and older, "are exceptionally effective and are still the best way to protect yourself, and those around you, from contracting COVID-19," she said.
Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, University of Utah Health Division of Infectious Diseases chief, said more people getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is what will protect Utahns from the delta variant, not more shots for those who are already fully vaccinated.
"I'm over 60. I know a little bit about this stuff. I'm not out there trying to get a booster, my third shot. I don't think that's going to help me in any way. I know that my protection right now is extremely, extremely good against illness and death, as good as it can be. Better than almost any vaccine known to man," Swaminathan said.
"The thing on my mind is, how do I get more people in Utah vaccinated so that I don't have to worry about getting it when I go to the grocery store? The reason I'm going to get the delta variant is not because I don't have a booster. It's because there are all these people running around without masks who are not vaccinated," he said.
Romney already has expressed frustration that booster shots aren't available yet in the United States, especially since Israel began offering a third dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to adults with weakened immune systems in July.
"There are a number of us that would get in line to get a booster," the Republican senator said during a Senate hearing last month on the federal response to COVID-19, making it clear that the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should pick up the pace for approval.
Vaccinating more of the world vs. booster shots
But the World Health Organization is now calling for a moratorium until the end of September on booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines — a third dose for those who received the Pfizer and Moderna shots, and a second for those who got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the international health agency, told reporters more than 80% of the world's vaccine supplies have been used in high- and upper-middle-income countries that account for less than half of the world's population, according to The New York Times.
"I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the delta variant," he said. "But we cannot — and we should not — accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it, while the world's most vulnerable people remain unprotected."
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said he agrees.
"I look at everything from a more global perspective than a lot of folks. If everyone had access to vaccines and we had a surplus, I would say, yes, do it. There's no harm in getting that third booster," Kim said, although that's only likely to increase efficacy "by a little bit" in the wealthy world.
"Vaccines could do much more by being donated to countries where even high-risk people aren't vaccinated yet," he said. "To me, that's a much better use of vaccines and will end this pandemic faster than giving a bunch of folks who already have protection against COVID slightly better protection."
He said the additional breakthrough cases "are just something we're going to have to get used to."
A spokeswoman for Romney referred to the senator's Monday tweet when asked for comment on the proposed moratorium. A number of European nations, including France, Germany and Britain, are preparing to offer the additional shots this fall, while Hungary is already making them available.
Not everyone is willing to wait
During last month's Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, Romney repeatedly asked Dr. Janet Woodcock, the FDA's acting administrator, how soon booster shots would be available in the United States.
"The agencies represented here are all monitoring this extremely carefully," Woodcock said, declining to spell out a timeline. She said nearly all of the nation's current coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths are among Americans who haven't been vaccinated.
Pfizer has announced FDA approval for a third dose is being sought. Reuters reported nearly two weeks ago that Pfizer and German partner BioNTech, said the U.S. government has purchased 200 million additional doses for vaccinating children under 12 — for which approval is pending — as well as possible booster shots.
Just how many Americans aren't willing to wait and are surreptitiously getting additional doses of coronavirus vaccine is not known, although there are anecdotal reports of people around the country getting the extra shots by not revealing they're already fully vaccinated, meaning it's been two weeks or more since their final dose.
Kim said he knows a few people from outside the state who have sought out booster shots even though he's told them he wouldn't recommend getting another dose. Still, the professor said he understands why they want what they hope will be more protection.
"They are very nervous about delta. They tend to be in areas where they are more exposed — they travel, they are forced to, because of what they do, be exposed to a large number of people," and tend to live or spend time in areas with low vaccination rates, he said.
At the same time, they've researched their choice and "fully know the risks of doing this. They rationalize that we have a surplus and a lot of these vaccines are going to expire soon," Kim said. "Quite honestly, that's not a bad rationalization. I'd much rather have those doses as a third dose than just throwing them away."
State health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said there's "not much discussion at all internally about booster shots." He said the state agency is waiting for guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the FDA.
That hasn't stopped some Utahns from calling the state's coronavirus hotline to ask about booster shots.
Hudachko said the scripted response explains, "Right now, the CDC doesn't recommend booster doses. There's also no recommendations about whether you need a booster dose of a different type of vaccine. For example, if you got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, there's no need right now to get a dose of an mRNA vaccine."
The response provided to hotline workers continues, "All authorized COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the variants we've identified so far. The level of effectiveness may vary based on a person's medical history, age, and the type of vaccine they got."
It concludes, "Depending on your medical history and risk factors, your doctor may recommend getting a booster dose. This is rare and not a recommendation for the general public at this time. Please follow your doctor's advice and talk with him or her if you have further questions."
Utah's latest COVID-19 numbers
Wednesday's 1,050 new COVID-19 cases in Utah brings the state's total number of cases since the pandemic began in March 2020 to 436,487. Utah has administered more than 3.05 million doses of coronavirus vaccine, a daily increase of 8,379. Only 46.5% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated against the virus.
There have been more than 2.9 million people tested for the virus in Utah, a daily increase of 6,999, and nearly 5.4 million tests conducted in the state, 12,293 more than Tuesday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 10.7% when all results are included and 15.2% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded,
In Utah, 388 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The state's death toll from the virus is 2,479 with the eight deaths reported Wednesday. They are:
- A Cache County woman, between 25-44, not hospitalized at time of death
- A Weber County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident
- A Weber County man, between 65-84, long-term care facility resident
- A Salt Lake County woman, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death
- A Salt Lake County woman, between 45-64, not hospitalized at time of death
- A Utah County man, between 25-44, hospitalized at time of death
- A Weber County man, between 15-24, hospitalized at time of death
- A Weber County man, between 25-44, hospitalized at time of death