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COVID-19 Check-In: Boosters, New Variants, and More

Rama Thyagarajan, MD, MPH from the Infectious Disease Clinic shares what Austinites should know at this stage of the pandemic

Reviewed by: Rama Thyagaragjan, MD, MPH

Written by: Lauren Schneider

A young child wearing a forest green shirt is wearing a face mask and smiling at a provider who is putting a bandaid on their arm following a vaccination.

While lockdowns have lifted and the worst of the pandemic seems to have subsided, the coronavirus is still a concern in Austin. “Given that the virus is still circulating in the community and new strains of SARS-COV-2 continue to occur, we will continue to see COVID-19 infections,” says Rama Thyagarajan, MD, MPH, an infectious diseases specialist at the UT Health Austin Infectious Disease Clinic. Here, she weighs in on what to expect in the coming months.

Approaching normalcy with caution

“COVID-19 cases in the United States have been slowly declining,” says Dr. Thyagarajan. She attributes this decrease in cases to the increasing number of people with either acquired immunity from previous COVID-19 infections or from vaccination-related immunity as well as the emergence of milder variants of the virus.

Dr. Thyagarajan notes that these milder variants are a double-edged sword as they are associated with less severe symptoms but may be more contagious; she warns that more people could be exposed to the virus in the coming months. “Fall is the time when respiratory illness increases due to more time indoors and more family gatherings like Halloween and Christmas.”

She adds that unlike the past two fall seasons, people are less likely to avoid these large indoor gatherings, which could lead to higher case counts for not only COVID-19 but other respiratory viruses such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that flu cases are already on the rise in some regions of the United States.

Boosting defenses against respiratory viruses

Dr. Thyagarajan says that anyone hoping to spend the festive season with friends and loved ones protect themselves with both the influenza vaccine and the latest COVID-19 booster, which is known as the bivalent booster because it protects against both the original SARS-COV-2 viral strain as well the B4/B5 sub-lineage of the Omicron variant. She says state and national data suggest that these B4/B5 and other Omicron subtypes will continue to cause the most COVID-19 cases in the coming months.

Even though the new booster protects against two forms of COVID-19, Dr. Thyagarajan says there is no drastic difference from previous versions of the shot in terms of manufacturing, mechanism of action, or side effects. “The bivalent vaccine is produced by the same manufacturer and utilizing the same technology as the original COVID-19 vaccine, with over 632 million doses of vaccine and booster administered in the United States as of October 19.”

Still, she encourages people to consult their healthcare provider about any concerns regarding their risk of side effects as certain populations may be more likely to experience side effects following COVID-19 vaccination, including those who had a negative reaction to a previous dose. Individuals who develop side effects after vaccination can report their experience to the CDC through the V-safe tool and the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

Staying informed

“I recommend all readers to talk to their providers about keeping themselves and family safe in the months to come,” says Dr. Thyagarajan, adding that CDC has a “wealth of information” available online for more about the vaccines, variants, and other issues related to COVID-19.

The CDC also offers a vaccine locator tool to find local clinics offering COVID-19 and flu vaccines. Coronavirus vaccines are offered free of charge regardless of insurance status, while influenza vaccines are often free with insurance. Austin Public Health offers low-cost immunizations, including the flu shot, to uninsured adults and children as well as children who are Medicaid recipients at their Shots for Tots and Big Shots clinics.

Those interested in local virus updates can visit COVID-19 pages run by the City of Austin and Travis County.

To view all resources related to COVID-19 at UT Health Austin, click here.

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