Hasn’t it been grand? Normal? Like the last two years never happened? Isn’t it nice seeing smiles again?
Is it too much to think, to hope, to assume that COVID-19 is finally over?
It’s not over. It might never be. That wily virus that has plagued the world like, well, the plague is shifty and smart, lulling us into a false sense of normalcy before, bam, it transformed itself into the delta variant. Then omicron.
Now BA.2, a subvariant of omicron. It’s too soon to know how much havoc this mutant will cause. But we do know that our best defense against COVID-19 is the vaccine.
Recently, the New Mexico Department of Health – along with the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – recommended that those of us over 50 who received our first booster at least four months ago should now get a second booster.
Ditto for those ages 12 and older with immune deficiencies and those who received a Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least four months ago.
Well, no. To help cut through the confusion, we turn to Dr. David Scrase, acting Health secretary and New Mexico’s own Dr. Fauci but without the Fox-fueled scorn.
Not everybody gets to talk to Scrase, I am told. But since COVID-19, Scrase has found himself talking to everybody in his ubiquitous news conference appearances.
“I always joke, I’d never done a press conference in my 37-year career until this pandemic and then to do it all the time, every week for two years,” said Scrase, far more casual on a recent Saturday morning than in those news conferences, flannel-shirted, morning tea in hand, still working even on the weekend.
His advice: If you’re over 65, absolutely get the second booster. Now.
“Vaccines are the only tool we have that can end this pandemic,” Scrase said. “The world gets vaccinated, the virus will no longer find a place to live and grow anymore.”
He’s a little less definitive for those 50 and over who received their first booster at least four months ago.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is as well, saying Tuesday that those 50 and up with chronic health conditions should get a second booster now but that it’s a “personal judgment call” for healthy 50somethings and those who had the omicron variant in the last two to three months as to whether they get a second booster now or wait until later when a new variant rears its ugly RNA.
Scrase is not as convinced as Walensky that natural immunity is enough to ward off another bout of COVID-19.
“It would be like saying, you know, I had the flu last year so I don’t really need the flu shot this year. Or yeah, I had a cold once, so that’s it, no way I’ll ever get another cold,” he said. “Again, it’s the variants. I’ve had some patients who had delta in December and omicron in January or February.”
Scrase said that while the numbers of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in New Mexico are relatively low now, he anticipates another uptick in the state, this one fairly rapid and peaking in early May.
Getting a second booster ahead of that poses no known safety issues, even if another shot is needed in fall – or even sooner. A new study released Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that a fourth vaccine only provides short-term protection.
Getting a second booster shot is free and easy to sign up for – and if you find it isn’t so easy, friendly DOH folks are ready to help.
They recommend that you don’t wait for them to text or email you as was the case during past vaccine rounds.
“They should go ahead and register for one using the (website), their provider or local pharmacy,” said Katy Diffendorfer, health equity communications manager. “Appointment availability is good and varies by location.”
If you’re having trouble getting through on the hotline, try calling in the evening or over the weekend, she said.
“I would emphasize that we take a message, then return their call, and that due to our system that call may show up as being returned from an unlisted number or a number they don’t know,” Diffendorfer said. “They should be prepared to answer unknown or unlisted numbers until they hear back from us. We make between one to three attempts to return every single call, but I’m sorry to say a high proportion of our return calls don’t get answered.”
Sadly, jerks are taking advantage of the vulnerable by pretending to be from DOH and asking residents for their full Social Security numbers or financial information such as a credit card number.
“NMDOH will never ask for that,” she said.
After our conversation Saturday, Scrase, 69, said he planned to register for his second booster. Ever mindful of science and the ephemeral nature of “normal,” he still wears his mask on occasion, including shopping at big box stores and the five days before he is scheduled to see patients at his geriatric practice.
He’s started going to restaurants again, and he expects he will always wear a mask when he travels by plane. He advises others to use masks depending on the situation or when cases start to rise again. Because inevitably they will.
“An analogy might be, is it OK for me to go out in shorts and a T-shirt? Well, yeah, but you might want to check the weather,” he said. “You know, because if it’s 10 degrees and sleeting you might not want just shorts and a T-shirt. But if it’s 90 and sunny, you might.”
That day, the weather was warm, sunny and grand.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org.