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We would all like COVID-19 to be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it is not.
As we’ve seen in previous years, COVID cases and hospitalization are likely to increase as winter arrives, although health experts don’t expect the large spike seen last winter. The virus can take hold when people spend more time indoors and when they travel and gather for the holidays. In addition, new strains, some of which can be caught by people who have already had COVID, are circulating in Maine.
Maine is one of the top states when it comes to COVID vaccination rates, which is good. But in Maine — and elsewhere across the country — far too few people have gotten the latest booster to combat newer strains of the virus.
Only 11 percent of eligible people nationwide have gotten the latest booster. In Maine that percentage is much higher at 23 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, that number remains troublingly low as new and existing COVID variants continue to spread through the population.
Recent research has found that the bivalent booster, which is available for free at pharmacies and clinics throughout the state, can help ward off a COVID infection caused by the newer strains. The shots aren’t foolproof. People who have been vaccinated and boosted catch COVID. But, when they do, the severity and duration of the illness is typically less severe.
An October analysis by the Commonwealth Fund found that if the COVID booster rate was the same as the flu vaccination rate in 2020-21, more than 75,000 lives could be saved in the U.S. this winter. The flu vaccination rate that year was 50 percent for the general population, and 75 percent for those over age 65, according to the CDC. Millions of COVID infections and more than 745,000 hospitalizations could be avoided, saving more than $44 billion in medical spending, according to the group’s analysis.
A Maine-specific analysis from earlier this year found that more than 1,100 deaths could have been prevented in the state if everyone who was eligible for COVID vaccines and boosters in 2021 had gotten them.
If you haven’t gotten the latest booster, which became available in September, or an earlier one, or even if you haven’t received any COVID vaccines, it’s not too late. A state website has a searchable list of vaccine locations. You can also get a flu shot at many of these locations, and at the same time as a COVID vaccine.
Nirav Shah, the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is trying a new message this year. He is urging Mainers to prepare for winter by getting a COVID booster.
Just as Mainers winterize their cars by putting on snow tires and winterize their homes, they should winterize their bodies by getting vaccines, for both COVID and flu, he said in a recent video.
It’s good advice, which should be heeded before the worst winter storms, and the expected COVID surge, arrive.