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Why should older adults get the COVID-19 booster shot? 200 Utah deaths avoided in early 2021 thanks to vaccines, study says

Salt Lake City resident Kim Irwin Pack receives an influenza vaccine at the Salt Lake Public Health Center.
Salt Lake City resident Kim Irwin Pack receives an influenza vaccine at the Salt Lake Public Health Center on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday COVID-19 vaccines may have helped prevent 200 deaths among older adults in Utah during the first five months of this year, doctors at University of Utah Health urged those over 65 to receive their booster shots.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday COVID-19 vaccines may have helped prevent 200 deaths among older adults in Utah during the first five months of this year, doctors at University of Utah Health urged those over age 65 to receive their booster shots.

Because of the state's high rate of fully vaccinated older adults — 85.2% — that group has "in large part avoided hospitalization and death and bad outcomes from COVID-19 despite the surge of the delta variant," Dr. Mark Supiano, division chief of the department of geriatrics at U. Health in Salt Lake City, said during a news conference.

As of Sept. 25, those ages 65 and older who received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago should now receive a booster shot.

"While we hope that this current surge ... is beginning to plateau, if not dissipate, we do not want to replicate what's happened in the past several months," Supiano said, expressing concern that the "next surge" could become older adults who don't receive the follow-up dose.

Antibody levels of older adults who got the shot more than six months ago have fallen below the effective level, according to Supiano, which is why doctors say they should get the vaccine.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' new report found that vaccinations may have helped prevent about 1,500 new infections as well as 200 deaths in Utah. The study found that nationally, about 265,000 infections and 39,000 deaths were avoided among those on Medicare between January and May.

During the first nine months of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 80% of the 352,000 people who died due to the disease were 65 and older and Medicare eligible. From January to May 2021, officials said, as vaccination went from 1% to 80% among older adults, the study noted an 11% to 12% decrease in weekly coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths among medicare recipients "for every 10% increase in county vaccination rates."

Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, infectious diseases division chief at U. Health, said that due to the high risk of death in older adults who contract COVID-19 — and those who live in nursing homes — "we can't afford to wait, because it's pretty clear that the third dose will provide additional protection for the elderly in whom the protection wanes more quickly than in younger people, so they are at more risk of getting infected."

That's why that group is prioritized for who should get the booster vaccine first, he said. Those in residential care facilities, even if they're under 65, are also prioritized because they tend to face more risk.

"Those are the two groups that it's really a 'should' recommendation, if you will, that they should get these vaccines," Swaminathan said.

The boosters are available to a large segment of the public, he noted.

Those over age 50 with a medical condition that makes them more at risk can get the vaccine, as well as anyone over 18 with certain conditions. That includes those who are overweight, moderate to severe asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Those who work in high-risk settings such as schools in high transmission areas, or those in industries where they interact with customers face-to-face, could also choose to get the booster, Swaminathan said.

Those who have previously been vaccinated and had a previous infection should talk to their doctor about whether they need a booster, he said.

Side effects for older adults following the vaccination are similar to other populations, Supiano said. Some have a sore arm, and some experience mild symptoms like fatigue and headaches.

In his practice, Supiano said he hasn't seen any complications from patients getting the flu vaccine and booster shot at the same time.

Supiano urged those eligible for the booster to make an appointment with their local health department of a pharmacy near them. A doctor's recommendation is not needed. It is helpful for those who get their booster to bring their previous vaccine card, Supiano said.

New Utah data

Utah health officials confirmed 1,264 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, as well as 11 deaths.

School-age children accounted for 267 of the new cases — 123 cases were ages 5-10, 56 were ages 11-13, and 88 were 14-17, the Utah Department of Health said in a daily update.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 1,395 per day, and the average percent positivity rate of those tested is 15.4%.

Health care workers administered 8,251 vaccine doses since Monday's report, bringing total doses given in Utah to 3,515,582.

In the last 28 days, unvaccinated residents have experienced 6.6 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 7.2 times greater risk of being hospitalized due to the disease, and 6.4 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people, the health department said.

Since Feb. 1, people who are unvaccinated are at 4.1 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 4.8 times greater risk of being hospitalized, and 4.1 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people, data shows.

Of Tuesday's cases, 362 were confirmed as "breakthrough" cases, meaning they had been fully vaccinated more than two weeks ago. The state also confirmed 18 new breakthrough hospitalizations and three breakthrough deaths, according to the data.

State health officials and doctors have noted receiving the vaccine does not mean someone will not contract the coronavirus, but in most cases it is protective against serious illness. The vaccine also does not cause a person to get COVID-19.

Since vaccines became available to the public early this year, the state has confirmed 19,409 breakthrough cases, 994 breakthrough hospitalizations and 128 breakthrough deaths.

On Tuesday, 556 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus in Utah, an increase of seven since the previous day.

The latest deaths included:

  • A Davis County man between the ages of 65 and 84, who was hospitalized when he died.
  • A Tooele County woman, 65-84, not hospitalized.
  • A Duchesne County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • A Utah County woman, 25-44, hospitalized.
  • A Washington County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • A Utah County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • A Tooele County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • A Box Elder County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • A Washington County woman, older than 85, hospitalized.
  • A Salt Lake County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Salt Lake County man, 45-64, hospitalized.