Getting a COVID-19 booster shot doubles the protection vaccines provide against severe illness from the incredibly contagious omicron variant, according to the results from a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study by health care systems in 10 states, including Intermountain Healthcare in Utah.

“This is the first evidence coming out of the United States that really shows the significant impact that booster doses have on vaccine effectiveness for omicron,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, told reporters during a virtual news conference.

The findings come as omicron continues to surge through Utah, fueling record-breaking case counts and hospitalizations. Utah currently has the nation’s fourth-highest number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

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Stenehjem said two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine given six months earlier was 38% effective at keeping people from seeking urgent care, increasing to more than 80% with a booster shot. There was a similar impact on preventing hospitalizations, with the initial doses seeing 50% effective, but with a booster shot jumping to 90%.

Booster shots still have “a great impact” on those who are 65 or older, he said.

The study only looked at people sick enough to head to an urgent care facility or hospital during the current surge, he said, and excluded those receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. People who are vaccinated can still get omicron, but the doctor said the “vast majority do well at home” and don’t need to seek care.

“It’s actually incredibly timely data, because if you go out and you get your booster shot, that booster shot will give you immediate benefit within five to seven days,” Stenehjem said, providing “very significant protection” during a surge not expected to peak in the state for possibly weeks.

The study was one of three from the CDC highlighted during a White House briefing on COVID-19 Friday.

“Overall, those who received a booster dose had the most protection against emergency room visits, urgent care clinic visits, and hospitalizations,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said, using charts to detail the findings.

“There are still millions of people who are eligible for a booster dose and have not yet received one,” Walensky said. “As we continue to face the Omicron variant, representing over 99% of infections in the United States today, I urge all who are eligible to get their booster shot to get it as soon as possible.”

But many Utahns have not gotten the additional dose of COVID-19 vaccine recommended for everyone 12 and older by the CDC. Booster shots are available five months after two doses of the Pfizer or Modern vaccine, or two months after a single dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Less than 60% of all Utahns are considered fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since completing their initial series of shots. Only 39.5% of fully vaccinated Utahns have gotten a booster shot, which doesn’t have to be the same brand as the original doses.

Stenehjem is hopeful the study, which includes the experiences of Utahns, will increase those numbers to ease the strain on hospitals that have been overwhelmed since last August, when the more virulent delta variant of COVID-19 was whipping through the state.

“One of the challenges we’ve had here in Utah is that we never came down from our delta surge,” the doctor said. This weekend, he said Intermountain Healthcare will open up 34 new hospital beds for COVID-19 patients — 20 at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray and 14 at Riverton Hospital.

Friday, the Utah Department of Health reported a new record for hospitalizations in the state, 765. There were also 11,601 new cases and 11 additional deaths from the virus, and the rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 10,818 per day, even with most Utahns being urged to skip testing because state sites can’t handle the crowds.

Stenehjem advised anyone with shortness of breath or a cough that’s severe to seek care. But he said those with milder symptoms like the sniffles can stay home and take acetaminophen, especially if they are young, healthy, have no other medical issues and are vaccinated.

Utahns showing symptoms who are at high risk for severe illness because they’re older, immunocompromised, have underlying medical conditions or are not vaccinated should get tested for COVID-19 right away, the doctor said, because they may qualify for the limited monoclonal antibody treatment and other treatments available.

Friday, the state health department announced changes to the risk factors seen as increasing the likelihood of severe illness from COVID-19 that are used to calculate who receives treatment, including removing race, ethnicity and gender, and prioritizing unvaccinated people 75 and older.

Utah reevaluating COVID-19 treatment qualifications after Fox News host claims whites are losing out

The changes come after Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed whites were losing out in Utah and other states using race as a factor, although a state health department spokesman has said the decision to reconsider the risk factors had nothing to do with the commentary.

Stenehjem said with treatments that work against omicron in short supply around the country, it’s important for Utahns to avoid getting the virus and possibly infecting others who may be more vulnerable. Besides, he said, there’s no guarantee any case will be mild.

“There’s plenty of people that are being hospitalized. There’s plenty of people that are in the ICU. There’s still plenty of people dying from COVID-19,” the doctor said, adding that staffing shortages caused by the outbreak are affecting health care systems, schools and businesses.

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The study did not consider the impact of immunity from previous COVID-19 infections on preventing severe illness, Stenehjem said, adding that may not provide much protection against omicron. Nor did it address whether additional booster shots may be needed as their protection wanes, he said.

The findings are based on 222,772 patient encounters in 383 emergency departments and urgent care clinics and 87,904 hospitalizations from 259 hospitals among adults 18 and older across 10 states from Aug. 26, 2021 to Jan. 5, 2022.

Besides Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, health care systems in Texas, New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, California, Oregon, Washington, Indiana and Colorado contributed to the study.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported Intermountain Healthcare will open up 20 new hospital beds for COVID-19 patients over the weekend. The health care provider is actually adding 34 beds.

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