ST. GEORGE — There are new strains and a “new and improved” vaccine for COVID-19.
But even more than three years after the first COVID-19 infection in Southern Utah and the pandemic came and passed, people still may have lingering questions.
St. George News spoke with several experts to get answers to some of the main questions people may have in regard to the current state of COVID-19, what to do if you get infected and how to avoid getting the worst effects of the disease.
What is this new strain of COVID?
The last substantial COVID-19 mutation was the omicron variant in late 2021-early 2022 and caused the largest number of infections, deaths and hospitalizations of the entire pandemic in Southern Utah.
Omicron has given way to the eris (EG.5) and pirola (BA.2.86) variants that raised alarms in health circles when they first appeared two months ago. Like omicron, they showed many more mutations than previous strains of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And eris has quickly taken over as the most prominent strain of COVID-19 out there.
The virus that causes COVID-19 latches on to cells like dirt grabbing onto a car. Dirt can become muddier and stick better to the car. Dr. Tamara Sheffield, who heads community health and prevention for Intermountain Health, told St. George News that’s just what the COVID-19 virus is doing, but the new vaccine will be to cells what a ceramic finish or wax will be to a car to repel mud and dirt.
“When it changes how it looks, then our immune system doesn’t recognize it. And so the ones that mutate enough that we don’t recognize are the ones that spread,” Sheffield said. “The nice thing is as this lineage was changing, we could see that was the direction that the infections were going. And the FDA informed the vaccine companies to manufacture a new formula accordingly.”
Sheffield and other experts say in the weeks since their discovery, more has been learned about eris and pirola to see that the virus hasn’t taken enough of a leap to become much more virulent. More importantly, Sheffield said, the new vaccines have already been tested and are able to stop the new strains, as well as the ones that come after.
“This COVID vaccine is changing its construction to match what’s circulating, and help our bodies create the antibodies that will recognize exactly what’s out there that could infect us,” she said.
How do we know the new vaccines aren’t harmful or won’t mutate us?
Health experts say the new vaccine is more than just a booster and is the equivalent of buying a product at a supermarket with a “new and improved” label. That means even the few who have not had the vaccine up until now will need just one dose and it’s designed to last for at least another year for those who already have it.
Dr. Benjamin Brooks, a molecular and cellular biologist and the clerkship director at Rocky Vista University in Ivins, said the new version of the vaccine isn’t reinventing the car, it’s just coming out with this year’s new model.
“We stopped doing full-blown clinical trials because they’re just derivative of the others that we’ve done,” Brooks said. “Otherwise, we would never get ahead of the virus.”
The key to getting ahead of the virus is the method used to create the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines that came into being in early 2021, using proteins to help antibodies know how to fight COVID-19 as opposed to inert copies of the virus itself.
“The mRNA technology is built such that it can respond much more quickly and they can create a vaccine within a few months rather than the longer six-month cycle that you need to,” Sheffield said.
Brooks knows something about mRNA technology. He was part of the teams decades ago that created some of the first mRNA vaccines – in this case for a form of herpes. And he says unlike what people see in some horror movies, there’s nothing unknown that will somehow turn people into monsters.
“The technology is 20, 30 years old. There’s been misinformation out there that says, ‘Hey, they pushed it through and they didn’t do a complete trial,’” Brooks said. “No, we did a complete trial. What we did everything. All the scientific rigor that we normally do on these vaccines has been done.”
When is the government putting out the vaccine and are they going to make me take it?
One of the biggest changes in this go-round of the COVID-19 vaccine is the government has little to do with its distribution unless it’s through Medicaid. With the COVID-19 emergency nationwide ending back in May, the purchase and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine are back in the hands of medical providers, pharmacies and private insurance like other vaccines.
Sheffield said the government won’t be forcing people to take the vaccine because they aren’t in the vaccine business anymore. Whereas during the pandemic, the federal government purchased the vaccine and provided it at no cost to providers and the public. Now the COVID-19 vaccine is being purchased by medical providers and charged to a person’s insurance.
“It’s now, in the regular system, so we have to be able to program our computers to order the vaccine and to bill for the vaccine and have the insurance companies ready to accept those bills for their covered patients,” Sheffield said. “And we’ve been working on getting that ready through the summer knowing that this was coming.”
So the vaccine isn’t free anymore?
Technically, no. Moderna and Pfizer say the shot is $120 to $130 a dose.
But while the government is out of the business of distributing the vaccine, there are still laws in place to ensure that almost all, including the uninsured, will have it paid for. And if someone is on the government-run Medicaid, the government will still foot the bill.
As for private insurance, according to the AARP, the Affordable Care Act requires that insurance companies cover “preventive services requirements” and that includes vaccines like the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters.
However, private insurers can still require people to have to go to an in-network provider to have the shot covered and there can still be an additional administrative charge depending on the insurer.
Sheffield said people should check with their insurance to find out if they need to get their shot at a certain facility or provider.
In a check of some of the major health insurance providers locally, St. George News found that the following providers will cover the full cost of the new COVID-19 vaccine: Aetna, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Cigna, DMBA, MotivHealth, Selecthealth and United Health.
Will Christensen, a nurse practitioner and the chief medical officer at Family Healthcare in St. George, mentioned that his practice has a program to ensure any child younger than 18 can receive the vaccine at no cost, and the CDC also covers all children under the Vaccines for Children program.
Also, the CDC says grandfathered insurance plans as well as short-term health plans, fixed-indemnity plans, Farm Bureau plans and health care sharing ministry plans are not under the Affordable Care Act and aren’t required to cover the vaccine.
But even for people in those plans and the uninsured, there’s a way to get the vaccine for free.
If I’m uninsured, do I have to cover the costs of the vaccine?
According to the CDC, at least this year, there will be a program to allow those who are uninsured or on plans not under the Affordable Care Act to get the vaccine.
The Bridge Access Program will allow people who are uninsured or otherwise without coverage to get the vaccine through local health departments like the Southwest Utah Public Health Department or certain pharmacies.
In Southern Utah, all of the local Walgreens will be part of the program.
“The manufacturers are just giving it free to the pharmacies that are involved in this,” Sheffield said.
The program is in effect until the end of 2024, though the White House is asking Congress to extend that further.
When will I be able to get the new vaccine and where? And do I still need that vaccine card?
Sheffield said people might not want to rush out too quickly, as it may take a week or so for the new vaccine to arrive at providers and pharmacies.
“I wouldn’t rush to get it in the next week or two unless you have a real reason that you have to protect yourself by going on a trip or something,” Sheffield said. “The procedures are new. I see this as really more like a few weeks out. So late September to early October is when we will see access points opening up more broadly.”
Sheffield said local health departments will likely be the first places to have a supply of the new vaccine.
Southwest Utah Public Health Department spokesperson David Heaton told St. George News that as soon as the department receives the supplies of the new vaccine, appointment times at its offices in each of the five local counties will be put up on its website.
“I imagine it will be in the next week or so,” Heaton said. “Then we’ll have those active again where the clinic in each county will open up to set appointments to come get that new vaccine.”
Heaton said to simplify the process, the local department will only be providing the Moderna vaccine.
Heaton said the department will not include COVID-19 vaccines in its annual flu vaccination “shootouts” starting next week. However, he said it’s no problem if someone gets both the COVID-19 and flu shots at the same time with another provider.
Beyond that, Sheffield recommends calling ahead to either one’s doctor or preferred pharmacy to find out if they are providing the new vaccine in the coming weeks.
And because unlike previous boosters this shot has been recommended for anyone regardless of vaccination status, it will be OK if the previous COVID-19 shot record card was lost as the proof of a previous shot will not be required. However, providers should be able to provide a new card with a record of previous COVID-19 shots and boosters as long as the previous immunizations were in Utah.
If there’s herd immunity, why get the shot? What if everyone just didn’t get the new vaccine?
When asked, Brooks said if suddenly no one got any further shots, “We as a population? We would be OK.”
Thanks to previous vaccination efforts that have provoked the virus to evolve, he said COVID-19 will not likely be serious or deadly to anyone under 65 without any lung or heart condition, diabetes or immunity issues. And it wouldn’t affect them as long as they didn’t have any family or friends in those categories.
But to those that are vulnerable, he said that would be another story.
“It’s a good science experiment. It would be fun to hypothetically assess that. But practically, it’s not fun to assess that because that’s someone’s grandma who dies,” Brooks said. “I’m not saying that you have to. I just think that for me, it’s a really easy decision. I’m part of this community. I would hate to be responsible for transmitting that to someone and then there would be negative outcomes because of it.”
What if I’ve been exposed to someone with COVID? My coworker said they tested positive.
With more herd immunity, it is no longer the days where just being someone with COVID-19 means it’s time to stay home.
“Unless you’ve been isolating, you probably have been exposed to COVID to the point where your immune system has developed some sort of protection for you,” Brooks said.
Health experts say exposure is more likely if someone has been in close quarters for more than 15 minutes with someone who tests positive and less time if they were exhibiting symptoms.
The Utah Department of Health and Human Services says a person who thinks they have had substantial exposure shouldn’t get tested for at least five days, as it might take time for the virus to become detectable unless they exhibit symptoms. And they should take the test even if they feel fine.
The CDC also recommends wearing a mask to avoid possibly spreading the virus for 10 days, especially around friends or loved ones who are at high risk.
And in any case, they should heed any sign from their body for the next 10 days if they feel like they might be ill.
Are there still places that offer free COVID tests?
While the federal and state governments have not provided free COVID-19 testing sites since the end of the emergency, all Southern Utah Walgreens locations offer free COVID-19 PCR lab tests through the federal Increasing Community Access to Testing program.
Otherwise, there might be a charge for either a PCR lab test or the purchase of an “at-home” rapid test depending on one’s health insurance.
There is also still a difference in accuracy between the two types of tests according to the CDC. The PCR test is 95% accurate, though it can take longer to receive a result since it usually has to be taken to an off-site lab.
The home test is 85% accurate but can provide a result within 15 minutes. The CDC adds that while the home tests can provide a false negative, they will not provide a false positive. If that line appears saying COVID-19 is present, you have COVID.
And if you still have an older, unused at-home test, the CDC said there may not be any need to throw it away as they have at least an eight-month shelf life after the expiration date on the package.
What are those main symptoms again?
According to the CDC:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
The CDC said the new strains have another symptom not previously seen in COVID: Conjunctivitis, also known as “pink eye.”
I’ve tested positive. I have COVID. What do I do?
Christiansen said the first thing someone should do is determine if they are at risk for severe complications from COVID-19. That includes being unvaccinated, over 65, immunocompromised or having other lung, heart or blood sugar conditions.
“That’s a discussion we have to have with our patients,” Christiansen said. “What’s your risk factors? Are you already several days in and already getting better? Do you have someone at home you’re worried about exposure or where you work?”
If someone is at high risk or just experiencing more than mild symptoms, a doctor or pharmacist may prescribe Paxlovid, which the National Institute of Health says reduces the chance of COVID-19 worsening by 89%.
Paxlovid must be taken within five days of the appearance of the first symptoms and, for now, the cost of the drug is being covered by the federal government. While a doctor’s prescription is needed, a pharmacy can also proscribe it on its own for an additional fee.
Whether Paxlovid is necessary or not, Christiansen said the rule of thumb with COVID-19 is to listen to one’s body and take it easy with a lot of rest.
“Hydrate well and rest and, and watch for warning signs and let us know if they start getting shorter breath or start throwing up or getting really weak,” Christiansen said. “Ibuprofen is recommended for pain relief.
The Utah Department of Health and Human Services says there’s no reason to go to the emergency room unless there’s chest pain that doesn’t go away, inability to wake up easily, if one’s face or lips look bluish or there’s difficulty breathing.
It’s also recommended to stay in a separate room for others in a household and wear a mask around them to avoid spreading the disease to others.
There’s also another reason to take it easy. Experts have said long COVID conditions – where people experience fatigue, shortness of breath, “brain fog” and trouble sleeping – are more likely to happen and last longer if someone exerts themself too much while having COVID-19 or in the two weeks after symptoms disappear.
According to the National Institutes of Health, long COVID has been shown not to last more than two or three months unless someone returns to strenuous activity within those first two weeks. Getting back to that job could mean a year or more with long COVID.
How long do I stay at home?
Health officials say it’s all about five days.
“We’re encouraging people who, when you’re sick, don’t go to school, don’t go to work, don’t be around other individuals for at least five days,” Sheffield said.
The state health department says if there is a positive test, but no apparent symptoms, people should stay home for five days from the date of the positive test.
Otherwise, a person should stay home at least five days after the onset of symptoms and not return to work, school or the public until they have been fever-free for 24 hours without medication and their other symptoms have improved over 24 hours.
After that, Sheffield said the “kind” thing to do is to wear a mask for the next 10 days as they still have to potential to spread the virus to others.
“If you’ve been ill, be kind and mask up for a while so you’re not spreading the virus,” Sheffield said, adding that people shouldn’t be judgmental if they see someone wearing a mask in public. “When I see a person with a mask, I think one of two things. I either think they are at risk themselves and need to protect themselves or they’re an individual who is caring about others and they are concerned about possibly infecting someone else.”
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