Elinore Ioan didn’t hesitate when it was time to get her second COVID-19 booster shot.
As soon as she was eligible, the 67-year-old from Merrick booked an appointment to roll up her sleeve, then brought along her husband Doru, 79, so he, too, could get his booster.
“We will be having relatives around for the first time in two and a half years … they are traveling from other countries,” Ioan said after getting her shot outside Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital’s vaxmobile on May 17. “Even if they are boosted and vaccinated, it’s good for personal safety.”
As Long Islanders prepare for a summer packed with vacation and travel plans — including this Memorial Day weekend — health experts are urging them to make sure they are fully vaccinated and boosted. While it’s certain this will be the busiest summer since the start of the pandemic in 2020, it’s unclear what COVID-19 has in store for New York in the coming months.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Health experts believe the current COVID-19 surge, caused in part by highly contagious omicron subvariants, could be over in a few weeks, but it's too soon to know if there will be other waves during the summer.
- Federal health officials said they are tracking two additional omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, which are dominant in South Africa. They could impact infection rates if they make it to the United States this summer.
- Getting vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 may not prevent someone from testing positive for COVID-19, but it is still the best way to protect against serious illness, health experts said.
“It’s so hard to be definitive and be accurate,” said Dr. Alan Bulbin, director of infectious disease at Catholic Health St. Francis Hospital & Heart Center in Roslyn. “Every time you thought there was a pattern, you get a curveball, a new variant.”
Surges and subvariants
Last summer, COVID-19 cases dropped to low levels in June and July, only to start ticking up again in August and September due to the delta variant. Then the highly contagious omicron variant took over, causing a wave of infections over the winter.
After a brief respite in March, omicron’s subvariants — BA.2, BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1 — started driving the surge in COVID-19 cases around New York and on Long Island that continues today. Those variants account for more than 98% of COVID-19 samples from New York that were collected and examined between April 24 and May 7, the most recent ones available on the state Department of Health's website.
Nationally, BA.2.12.1 makes up almost 58% of the new cases in the United States, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of last Saturday.
Experts said several other factors also have led to the current surge: the rollback of COVID-19 restrictions such as masking, and waning immunity to the virus through prior infection or vaccination.
“The uptick we are currently experiencing, hopefully, will peak and we could see a fall in cases over the next couple of weeks,” said Dr. David Hirschwerk, infectious disease expert and medical director of North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. “After that, it’s really going to depend upon what other strains emerge.”
Federal health officials said they are tracking two omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, which are currently dominant in South Africa.
“If there are other strains that emerge and reach the U.S. and those strains are less able to be neutralized by the current vaccines and over time we have waning of immunity, we are likely again to see an uptick in cases in the summer,” Hirschwerk said.
Importance of boosters
When someone tests positive for COVID-19 and recovers, the silver lining generally had been that they were not likely to be reinfected for some period of time. But some research has shown omicron doesn’t appear to protect against future infections as well as the earlier delta, alpha and beta variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Dr. Ashish Jha, COVID-19 response coordinator for the White House, said it’s too soon to know if there will be waves of infections in the coming months, but some of it will be based on how and if the omicron variants protect against future infections.
“If it generated a lot of population immunity, then we are going to see fewer infections into the summer, fall, winter,” he said during a May 18 briefing. “If it generated only a modest amount of immunity, we’re going to see more infections.”
That’s why infectious disease experts said getting fully vaccinated and boosted is still the most effective way to avoid getting seriously sick.
“Nobody is saying [the vaccine] is going to completely protect you from getting the infection. They are not really designed for that,” Bulbin said. “What they have established is that they give you an immunologic foundation so that if you do get sick, it won’t be a serious illness.”
Health officials have recommended booster shots for most people over age 5 who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
People 5 and older who received the Pfizer-BioNTech for their initial two-shot vaccine series can get a booster about five months later. It is the same time frame for people 18 years of age and older who received the two-shot Moderna vaccine. People who received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine can get a booster dose two months later.
A second booster dose is available for people 50 and older and those who are immunocompromised about four months after their first booster dose.
According to the state Department of Health, 812,896 second booster doses have been administered statewide, including 126,500 second doses in the Long Island region: 63,878 in Nassau County and 62,622 in Suffolk County. The percentage of eligible Long Islanders who received second booster shots was not available, state officials said, because it is difficult to calculate an accurate total eligibility number.
More than 1.1 million first booster/additional doses have been administered in the Long Island region, the state said, adding that about 52% of eligible Long Islanders have received their initial booster dose. That number includes 603,659 administered in Nassau and 566,516 in Suffolk.
One trend emerging is that people may be timing their second booster shots around their travel. Memorial Day reservations for flights, rental cars, cruises and hotels are up 122% over last year, according to AAA.
Many health experts said that timing strategy could be OK, except for people who are over 65 and those with compromised immune systems. They should get that second booster as soon as possible, experts said.
Hirschwerk said the first booster shot is the most important. “Not getting the first booster puts people’s health in jeopardy,” he said.
Elinore Ioan, a nurse practitioner who also teaches nursing students, said getting her second booster was a stress reliever.
“It gives you peace of mind that you are careful about your safety and being conscientious about the safety of other people,” she said.