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Newsday panel: Booster shots may be needed to build immunity against new strains of virus

Local health experts answer your questions about vaccination

Local health experts answer your questions about vaccination rates, COVID-19 variants and the potential booster shots needed down the road. Panelists include Alexander Tsynman, MD, associate medical director of outpatient behavioral health services, Mercy Hospital; and Bruce Hirsch MD, FACP, FIDSA, AAHIVM, attending physician in infectious diseases, Northwell Health. Sign up for COVID-19 text alerts at newsday.com/text.

While all three COVID-19 vaccines widely in use in the United States are highly effective for at least six months, booster shots may be necessary over the long-term, doctors said in a Newsday Live panel conducted virtually Wednesday.

"This is a worldwide pandemic and the virus continues to evolve and there may be strains in the future that need a boosted response" or a reformulated vaccine, said Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an attending physician in infectious diseases at Northwell Health. Hirsch also said that "with time the amount of immunity we have may gradually fade."

Should the science bear that out, Hirsch said, he would recommend boosters even to people given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, use of which was paused this month after federal health officials found 15 recipients out of 8 million had developed blood clots.

All were women, most under 50; three died.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have since ended the pause, deciding that the small clot risk could be handled with warnings to help younger women decide if they should use that shot or another vaccine.

"If a person had Johnson & Johnson success, that’s a marker that the vaccine is safe for them and I would not hesitate to go ahead with the booster," Hirsch said.

A wide-ranging discussion Wednesday also covered mask comfort. Cotton pads under ear straps do wonders, as do caps that offer anchoring options besides the ears, the doctors said.

They also touched on the pandemic's psychological dimensions.

Alexander Tsynman, associate medical director of outpatient behavioral health services at Mercy Hospital, said patients seeking mental health treatment were among those most vulnerable to misinformation about vaccination.

Some share an "extreme preoccupation with social media," he said. "You get confused, you get disoriented, and you get hesitant to receive the vaccine … I strongly recommend you try to limit involvement with social media and listen to the experts."

Responding to a question from a Newsday reader who said she was anxious about returning to life outside the home, Tsynman offered a three-part prescription: "Paramount will be to get the vaccination." Then meet with your mental health worker, he said. Finally, "try to find something in yourself that will promote your optimism."

Hirsch ended with similar optimism: "We’re going to be stronger, we’re going to be wiser, we’re going to know we have limitations and vulnerabilities, but we always did," he said. "We’re getting through this together."

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