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Only a third of Florida’s seniors have had COVID-10 vaccine booster shots as holidays approach

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 11/27/2021 Cindy Krischer Goodman, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Marcia Myers, 90, receives a booster shot of the Pfizer vaccination from Kara Dandrea with Guardian Pharmacy on Friday, September 17, 2021 at the Toby & Leon Cooperman Sinai Residences in Boca Raton. © Mike Stocker / South Florida/Sun Sentinel Marcia Myers, 90, receives a booster shot of the Pfizer vaccination from Kara Dandrea with Guardian Pharmacy on Friday, September 17, 2021 at the Toby & Leon Cooperman Sinai Residences in Boca Raton.

Only a third of seniors who are fully vaccinated in Florida have received a COVID-19 booster shot — worrying health experts who say that millions are leaving themselves exposed as the holidays approach.

While the COVID transmission rate in Florida is the lowest it has been since June, the stakes are high heading into the holidays: People over 65 make up 75% of the COVID deaths in Florida.

“If you are 65 or older and you are not boosted, you are putting your life at unnecessary risk,” said Howard Forman, a professor who directs the Health Care Management program in the Yale School of Public Health and tracks COVID’s global spread.

Compared to other age groups, Florida’s seniors have a high vaccination rate of 88% for the first two doses. But only 34% of them in Florida who are fully vaccinated have received a booster shot. More than 2.9 million seniors in the state who are fully vaccinated have yet to get a booster dose.

Florida has fallen below 37 other states in its percentage of seniors who are boosted, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID vaccination tracker.

Edith and Michael Frankel, 79 and 84, of Boynton Beach, fall into the minority of Florida seniors who have sought out a booster dose.

The Frankels know firsthand how awful the coronavirus can be after both landed in the hospital from it early in the pandemic. So when vaccines became available, the couple rushed to get shots, and then did the same when COVID boosters became available to seniors in September.

“After being vaccinated, we have never felt uncomfortable going out, but the booster reinforced that,” Michael said. “Now we are not hesitant to go anywhere.”

Delta will return

Florida has emerged from a devastating summer surge, but experts say the pandemic isn’t over. In parts of Europe and 30 states in the U.S. new COVID cases are increasing.

“Florida will see another surge, whether it is as large or as challenging as the previous wave is unclear,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Multiple studies show regardless of the type of vaccine, COVID immunity levels wane after six months. If cases in Florida pick up as they did last January, the uptick in infections could coincide with lower immunity levels in Florida’s seniors, many of whom got vaccinated in the spring.

Florida’s seniors have been eligible for boosters since September, however, on Friday, the CDC approved them for all adults.

Urgency is lacking

Jeffrey Johnson, Florida’s director of AARP, said the messaging and promotion is lacking for boosters.


Video: Those Eligible For COVID-19 Booster Shot Urged To Get Them (CBS Miami)

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“There’s been a change in direction in how seniors get vaccinated and less urgency from health officials,” said Jeff Johnson, AARP Florida Director. “There are more options in places to get vaccinated, but the booster has not been as heavily hyped.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis initially rolled out vaccines in Florida with a high-profile campaign dubbed “seniors first.” The campaign brought vaccines to senior communities throughout the state. At the same time, the federal government set up clinics at Florida’s long-term-care facilities through pharmacy partnerships to vaccinate the estimated 175,000 residents considered among the most vulnerable in the state.

But when it came to boosters, the governor’s attention has been elsewhere, focused on fighting mask and vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, states like New York are holding booster clinics for seniors ahead of the holiday season.

Nina Levine, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health in Broward, said there are no senior booster clinics or dedicated sites for seniors to get boosters: “The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is available at all DOH-Broward fixed and pop-up vaccination sites to individuals age 5 and older, including those who meet the criteria for booster shots,” she said.

“Boosters are rolling out as the delta wave is receding in Florida and that may make seniors think they can put it off or not worry about it,” Johnson said. “My concerns are the same ones I have when people don’t prepare for hurricane season until we are deep into the cone. This is one of those things where preparation is critically important. My concern is that we will not pay attention until a new wave comes and then it’s too late.”

Numbers hard to get

When the pandemic first arrived in Florida, the elderly in long-term-care facilities were most affected. A majority have since been vaccinated.

However, if anyone is tracking boosters within the state’s elder communities, it is unclear. Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration has kept track of resident and staff COVID immunizations but did not provide booster information for those residents in response to a Sun Sentinel request.

“Our members are coordinating with their local pharmacies to either get booster vaccines delivered or to schedule vaccination clinics on-site at their communities,” said Nick Van Der Linden, communications director for LeadingAge Florida, which represents 80,000 seniors in nursing homes, assisted living centers and senior communities. “Unfortunately, I do not have specific numbers for booster vaccines.”

Belmont Village Senior Living in Fort Lauderdale brought in Walgreens and gave boosters onsite to about 90% of its 88 residents, said Sheri Easton-Garrett, senior vice president of clinical operations. She said Belmont added boosters to a flu clinic that had been scheduled and will hold a second booster clinic for those who had not yet reached the six months mark.

“We did a lot of education on how the booster is a lifesaver and can make a world of difference in this fight with COVID,” Easton-Garrett said.

Dr. Kelli Tice, Florida Blue’s senior medical director of medical affairs, said she would like to see more effort to reach out to vulnerable seniors, possibly combining booster clinics with flu vaccine clinics.

“The risk in the next surge lies within this group in congregant settings. That is the reason we were so proactive to start with. As a group, they represent the greatest risk of hospitalization and death.”

Holidays come with risk

As the holidays approach, getting seniors their booster shots become more critical, notes Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, chief of general medicine at UHealth.

Carrasquillo said his patients seem unsure about whether boosters are needed. “I’m happy so many got the first two doses, but boosters are a key part of the strategy to keep everyone safe this Christmas. It would be a shame if seniors end up in the hospital because they didn’t get boosters.”

Seniors who are traveling over the holidays, should get their boosters as soon as possible, said Dr. Sadia Ali, a family medicine physician with Conviva Care Center Pembroke Pines. “Your risk increases with a lot of movement,” she said.

Ali said some seniors want to do an antibody test to decide if they need a booster. She advises against it.

“We can tell if you have antibodies but we have no indication of what they should be and who should get the booster. The right immunity level is different for different folks. A certain level can protect me but for you, it might not be enough,” she said,

The best approach for seniors, she said, is to get the booster six months after a second dose. “We can’t lose sight of how deadly this virus has been. We know immunity from this vaccine wanes over time. The booster is available, so it’s best to get it.”

Sun Sentinel health reporter Cindy Goodman can be reached at cgoodman@sunsentinel.com.

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