ST. LOUIS — The percentage of COVID-19 patients in St. Louis-area hospitals who are fully vaccinated has been steadily increasing in recent months, prompting doctors to urge the elderly and people with weakened immune systems to get booster shots.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force has been tracking COVID-19 patients with so-called breakthrough infections since Aug. 2.
For much of August, the percentage ranged between 10% and 15%. In September, it rose to 15% to 20%. It climbed to between 20% and 25% for much of October. After hitting 31% on Nov. 3, the percentage has hovered between 25% and 30%.
On Friday, the task force reported that 59 of 227 hospitalized COVID patients are fully vaccinated, representing 26% of the patient population.
Dr. Mano Patri, an infectious disease specialist and the medical director of SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital-Lake Saint Louis, said a majority of the vaccinated patients are over the age of 65 or have compromised immune systems — or both.
Because of their age and medical conditions, experts recommend they get a third booster dose of the two-dose COVID-19 vaccines, but Patri says many patients she sees have not yet done so.
“Certainly, if you are over 65 and if you have a weak immune system, the big push we’ve made through all the primary cares (doctors) is to say that that you can potentially benefit from getting this booster to reduce your risk of acquiring COVID,” Patri said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Oct. 21 greatly expanded its recommendation for booster shots among those who are fully vaccinated. People who should get boosters are those age 65 and older, adults with certain underlying medical conditions, those who live in long-term care settings and also anyone who got the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine.
Those whose jobs place them at high risk of exposure to COVID, such as teachers or health care workers, may also get a booster.
Boosters should be given after six months have passed since receiving the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, and two months after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“We still need to remember that booster recommendations just came out, so we may not be seeing a ton of patients yet who have received a booster,” Patri said.
More than 3 million Missourians have been fully vaccinated, and more than 450,000 boosters doses have been administered across the state, data shows.
Health officials recommended the boosters based on emerging evidence that vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 infection is decreasing over time, likely due to a combination of waning protection and the more infectious delta variant, which caused a surge in cases over the summer and quickly became the dominant strain.
“If you think of a vaccine as a raincoat, when you are dealing with drizzle you are well-protected. But when you are in a rainstorm or a hurricane, ... that raincoat isn’t enough,” Patri said.
Patri pointed out that waning protection from vaccines is a normal phenomenon. Flu shots are required every year and tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis boosters are needed every 10 years.
“Vaccines are effective,” she said. “The majority of people who are hospitalized in general are still unvaccinated.”
Those who end up hospitalized despite being vaccinated are also far less likely than unvaccinated patients to become severely ill or die, Patri said.
“When we are looking through our ICUs, the people who are on the ventilators, over 95% are unvaccinated.”
Booster shots could even soon be available for all U.S. adults. On Tuesday, Pfizer asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to authorize additional shots of its vaccine for everyone age 18 and older.
Some states aren’t waiting. California and Colorado health officials on Thursday went ahead and expanded booster eligibility to all adults in their states.
Patri says federal authorities’ expansion of booster eligibility is likely and could come in time for winter and the holidays, when more people are indoors and chances of exposure are greater.
Those who have not yet gotten vaccinated can also help protect those who are elderly and vulnerable from ending up in the hospital by getting their shots.
“The greater the number of unvaccinated people in a community the more opportunity for germs to spread, that’s the truth,” Patri said. “Outbreaks are more difficult to stop, and everyone is at more of a greater risk.”
“This isn’t a judgment against people who are unvaccinated. This is about the science,” she went on to say. “We will not get out of this if we don’t work together.”