Government and health authorities are urging the public to get their booster shot amid an impending Omicron outbreak. People can now get their booster shot after only four months from receiving their second jab. But why isn't double vaccinated enough anymore? Northern Advocate reporter Julia Czerwonatis spoke with long-serving general practitioner Dr Tim Cunningham of Central Family Health Care about Omicron, what difference the booster makes and what parents need to know about the paediatric vaccine.
Q: Why do we have this mad rush to get a booster shot?
A: Having two shots of anything is not a lot of use against Omicron. The booster is remarkable at stopping significant disease. If you've got the booster, you've got a 75 per cent chance of having non-symptomatic Omicron.
Q: What is the breakthrough rate for Omicron if you are only double vaccinated?
A: For getting symptomatic Omicron it's pretty similar to the unvaccinated. It does appear that the double vaccine gives you a small amount of protection against severe disease but it's appearing for Omicron that the booster dose is incredible – it makes a huge difference how well you stay.
Q: So do we need to be worried about Omicron?
A: American and English hospitals are getting overwhelmed with Omicron and it's shutting them down as far as being able to provide other hospital care. The Omicron wave is just as terrible on the hospitals as the other waves. Because it is so much more contagious, realistically we're not going to have the same control that we've been able to have with Delta.
Q: What do we know about Omicron?
A: The Delta incubation time is about four days. Omicron is up to 3.5 times more infectious and the incubation time is 2-3 days. You're sick much quicker and you probably give it to two to three times as many people.
Q: Does shorting the period between second and third dose from six to four month impact the effectiveness of the vaccine? Am I less protected if I get the booster sooner?
A: We don't know. But Omicron is going to come. It will sweep through the country within a couple of months. There is a real race for us to give as many people the booster as possible. My strong advice is, as soon as you are four months after your second Covid vaccine, hurry to get the booster.
Q: How long does it take for the antibodies to be fully effective after the booster shot?
A: It appears that it's a two to three-week delay after the booster until you've got maximal antibody response. The science is interesting in this: The immunity comes from both the antibodies which are like traps for the Covid virus and the T cells. T cells are white cells and they get programmed memory to kill the Covid virus. It appears that the booster is remarkable for getting the T cells active.
Q: If I get a breakthrough infection despite having a booster, what can I expect?
A: If you do get symptomatic, it tends to be just a cold – a sore throat, runny nose and sneezing.
Q: Will the booster give me a higher chance to protect me against long Covid, too?
A: Yes. Massively.
Q: Next week starts the rollout for the paediatric vaccine which is also developed and produced by Pfizer. The technology is the same as for the adult vaccine, but the children's dose is lower. What else do we need to know?
A: Children can get really unwell with Covid. They can get significant long-term consequences. There was a young child that died in Australia [on Monday]. We've had one child die in New Zealand. It is particular important to try to protect children who have got other health issues like asthma and diabetes. The vaccine will reduce the passing on of Covid to more vulnerable people and whānau.
Q: At the start of the pandemic we were told the coronavirus wasn't spreading as successfully among children. Has this changed with the variants?
A: In a school environment we've seen that it's very contagious.
Q: So is the vaccine safe for young children?
A: We're very careful that the vaccines are safe for children and this vaccine's safety has been proven with overseas studies. I'm happy with the checks and balances that we have to ensure that tamariki have safe treatments. It has passed strict assessments with New Zealand health authorities, and I'm happy having my children vaccinated and protected from the harms that Covid has.
Q: Can we quickly touch on vaccination during pregnancy – what is the message to women who are expecting a child and are not yet vaccinated?
A: I hugely encourage pregnant women to be vaccinated. The vaccine is safe in pregnancy – at any stage of gestation. It protects the baby from Covid. It gives some protection to baby when it's born. In the UK, up to one in four of the people in intensive care were pregnant women. That's terrifying.
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