Experts Push COVID Booster Shots Amid Omicron Variant Concerns

Politicians and medical experts alike are eagerly awaiting answers to crucial questions about the latest COVID-19 variant and whether it could alter the nature of the pandemic and the public health response

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Politicians and medical experts in Massachusetts are urging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine booster shot as the new omicron variant creates uncertainty across the state, the nation and around the globe.

The local push for the shot comes after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged all eligible adults to get COVID-19 boosters Monday, striking a much stronger tone than its recommendations just a few weeks ago.

The new advice was issued days after the new omicron variant of the coronavirus was detected in southern Africa. The variant's constellation of mutations suggests the virus could evade the immune system or spread more easily than previous variants do, although it will take time to determine its impact.

The global risk of omicron is "very high," the World Health Organization said Monday, as more countries reported cases of the variant that has led to worldwide concern that there is more pandemic suffering ahead.

An increasing number of nations are tightening their borders despite pleas for caution and outbursts of dismay from some. The U.S. has restricted travel from South Africa and seven neighboring countries: Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The U.S. has yet to identify any cases but the nation's top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts have warned that it could already have made it to America. If omicron is shown to be a more difficult variant to contain, it could threaten pandemic recovery efforts in Massachusetts.

President Joe Biden described the omicron variant of COVID-19 a cause for concern, but not a cause for panic.

Politicians and medical experts alike are eagerly awaiting answers to crucial questions about the latest COVID-19 variant and whether it could alter the nature of the pandemic and the public health response. In the meantime, they're urging people to get vaccinated.

"For the group that already has been vaccinated but have not gotten their booster shots - absolutely go get your booster shots," said Dr. Simone Wildes, an infectious disease physician at South Shore Hospital. "And I want to also remind parents to get your children vaccinated."

Vaccines are now available for children five years and older, Wildes noted.

"I think we want to get everyone as much protection as we can."

Gov. Charlie Baker has sent similar messages and said he was planning to get his booster shot on Friday.

"I continue to believe the best thing people can do to protect themselves from any of these variants is get vaccinated if you're not and get a booster if you're eligible," Baker said during an interview on GBH's Boston Public Radio program Monday.

As Massachusetts' COVID numbers rise and the discovery of the omicron variant, there's concern the pandemic will get worse before it gets better. Some vaccination clinics are seeing long lines.

Dr. Wildes, South Shore Hospital's infectious disease expert, echoed other Boston-based doctors who say the fact is that we just don't know enough about it to be sure of anything yet.

"Unfortunately, right now, there’s not a lot we know about omicron," Wildes said. "I will tell you there’s more to come but for right now, not a lot with regards to how it’s going to affect our vaccines, how contagious it is, how is it going to affect testing, what about the medication? Really a lot of unknowns.”

Meanwhile, Pfizer is expected to seek authorization this week for a COVID-19 vaccine booster for teens 16 and 17 years old, a source familiar with the process told NBC News on Monday. If approved, the additional Pfizer-BioNTech shot would mark the first vaccine booster for teens younger than 18.

The application for regulatory approval from the Food and Drug Administration is expected to come this week, but no timeline was provided for when the department would act.

People have been rushing to get COVID-19 booster shots in Massachusetts. Long lines could be seen at vaccine clinics as many locations are booked up with appointments.

Lines for COVID vaccine shots were as long Tuesday at a Tufts walk-in clinic in the Theatre District Tuesday as they were in the spring. One person said they'd waited an hour and 15 minutes.

Baker has defended booster availability, noting the state has given out about a million of them, but he does hope to speed things up.

"We have 1,000 locations across Massachusetts right now where people can get vaccinated. And I think our goal here is to see if we can put together more," Baker said Tuesday. "It'd be faster and easier to do this if we work in conjunction with our colleagues in local government."

A new variant, named B.1.1.529, was named a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization and given the name “omicron” from the letter in the Greek alphabet.

The State House News Service contributed to this report.

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