COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha (L) and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci
COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, MPH, (L) and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci. (Credit: Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

Getting the updated bivalent COVID-19 booster is the single most important thing that older adults can do to protect their health, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, MPH, said Friday during a White House virtual town hall on COVID-19 vaccinations.

Residents in long-term care settings should be offered COVID-19 vaccines, he added, but if they are not, he recommended that families arrange for their loved ones to get vaccinated.

Older adults or anyone at elevated risk who becomes infected should pursue treatments, Jha added.

“Getting treated is critical,” he said. “There are so many good treatments now. They’re widely available. They’re free.”

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also advocated that family members and friends of residents get tested before visiting older adults who live in long-term care settings, to provide an extra layer of protection for everyone.

Don’t wait

In fact, during the town hall, the nation’s leading COVID-19 experts had a singular message on vaccination: “Don’t wait.”

Jha and Fauci were joined by first lady Jill Biden and AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins to address the importance of Americans — particularly older adults — receiving the updated COVID-19 vaccine.

“The most important thing you can do to prepare for your holidays is to get your updated COVID vaccine,” Biden said. “It offers the best protection for you and your family against the version of the virus we’re facing today.”

Jha said the virus has evolved over the past two years. Although the first vaccine targeted the original virus, today’s virus is “very different,” he said. He also noted that immunity can wane over time, requiring everyone to stay up to date on their vaccinations and boosters.

“In the same way as we’ve seen waning immunity against COVID, getting that updated bivalent vaccine is the single most important  thing you can do to make sure your immunity is up to date and you can fight the virus that’s out there,” Jha said. 

Other vaccines, such as ones for measles and polio, provide long-lasting immunity that can continue for decades or a lifetime, Fauci said.

“Unfortunately, that’s not the case with COVID, so we’ve got to keep up with that virus and keep up with the waning immunity; when we do that we’re going to wind up being safe,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your body defenses up to date.”

Timing important

For those who are infected with the virus, Jha explained, the immune system revs up and creates some immunity benefit. He recommended waiting three months after infection before getting another vaccine, to further build up protection.

With influenza ramping up across the country, Fauci said that it’s “very appropriate” to mix flu shots and COVID vaccines in one visit.

“It’s one and done. It’s very easy,” Jha said. “Your immune system is very good and able to handle two vaccines at once.”

Combining a COVID-19 vaccine with a shingles (herpes zoster) vaccine, however, is another story. Although immunologically it’s fine, Jha said the combination could cause a “significant reaction” in the form of “a lot of aches.” Fauci recommended spacing the two vaccines out by two to three weeks from one another.

COVID will continue into the future

Jha said he’s sympathetic to the fact that everyone is “a little tired of this virus.” The good news, he added, is that COVID-19 does not have the same effect on the lives of Americans as it did two years ago, or even last year, due to vaccines and new treatments.

“COVID is going to continue to be around for a long time,” he said, adding that it “need not be” disruptive. “We can get on with our lives. We can do the things that matter to us if we do certain things: keep updated on vaccination and get treated if you have an infection.”

Uncertainty remains around whether new vaccines will be necessary in the future, but Jha said that it’s possible — maybe even likely — that a new COVID vaccine will be necessary next fall in the same way that flu vaccines are necessary each year.

Don’t put loved ones at risk

Fauci said that his takeaway for those who are not up to date on their vaccinations is not to wait. 

“If you wait, you put yourself at risk,” he said. “We’re entering the colder months of late fall and early winter. We’re all going to congregate with family and friends for the holidays. Get vaccinated now.”

Jha said that the nation is at a point in the pandemic where it is important to gather and spend time with family. And it is possible to do that by staying updated on vaccinations, getting the new bivalent vaccine, getting treated for infections and using testing, he said.

“There are so many things we can do now to make sure that the things we have missed out on the last two years, we don’t have to miss out on them again,” Jha said. “It’s up to us, and it’s really important that we take this opportunity to do the things that will protect ourselves and our families.”

This article originally appeared on McKnight's Senior Living