As top health officials in the federal government recommended Wednesday that adults who have taken the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines seek out a booster shot, medical professionals said one big issue stands out for people who haven’t received any doses at all: overall hesitancy about the shot.
“One of the biggest problems that we have right now with this pandemic is vaccine hesitancy,” Dr. E. Steve Woodle, director of solid organ transplantation at UC Health, said.
According to data from the Ohio Department of Health, more than 440,000 people got their first dose of the vaccine, but not their second.
Woodle said the side effects of the vaccine’s second dose may be what’s contributing to vaccine hesitancy – he worries it may prevent people from getting a third shot.
“I mean, that’s a possibility,” he said. “And, so far, we have not, you know, the incidents of severe reactions to the vaccine are very low.”
There’s one group of patients Woodle said should have little hesitancy: transplant patients who have weakened immune systems.
“We’ve got a significant portion of the population that remains susceptible to infection, and that results in the long-term persistence of the COVID epidemic or pandemic,” he said.
The third shot is strongly recommended to those who are immunocompromised and Hamilton County leaders said Wednesday that they're prepared to distribute those boosters next month.
"For that particular group of people it's for individuals who may not be able to generate an appropriate amount of immune response or antibodies when given vaccination, by providing a third dose we'll hopefully bring those levels back higher so they're also equally protected," said David Carlson, director of epidemiology and assessment at Hamilton County Public Health.
Those most vulnerable to the virus will have access to a third booster shot first, but everyone can begin scheduling their booster starting September 20.
Don Melillo had a liver transplant nine years ago.
“I had a liver transplant, but whether it be a kidney or any other sort of organ transplant,” he said. “And there still has been a lot of doubt, or information, lack of information, really, about how well does it protect us?”
Milillo said as soon as he heard booster shots were available, he went online to make an appointment. The next day, he got his third dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a local CVS.
The data is clear for transplant patients and other patients taking immune-suppressing medications, Woodle said.
“These patients don’t develop as robust a response to the vaccine,” he said. “So, if they have an opportunity to get a third dose or a booster, if you will, they should strongly consider it, and we’re recommending that for our transplant patients.”
Currently, about 53% of people in Hamilton County have received at least one dose of the vaccine. With vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation so pervasive in communities, health leaders said answering everyone's questions and meeting them where they are will be key to increasing vaccination numbers.
For now, Ohio and county leaders said there won't be any mandates.
"Think a mandate at this point would be counter-productive," said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, Ohio director of health. "What's important is for us to work with communities to get them this vital information and to rely on their wisdom."
The Hamilton County Department of Health said they're unable to make public health mandates because of a bill passed through the state legislature.