With COVID hospitalizations rising, Duke experts urge people who are eligible to get the next COVID booster

By: - September 7, 2023 5:59 am
A nurse holds a vial of COVID-19 vaccine and syringe.

Duke experts say keeping up to date on vaccination is the best strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 virus. Photo: Getty Images

The rise in hospitalizations and the report that First Lady Jill Biden tested positive for COVID-19 is a reminder that the virus is still with us, though not wreaking the kind of havoc it did in the first two years of the pandemic.

A daily average of 501 patients with COVID were hospitalized in North Carolina for the week that ended on Sept. 2, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. That’s up from the daily average of 165 people hospitalized with COVID in a week in mid-June, but far from the pandemic peak of January 2022, when more than 5,000 people in North Carolina were hospitalized with COVID, according to New York Times data. 

Three years of experience has shown that there’s always a spike in late July, August, and September, said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University.

Duke inpatients with COVID have gone from a low of 10 to 15 in June to 50 to 55 now, Wolfe said. There’s also been an increase in people with COVID who seek help at urgent care centers or emergency rooms but don’t need to be hospitalized, he said. 

Proportionately fewer hospitalized patients have severe COVID symptoms that require intensive care, Wolfe said, which he attributed to vaccines, native immunity, or both. But people still get long COVID and die from COVID, he said. 

Wolfe and David Montefiori, a professor and director of the Laboratory for AIDS Vaccine Research and Development at Duke University Medical Center, spoke to reporters Wednesday about COVID-19 trends, variants, and a new booster expected to be available within weeks.

Immunity to the virus wanes, and most people in the U.S. haven’t had a booster shot in more than a year, Montefiori said. 

“The best thing that people can do to maintain a normal way of life is to continue to get their booster shots,” he said. “The booster shots are working, the updating is improving how well they work. So far, the strategy of vaccinating has been very effective and updated boosters have been very effective. What we really need are for more people to take advantage of that.”

The federal government will no longer pay for COVID vaccines, which could leave people without health insurance in a bind. 

The Biden administration announced a program to pay for vaccines for uninsured people, but it likely won’t be functional by the time the new booster is available. 

Wolfe said there’s a risk that people in marginalized communities will not get information about vaccines or have access to the shots themselves. Officials are considering how to get information about vaccines to people who are uninsured.

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Lynn Bonner
Lynn Bonner

Investigative Reporter Lynn Bonner covers the state legislature and politics, as well as elections, the state budget, public and mental health, safety net programs and issues of racial equality.