Enrolling in the right Medicare program is one of the most important things Florida seniors can do to protect their health. But there’s something else they can do that’s even more important:
The COVID-19 pandemic remains a threat to the state’s elder citizens. Although 88 percent of Floridians 65 and up are vaccinated — that’s more than 4 million people — about 500,000 remain unvaccinated.
Thousands of seniors still are getting infected every week, and those 65 and older who get infected are far likelier to face hospitalization and death than are younger age groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even though it’s 19 months into the pandemic, seniors still might have plenty of questions about staying safe: Should they get a booster shot? What about a flu shot? Is it safe to see the grandkids? Here are some answers.
Some vaccinated people can get COVID-19. Should I still get vaccinated?
Absolutely, according to medical experts and a groundswell of research.
Some vaccinated individuals still can contract COVID-19, a phenomenon known as a “breakthrough infection.” These were expected, and have been from the start.
“The goal of the vaccine is not to prevent you from getting COVID,” said Dr. John Sinnott, chair of the University of South Florida Department of Internal Medicine and an infectious disease specialist at Tampa General Hospital. “It’s to prevent you from getting severe COVID.”
Breakthrough infections aren’t proof the vaccines are failing. In fact, all evidence points to the contrary.
Vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe illness — meaning hospitalization or death — from COVID-19. Florida is not releasing the number of breakthrough infections in the state, but overall just a few thousand out of more than 185 million people who have been vaccinated have died from a breakthrough infection in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
The shots equip the body to fight the virus — which is particularly important for older adults, who are at greater risk of severe illness and death from an infection.
“Ninety-five percent of the COVID patients we admit are not vaccinated,” said Sinnott. “We have had 24-year-olds who are not vaccinated die of COVID. On the other hand, we have 80-year-old people who have been vaccinated walk out of the hospital recovered.”
I’m vaccinated. Should I get a booster shot?
The evidence suggests that the answer, once again, is yes.
The Food and Drug Administration and the CDC now recommend people who are 65 or older, or over 50 with underlying medical conditions who got the Pfizer vaccine should get a Pfizer booster shot.
“People over 65 or who are immunosuppressed should absolutely get a booster,” Sinnott said. “You reduce your chance of breakthrough infection by tenfold, and you reduce your chance of death elevenfold. It is remarkable.”
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The government still is studying whether users of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines will need boosters.
Emerging data shows vaccine protection may diminish over time, an event known as “waning immunity.” Vaccines trigger the body to produce antibodies, which are like specialized soldiers that respond to a specific invader in the body. The proteins are similar to SWAT teams, Sinnott said.
“When you get your first two shots, the immune system has plenty of SWAT teams ready to be deployed,” he said. “But when you don’t use the SWAT teams, people get reassigned. So your immunity declines by about 3 percent a month, maybe a little more in the elderly.”
Booster shots may increase the immune system’s response to a COVID-19 infection, according to early data from research conducted in Israel.
That the protection offered by vaccines can decline and level off over time — usually over the course of several months following vaccination — is a phenomenon that’s normal and expected.
It’s one reason why Americans are encouraged to get a flu shot each fall, rather than a single vaccine early on in life.
Speaking of flu shots, should I get one?
Last year, pandemic precautions such as mask-wearing, social distancing and hand-washing helped tamp down on spread of the flu. But those precautions are largely gone now. And historically, a mild flu season — like the one the U.S. experienced last year — is almost always followed by a bad one, according to Sinnott.
Getting a flu shot is Important to prevent what’s called a “twindemic” — when two viruses spread through the community at the same time.
“Last year, we had a few patients who had both the flu and COVID,” Sinnott said. “It did not go well. They either died or had an extended hospital stay.”
People who are 65 and older are at heightened risk for severe illness from both diseases — so doctors are strongly recommending older adults get their influenza shots this fall.
Many health care providers in Tampa Bay are offering COVID-19 booster shots and flu shots during the same visit — making it easier to streamline the process of protecting your health.
Should I keep wearing a mask? What about social distancing?
As long as cases remain high in the U.S., people of all ages should continue to wear masks when indoors with anyone outside their immediate household, including inside grocery stores or another family member’s home.
COVID-19 fatigue — including engaging in behaviors like wearing masks indoors and social distancing — is real. But this isn’t forever, experts say. The long-term payoff of more years with loved ones will be worth it.
“If we can just hold on a little bit longer, with that perspective in mind, looking back, this will just be a small part of our lives,” said Dr. Kathy Black, a professor at the University of South Florida School of Aging Studies who researches healthy aging. “We can all do something for a year or two.”
Remember, mask-wearing and hand-washing can protect seniors from both the COVID and flu viruses.
Can I still see my unvaccinated grandkids? What about unvaccinated adults?
Health isn’t merely the absence of illness or infirmity, according to Black. It’s important to focus on your mental and social health, while still taking your physical well-being into account.
“Isolation is as big a predictor of mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” she said. “So it’s important for all of us to stay connected.”
Older adults should continue to mask up around unvaccinated family members or friends whenever they’re indoors, experts say. That includes children 11 and under, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.
Those who feel unsafe connecting in person can turn to social technologies like Zoom, FaceTime and Uniper to connect with loved ones from afar.
Area aging agencies often offer help setting up these platforms — check the bottom of the article to find contact information for the agency in your county.
I live in a long-term care facility — there are staff members, fellow residents or visiting family members who are unvaccinated. How can I stay safe?
Long-term care residents — whether vaccinated or unvaccinated — still should wear a mask at all times when they’re around others, Sinnott said. This includes staff members or roommates.
“I still wear a mask 12 hours a day,” said Sinnott, who is 73. “This very dangerous virus, and we’re still in a pandemic. People should do their best to avoid it. I have a number of patients who never wore a mask and got sick.”
Residents can remove their masks when alone in their rooms, according to Sinnott.
It’s not forever, he reiterated — but it depends on enough people getting vaccinated.
“As you look at the ebb and flow of infectious disease, you’ll find that this just an epidemic of the unvaccinated,” Sinnott said. “We’re coming off the peak of the delta (surge), but I just have a suspicion that the delta will come back again. But we’re extremely fortunate in America that we have the vaccine.”
For more information
To get connected to your local area aging agency for help booking a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, flu shot appointment or questions about setting up social technology in your home, call: 1-800-96-ELDER
Here are some other Tampa Bay agencies that can help seniors:
- In Hillsborough: Call the Senior Connection Center at 813-740-3888
- In Pinellas and Pasco, call the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, Inc. at 727-570-9696
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Tampa Bay Times 2022 Medicare Guide
Everything Florida seniors need to know to get ready for Medicare enrollment is available at tampabay.com/medicare.
• HOW MEDICARE WORKS: Here’s what seniors need to know about open enrollment, how Medicare works and how to find the best coverage for 2022.
• COMPARE MEDICARE PLANS: The Times has assembled a chart to help Tampa Bay residents shop for the best 2022 coverage in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.
• COMPARE PRESCRIPTION PLANS: This chart shows the plans available in Florida under Medicare’s Part D program for prescription drugs.
• HOW TO STAY SAFE FROM COVID-19: While Florida’s seniors are the most widely vaccinated age group in the state, they still are the most threatened by COVID-19. Here’s the latest advice on staying safe, why seniors must get vaccinated and why they also should get their annual flu shot.
• FINDING HELP: Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, or SHINE, is a state program that connects with seniors online or by phone to help them navigate the Medicare benefits. Call 1-800-963-5337 or visit floridashine.org.
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