Dr. Farhan Bhatti: Make no mistake. Michigan’s latest surge is being driven by the unvaccinated.

Boosters are important, but the unvaccinated are still at far greater risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19

December 10, 2021 7:05 am

John Moore | Getty Images

Nearly a year ago, vaccines to protect people against COVID-19 were rolled out to the world. Since then, more than 230 million Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine, countless lives have been saved, and untold suffering prevented.

Yet as the virus continues to spread, mutate and infect those whose immunity has waned, some politicians and media incorrectly suggest the vaccine isn’t effective. As a physician, I can say with certainty that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s certainly discouraging that, at the end of a year when all Michiganders could have taken the safe, effective vaccine, Michigan is suffering through another long surge. While breakthrough cases among those who got the Johnson&Johnson vaccine or the two doses of Pfizer or Moderna do happen, make no mistake — this surge is being driven by unvaccinated individuals.

As physicians, it’s become clear that to get out of this surge we must refocus our attention on getting more people vaccinated, instead of simply encouraging boosters for those who were vaccinated six months ago or more. To do that, we need to revisit some facts, highlight some new ones, and debunk lingering myths about the vaccines.

Like nearly everything with COVID-19, the vaccines have not been immune to disinformation, falsehoods and fear-mongering. Getting the facts to people is never ending work. People are busy. They’re bombarded every day by posts, tweets, and TV headlines. Some of the information is reliable; a lot of it is not.

So every opportunity physicians like me get to share fact- and evidence-based information with our patients is a gift that can help protect and save lives.

Here’s what I say to my patients. The COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and essential to the effort to protect people and ultimately end this pandemic.

Here’s how:

  • Vaccinations lower a person’s chances of getting COVID-19 and they significantly protect individuals from becoming sick to the point of requiring hospitalization or dying from COVID-19

  • Vaccinations reduce the likelihood of spreading the COVID-19 virus to others, though they do not eliminate the spread of COVID-19 entirely

  • Vaccinations reduce the opportunity that the COVID-19 virus has to form new mutations, which is important since new mutations can potentially be more transmissible, lead to worse symptoms, and be more resistant to vaccines

Though a minuscule number of vaccinated individuals can still get sick to the point of requiring hospitalization, unvaccinated individuals are 14 times more likely to become hospitalized and die from COVID-19 than vaccinated individuals.

Across Michigan, nearly 90% of COVID-19 patients on a ventilator and in intensive care units are unvaccinated. Breakthrough infections do occur, but those who were vaccinated and then exposed to COVID-19 typically only get mild cold symptoms. They are weathering the surge. Those who weren’t vaccinated are 14 times more likely to develop difficulty with breathing, resulting in hospitalization, an ICU stay, and even death.

A booster is recommended if it’s been six months since you were fully vaccinated – especially if you are a senior or someone with a weakened immune system. COVID-19 infections are much more dangerous for these populations than others, even if they are vaccinated, because their immune system cannot mount as strong of a response to the vaccine. But even younger and healthier people should receive a booster since antibody levels begin to diminish after 6 months and the more antibodies that are in your system, the better your chance of fighting off the infection.

All new COVID-19 cases are also an important reminder that we need to get more people vaccinated in the first place, much more than the only 61%-plus of Michiganders who have received at least one dose of a vaccine. In Michigan, counties with the lowest vaccination rates tend to have the highest infection rates, so we know our work is far from done.

Though a minuscule number of vaccinated individuals can still get sick to the point of requiring hospitalization, unvaccinated individuals are 14 times more likely to become hospitalized and die from COVID-19 than vaccinated individuals.

– Dr. Farhan Bhatti

In the middle of the race to vaccinate as many people as possible, I still face disinformation. I must continuously assure people that, no, COVID-19 vaccines don’t cause people to shed the virus and sicken other people because the vaccines don’t contain live viruses. All the evidence shows that vaccinations are many times better than natural immunity at protecting individuals from COVID-19, despite the baseless repetition of elected leaders like state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake).

And just because immunity from the effective vaccine wanes somewhat doesn’t mean it’s not worth getting it — it means it’s important to get boosted from time to time, just like we do with other vaccines such as the flu vaccine and the tetanus vaccine.

As this pandemic drags on and it becomes likelier that people catch the virus at some point, our goal as physicians, and humans, is to prevent serious illness and death. Encouraging vaccinated people to get boosted — especially those who are older or have underlying health concerns — is an important step.

But absolutely critical to saving lives and preventing more spread and new mutations is getting those who are unvaccinated and driving this surge to get that first (and second) shot.

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Farhan Bhatti
Farhan Bhatti

Dr. Farhan Bhatti is a family physician in Lansing and Michigan State Lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care.