Public Health officials urge more use of free COVID-19 vaccinations - 1

BOOSTED AGAIN: Susan Tan, of Tumon, gets her third booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine from Pfc. Jordan Suzuki, Guam Army National Guard, Oct. 20 at The Plaza Shopping Center in Tumon, where the Department of Public Health and Social Services is offering a COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinic. David Castro/The Guam Daily Post

COVID-19 vaccines are free for residents, but that may not always be the case, according to Department of Public Health and Social Services officials who encouraged the community to get vaccinated now while it’s free.

Dr. Robert Leon Guerrero, Public Health's interim chief medical officer, during a COVID-19 briefing pointed out that for the community, COVID-19 vaccines are here to stay and may become an annual vaccine for residents.

"We’re going into the phase now where we’re going to get a shot once a year like we do the flu shot. This bivalent is the first in line of the annual COVID-19 shots. If it's been over two months, it’s time to get a bivalent (shot). I still see patients that say, 'You know, I got the (Johnson & Johnson) shot so they said you only need one.' When, in fact, you need a booster including the bivalent shot. All the vaccines, we initially thought that we get it, like the measles shot, creates long-term immunity, lo and behold we find out that it’s short-term but effective,” Leon Guerrero said.

Health officials noted that the bivalent booster has the original COVID-19 vaccine as well as the omicron BA.5 variant, which makes it effective for the cases that have been reported.

"About two months ago, I’d say, maybe 90% to 95% of all infections were the BA.5. Unfortunately, there’s some newer strains and that’s why I think they are going to require annual COVID-19 shots. But in the past couple of weeks, … BQ.1, BQ 1.1, now constitute about 30% to 40% of all infections. They still get some good responses if you get the bivalent with the newer subvariants,” Leon Guerrero said.

Right now, it’s free to get COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.

“It’s free as long as we’re in that public health emergency situation that we’re in right now. Initially, the federal government was thinking of ending it Jan. 1, but there’s been some talks about continuing the public health emergency because it looks like we may have another surge in the near future in the U.S.,” Leon Guerrero said.

But as long as the public health emergency is active, COVID-19 vaccines and monoclonal antibody treatments are free for the community.

“But, once the public health emergency is over … they may start charging for the vaccines and the monoclonal antibodies,” he said.

Leon Guerrero shared that the recent increase in the number of children coming down with COVID-19 is, in part, due to the poor vaccination rate in the 6-month-old and older population, which currently makes up about 5% of the vaccinated population.

“It’s still pretty poor, unfortunately, and it shows. Since it's been approved we’ve had 25 admissions for COVID-19, bronchiolitis. We had that one 6-month-old, DOA (dead on arrival), had that 17-year-old, who had multiple strokes and died. So, I mean, I can understand the hesitancy because there’s a lot of misinformation out there. I talked to one parent who said, ‘I don’t want my 12-year-old to get the shot because I heard from a friend if you get the COVID-19 shot, you’re child’s going to be sterile,'” he said.

Leon Guerrero dispelled misconceptions about the effects of vaccination like the possibility of becoming sterile.

“First of all, most 12-year-olds are not having sex, so they’re not going to be having children. So, how can you tell if you’re sterile or not? All of this basic misunderstanding and basic misinformation,” Leon Guerrero said.

While it is a common perception that a child’s immune system is naturally strong, Leon Guerrero strongly discouraged holding off on the vaccine.

“You know, that’s not the story you gave when ... you’re 55 years old, 40 years old, and you wanted the vaccine. So the vaccine uptick for adults was great. But, unfortunately, I’m still trying to encourage people,” he said.

Myocarditis was another concern expressed in the community, specifically the chance for it to develop in young men and boys in association with vaccination. Leon Guerrero confirmed that there have been cases of myocarditis in males, usually in their upper teens or early adulthood, but also noted the misconceptions surrounding the disease.

“It’s not just the myocarditis but it was rare, first of all. Second of all, was mild and usually went away within a week or so," he said. “What they don’t understand is COVID-19 can also cause myocarditis.”

While rare cases of myocarditis associated with the vaccine have been mild, the same can’t be said for cases linked to COVID-19 infection.

“Myocarditis associated with COVID-19 can be one of those long-term or long-haul COVID-19 where it’s lasting more than six months,” he said.

But health officials can’t be too sure just yet as the full effect of COVID-19 won’t be known until at least 10 years from now.

“I don’t know if it’s going to make them 'cardiac cripple' or not. But we have a lot of myocarditis associated with COVID-19, not just the vaccines,” he said.

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