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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 boosters are available to all adults but some consider the ethics

A vaccine going into a person's arm
Public Domain

The effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines seems to wane over time so booster shots are currently being recommended for some people.

But is it ethical to go and get a booster?

"I don't think it's unethical," said Dr. Mark Dowell, Natrona County Health Officer and Infectious Disease Specialist. "I think it makes sense, just as a human being - you know, 'I want to try to protect myself and those around me.'"

Booster doses were originally recommended for vulnerable populations. That includes those 65 and older, those who are immunocompromised, anyone who works in healthcare facilities or jails, and lots of people working in professions that put them in close contact with others and leave them at higher risk. On Friday, Nov. 19, a CDC panel endorsed making booster shots available to all adults  It is expected that people can get their booster by early next week.

Dowell said there's no shortage of vaccines in Wyoming. So anyone can take a booster without taking one away from an elderly long-term care resident, or a frontline healthcare worker.

The other issue is that vaccines are not wildly popular in Wyoming.

"People have had messaging and messaging and messaging and not a lot of people in Wyoming are changing their minds unless they're directly experiencing someone they care about dying or getting hospitalized," Dowell said.

But there are plenty of people outside Wyoming who are still waiting for their first shot. Many countries in Africa still have vaccination rates that are less than one percent of their population. The World Health Organization has even urged rich countries like the United States to stop booster vaccination campaigns until those poorer countries can get more people their first round.

But University of Wyoming Public Health Researcher Christine Porter said refusing a booster in Wyoming won't help those countries get vaccinated.

"There's no way to eliminate the virus. We missed our chance to do that - by not testing enough at the beginning, not masking early enough and then people choosing not to get vaccinated. We missed our chance."
University of Wyoming Public Health Researcher Christine Porter

"It's too late in the game by the time they're at your local pharmacy," she said. "There is no way they're not going to be redistributed to Mexico, for example or Ghana. So if we're not using the boosters we have in the U.S., they're essentially going to be thrown away."

Porter said leaders and policymakers should have prioritized those unvaccinated countries. Sending vaccines to poorer countries would benefit not just people in faraway lands, but in our own communities as well because a global pandemic threatens everyone. Better yet, Porter said, we ought to support those countries' efforts to produce their own vaccines.

"The single best thing we could do - not only for this pandemic and putting it under control, but to prepare us to better respond to future pandemics - is to assist with building the infrastructure in other countries to produce mRNA vaccines in particular," she said. "And of course then to share the science for producing the most effective vaccines."

But this hasn't happened. Porter said given the continued spread, both in local communities and abroad, boosters have become a necessity. The virus has even made the jump to wildlife and is, for example, now widespread in whitetail deer. Deer could now serve as a reservoir species for the virus, giving it a place to hang out and mutate even if and when every human was immunized.

"So that means that there's no way to eliminate the virus," Porter said. "We missed our chance to do that - by not testing enough at the beginning, not masking early enough and then people choosing not to get vaccinated. We missed our chance."

Society has also lost control of the ability to say who should and should not get a booster, said Matt Wynia, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado.

"The minute we started distributing the vaccines through individual doctor's offices and pharmacies and outside of big health systems and mass vaccination sites, where you had to register, we kind of lost control of the allocation scheme," Wynia said. "So at the moment ... if you walk into a Walgreens and say, 'I want to get a booster,' you're probably going to get a booster."

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