About 2½ years ago, Carroll Township resident Rick Puskar was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, and amyloidosis.
Though his will and determination are strong, the cancer, amyloidosis, and treatments have weakened his immune system, leaving Puskar among the most at risk for a poor outcome if he becomes infected with COVID-19.
“If I were to get COVID, it could be catastrophic,” said Puskar, 56, a retired senior vice president for Schneider Electric who was a standout basketball player at Laurel Highlands High School and Waynesburg College during the 1980s.
Puskar received his first and second doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in January and February. And when the Food and Drug Administration in August approved a third dose of Pfizer or Moderna for some immunocompromised people, Puskar’s oncologist contacted him and advised him to “get it immediately.”
“I was very relieved to get the booster shot,” said Puskar, who got the booster at Span & Taylor Drug Co. in Monongahela in early September. “I had a little bit of a headache the next day, but that was it. It was simple and easy.”
A growing body of research shows that antibodies wane six months after COVID-19 vaccination, but that a third dose of the vaccine – given six months after the initial two doses – can provide greater protection for some against the virus, including variants.
Right now, booster doses are recommended for people 65 and older, those ages 50 to 64 with underlying medical conditions and those 18 or older with conditions that put them at high risk of severe COVID-19.
Also eligible are people 18 or older who work a job that puts them at increased risk of COVID-19 exposure, such as health care workers, teachers, grocery store workers and people who work in prisons or homeless shelters.
“We are absolutely recommending the booster,” said Dr. Arpit Mehta, director of pharmacy at Allegheny General Hospital. “If the opportunity arises and doses are available, I highly recommend getting it, for the safety of yourself and the protection of your family.”
At both Allegheny Health Network and Washington Health System, the demand for boosters has outpaced the demand for first and second shots.
“We are definitely seeing demand for the booster, more than the first and second doses. The majority of our administrations are booster,” said Mehta.
AHN had given nearly 8,000 booster doses as of Monday at its clinics, and is offering separate clinics for employees.
Since WHS reopened its vaccine clinics two weeks ago, nearly 2,600 shots have been administered.
More than 95% of those shots were third dose booster, and more than 800 of the shots were given to WHS employees, according to the hospital system.
According to the CDC, 6.7 million vaccines were administered between Sept. 30 and Oct. 6. Of those, nearly 2.7 million were booster shots. About 2 million were first doses and nearly 2 million were second doses.
Mehta said the side effects from booster shots are similar to those from first and second doses.
“We’re not seeing any extreme side effects. It’s safe to take, and people are tolerating it well,” said Mehta.
AHN and WHS experts both noted that it’s still important for those who aren’t vaccinated at all to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The more people that get vaccinated, the less the virus spreads, the less chance of variants, and the better protected everyone will be, Mehta said.
And Pennsylvania data released late last week illustrate that vaccination still keeps people out of hospitals and reduces risk of death, even amid the delta variant.
Last week, the state Department of Health reported that in the past month, 74% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 were among unvaccinated Pennsylvanians, and about the same percentage of people who tested positive for COVID were not vaccinated.
Since Jan. 1, 93% of COVID-related deaths were in unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated people.
“What is completely clear to me is that vaccines are working as intended to help keep more people out of the hospital and alive after COVID-19,” DOH Acting Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson said late last week. “Because I know it can save their lives, I have encouraged all of my family, friends and others to get vaccinated and, when they are eligible, to get a booster dose.”
For Puskar, the booster shot provides the best chance of fighting COVID-19 while he fights the other diseases he is dealing with.
Chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant have helped slow progression of his diseases.
But Puskar recently returned home from a nine-day hospital stay following pneumonia, and it’s critical for him to avoid getting sick.
“The booster definitely gives me peace of mind,” said Puskar. “I’m really happy I was able to get it.”