‘Messaging has been challenging’: Gundersen’s Dr. Raj Naik explains vaccine boosters and information obstacles

La Crosse doctors prepare for vaccine boosters while government bodies and experts approve rollout and guidance

ONALASKA, Wis. (WKBT) – When a vaccine receives medical approval, La Crosse doctors have to be ready. That means local health care systems must have necessary resources in place before the FDA approves

Booster shots are the next step for experts and government bodies to agree on. Before these decisions are finalized, conversations are happening to be ready for when the light turns green. Dr. Raj Naik at Gundersen Health System has studied vaccines throughout his career, but he says nothing compares to the past two years.

Some of the brains behind COVID-19 vaccine data and information live right down the street. Naik was co-chair of the Ethics Subcommittee of the State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee when the COVID-19 vaccine made its debut in La Crosse.

“It was a really enlightening process,” Naik said.

Naik has been at the table of ethical and logistical conversations with Wisconsin’s brightest doctors, and now there’s more preparation underway for the day the green light is given for a third booster shot.

“We’re going to be ready to start to deliver those doses,” he said.

Naik is aware of people’s confusion regarding vaccines. Last week President Joe Biden told people they will be able to receive their third dose in just weeks. However, the FDA and CDC have not come down with emergency use approval yet.

Are you concerned with (the president) jumping the gun with those comments is going to compromise public trust in whether or not booster shots are even necessary? “I think for the entire pandemic messaging has been challenging,” Naik said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that if we had a more unified message and that we are all on the same path to delivering this information it would be easier for the general public to understand.”

Naik said vaccines remain effective for most people, but data shows immunity drops months after vaccination. Right now, doctors are concerned about people with weaker immune systems. There are arguments that point to natural infection offering a stronger immune response than vaccines. Naik says this is a risky alternative to the vaccine because it’s hard to predict how people will respond to the virus.

“When you have significant disease and you recover from it, it looks like your immunity is pretty good,” Naik said. “The downside is we can’t predict who’s gonna do well and who’s not gonna do well. People are gonna die, people are gonna end up in the hospital. That’s very costly.”

He said the fact the FDA is not rushing the process to approve COVID-19 booster doses should give people more confidence in the vaccine rollout process.

“They are going to take their time,” Naik said. “They understand the stakes.”

When national decisions come down, local community members like Naik help deliver the information and make sure La Crosse health care is ready to get people the care they need to stay safe.

So far, data suggest boosters are necessary for vulnerable populations, said Naik, who said he does not know whether the boosters will become annual vaccinations or stop at third doses.

Tuesday Johnson and Johnson released data that shows for people 18 to 55,  a booster shot provides a strong immune response months after the first dose.

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