COVID boosters could provide lasting immunity and spare LA from winter surge, says USC immunologist

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Christian Bordal

Some 75% of eligible Californians have had at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the governor’s office. However, the state has slipped back into the CDC’s orange tier when it comes to COVID transmission. 

In comparison, LA County’s COVID cases have stayed relatively low, save for certain hotspots such as Lancaster, Palmdale, and Santa Clarita. That’s all according to Paula Cannon, professor of microbiology and immunology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. 

Looking forward to the winter months, Cannon is hopeful there won’t be another major spike like in 2020. “What's completely different this year is that we're vaccinated. We've actually got pretty high rates of vaccination throughout California and including here in Southern California. LA County's actually doing quite well.”

Now she predicts the focus will be on hospitalization and death rates. 

“We're certainly starting to see a separation between case rates and serious illness and death. And of course that’s entirely bound to the high numbers of people who are vaccinated,” she explains. “We’ll probably end up with a large number of people vaccinated. [But] most people who do get COVID, they’ll be very low or mild [cases] ... because those people are highly protected by being vaccinated. And the virus hopefully will become nothing more annoying than sort of a seasonal cold.”

The longevity of boosters

Cannon notes that the three-shot vaccination, including a booster, might be key to continuous COVID-19 protection.

“By having the six-month gap between, say, your second shot and then getting a booster … it's almost like the body goes, ‘Okay, here's this thing again. I'm seeing it now, even six months later, that means it's a really serious threat. And I need to up my antibody game.’ And so we hope that it will shift the immune response into something that's not just higher levels of antibodies, but longer lasting as well,” Cannon says.

But will more boosters be needed? The science is still unclear, she notes. 

“It may be that we start to look at boosters once every five or 10 years. Of course, I could be wrong, and we could need them every year. And if we do, we’ll just get it at the same time as you get your annual flu shots. And it really won't be any more onerous than that.” 

Vaccine hesitancy among parents

Although these COVID-19 vaccinations are new, Cannon urges parents to remember that inoculating kids is normal. That’s because young immune systems are healthy and robust, and in turn, respond well to vaccines and can help set up a lifetime of immunity for kids. 

“So far, everything looks stunningly safe with these vaccines, and the trials that were done in the 5 to 11-year-olds saw absolutely no serious adverse effects, and a lot of evidence of efficacy,” Cannon says. “So even though your child gets COVID, they probably won't be very sick. But if your child gets COVID, they will miss school. And they do have the potential to transmit it to other members of the family who could be more vulnerable.”

On a hopeful note, she adds, “It's an amazing thing that we now have. It’s just a great gift to families to be able to also protect even the youngest members and therefore, protect even the more vulnerable members of the family.”