COVID-19 update: Surveillance testing and booster vaccines

Dear Campus Community,

It’s been some time since my last campus update, and it is great to finally catch a moment to reach back out to all of you. I took some much-needed time off recently and, after returning last month, we have been working non-stop to adjust to the challenges brought on by the largest COVID-19 surge yet, driven by the emergence of the delta variant. We are continuing to do what we do best: working hard to find creative solutions to help keep UF and the broader community as safe as possible during this latest phase of the pandemic.

New Surveillance Testing Coming

With over 50,000 students in face-to-face classes this semester, the surveillance testing that was standard practice in the spring semester is no longer possible. The lab simply does not have the capacity to do that many tests and still have room to do the thousands of other tests necessary to provide clinical care. So, we are focusing on high-priority areas where cases have been identified. Surveillance testing using what is called expanded targeted testing will be implemented. The process is based on testing around known cases of COVID-19 — testing not just immediate contacts but also those in a broader circle who would be at higher risk of contracting COVID. This is not altogether new; in fact, we have been doing this all along. But now this will be the foundation of our surveillance testing. Stay tuned. We expect this to go live sometime in the next week or so, and we will provide more details then.

What is a Booster Vaccine and Do I Need One?

Medical science is trying to answer these questions and many more like them more clearly. A booster vaccine is another dose of vaccine that is given to someone who has originally built up enough protection after the initial vaccination but in whom that immunity, or protection, has waned over time. This is also referred to as waning immunity. This is a different scenario than giving an additional, or third, dose. An additional dose is given to people who, because of a weakened immune system, cannot build up enough immunity after the standard dosing — either two doses of the mRNA vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer), or the one-dose series of Johnson & Johnson. The additional or third dose for those who received the mRNA vaccines can be given as early as 28 days after completing the series of two doses.

People should consider getting a booster or third dose if they are at risk of having a weak response to vaccines because of age or if they have some condition that weakens their immune system. The science is still evolving on this point, and discussions are still taking place within the medical community. It is important to remember that the COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the United States continue to be highly effective in reducing risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death, even against the widely circulating delta variant. However, COVID-19 constantly evolves. Experts are looking at all available data to understand how well the vaccines are working, including how new variants, like delta, affect vaccine effectiveness. If the FDA authorizes and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends it, the goal is for people to start receiving a COVID-19 booster shot this fall. Again, the COVID vaccines that are currently available are exceptionally effective and safe.

Further guidance from the FDA and the CDC should be released next week.

In our next update, we will provide a guide explaining how to get a booster dose, if approved, or a third dose. It is important to remember, however, that COVID-19 continues to batter our community and our state, not because we all need to get boosters or third doses but because nearly half of Floridians have yet to get their first dose.

That’s it for now but lots more coming soon. Hope you all have a great rest of the week. Go Gators!

Michael Lauzardo, MD, MSc
Director, UF Health Screen, Test & Protect
Deputy Director, Emerging Pathogens Institute
Associate Professor, Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Medicine
UF College of Medicine