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I got my covid booster to help stay safe, and I hope other seniors join me

Health officials are encouraging more people to get boosted, especially as we head for holiday gatherings

Matthew Carroll, one of a team of pharmacists at the independently owned Accokeek Drug & Health Care in Prince George's County, Md. Three days a week, Carroll gives coronavirus, flu, shingles and pneumonia shots. (Courtland Milloy/The Washington Post)

A few days ago, I went to Accokeek Drug & Health Care, a wonderful independently owned pharmacy not far from where I live in Prince George’s County. My mission: to overcome a long-standing needle phobia just long enough to get that third coronavirus booster shot.

Matthew Carroll, a pharmacist who handles immunizations, told a story while preparing the jab.

A friend of his had a ticket to the recent football game between Ohio State and Maryland in College Park but ended up bedridden with the coronavirus. The friend hadn’t gotten a third booster, which might have helped him avoid infection or at least severe symptoms. “It was a pretty bad case,” Carroll said.

The upshot of the story was that Carroll, who is boosted, got the ticket and enjoyed a thrilling game. But the story also served to distract me. By the time he had finished telling it, I had been boosted and had barely noticed the jab.

I appreciated the deft touch. Our region has an abundance of dedicated pharmacists. But that might not last much longer if their workloads continues to skyrocket. Many people are finally seeing their doctors again after two years — and returning to the pharmacy with notebooks’ worth of prescriptions to be filled.

Another pharmacist told me that residents in some of the poorer neighborhoods are finally getting job opportunities but that they often need proof of a coronavirus vaccination to work. “I asked one young man why he waited so long to get his first jab, since the shots are free,” the pharmacist recalled, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. “He said the vaccine contained trackers, and he didn’t want to be followed. So in addition to giving the shots and filling prescriptions, we have to take time to dispel myths that people are getting from social media.”

Carroll showed me five large containers filled with used needles, ready for disposal. That represented three days of giving shots.

“We have excellent participation in the booster program,” he told me. “I’m really proud of our neighbors.”

On Monday, outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) declared the state a leader in coronavirus vaccinations — with more than 1 million residents having received the latest booster since September.

After a poor start in 2020, Maryland rallied in response to the coronavirus. Mobile loudspeakers rolled through Prince George’s advertising the free shots. A “cash for vax” program persuaded more of the resisters to get the shots. A concerted effort by teachers, principals, preachers and community leaders helped dispel myths about the vaccines.

Two years ago, seniors like myself, 65 and older, were leading the way on the first series of coronavirus shots. We had a nationwide participation rate of about 92.4 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a September KFF survey, only 8 percent of elderly people said they had received the latest bivalent booster shot, and only 37 percent said they intended to get that new booster as soon as possible.

And yet, flu season is already here. More than 300 people are dying of covid-19 every day. The Commonwealth Fund, an independent research group, forecasts that more than 75,000 lives might be needlessly lost in the United States if more people don’t follow up with the booster shots.

I recall what Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s outgoing chief epidemiologist, said during a webinar hosted by Prince George’s County last year: Getting vaccinated is not just for personal safety but also for the safety of the community. He echoed that sentiment during a meeting with The Washington Post.

“If you want to prevent the evolution of mutations, you’ve got to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible,” Fauci told The Post. “If you have vaccine hesitancy or reluctance to get vaccinated, you’re never going to get … that blanket or umbrella of what we refer to as ‘herd immunity.’ ”

Did we listen?

As of early October, only about 105 million U.S. adults — roughly 40 percent of those eligible — had received a third shot of vaccine, according to federal data. By contrast, more than 70 percent of eligible residents in Britain had received their third dose.

Carroll said part of the problem is that many people think the pandemic is over. Death rates are down significantly, even though more than 11,000 seniors died of the coronavirus in both July and August, according to the CDC.

“I hear people say it’s just like the flu,” Carroll said. “I tell them not to downplay the flu. It can be pretty deadly. They say only a few hundred people are dying from covid each year. I say, ‘I wouldn’t want to be one of them.’ ”

As the virus continues to mutate, Carroll expects more-effective vaccines will have to be developed. New remedies will also be needed for a growing list of covid symptoms and side effects. Although few in number, there have been substantiated reports of covid-related conditions such as “hairy tongues,” “purple toes,” mysterious “welts” and “sores.”

A day after getting my booster, I began to feel a soreness in the arm, muscular aches and fatigue. Discomforting, yes. But not as bad as dying.

The good news for the non-vaxxers: If someone does come up with a remedy for hairy tongue and purple toes, you’ll probably find it on the shelves of your local pharmacy.