Aug 18, 2021 - Podcasts

The language of COVID boosters

Today, President Biden is expected to announce his administration’s recommendation for a third dose for all vaccinated Americans. This follows the CDC and FDA approval last week of a third shot for those who are immunocompromised. But a "third dose" and a "booster" can refer to different things.

  • Plus, what the new school year looks like for parents across America.
  • And, companies address employee mental health.

Guests: Axios' Tina Reed, Erica Pandey, Russ Contreras, and Margaret Talev

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, and Michael Hanf. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Wednesday, August 18th. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Here’s what you need to know today: what the new school year looks like for parents across America. Plus, companies prioritize employee mental health. But first, the language of COVID boosters is today’s One Big Thing.

Today, President Biden is expected to announce his administration’s recommendation for a third dose of the COVID vaccine for all vaccinated Americans. This follows the CDC and FDA approval last week of a third shot for those who are immunocompromised. We’ve had a lot of questions about what to expect with a third dose, and Axios’ healthcare editor Tina Reed is here now to help us answer some of them. Good morning Tina!

TINA REED: Good morning, Niala.

NIALA: Tina, this whole thing came to my attention because a listener, Kristin, who's a pharmacist texted me about the language we've been using. Is there an important distinction we should make between the idea of a third dose versus a booster?

TINA: There is. And I will say there are a little bit of semantics going on, but they are valuable. What the data has shown is that among some immunocompromised people, they haven't had as robust response to the vaccine as people who are otherwise healthy. And they're trying to make up for that with a third dose of one of these MRNA vaccines. When we talk about boosters in the way that many people think about boosters, that is really an additional set of antibodies, as they see waning immunity from the vaccine and that's in healthy people.

NIALA: We keep hearing this term immunocompromised. When it comes to a third dose of the vaccine, who specifically is the administration talking about?

TINA: The CDC has said those eligible include those who are receiving active cancer treatment, who have received an organ transplant, or taking medicine to suppress their immune system, those who have received a stem cell transplant within the last two years, those who were born with moderate or severe primary immunodeficiencies, or who have advanced or untreated HIV infection. It doesn't apply to those whose immune systems are mildly impaired by chronic illnesses like diabetes or heart disease.

NIALA: We're supposed to hear from President Biden on this later today, what are you watching for him to say?

TINA: So administration officials are even talking about this because they've become increasingly concerned by new data. That's showing vaccine effectiveness against infection has waned over time. As-and particularly as the Delta variant has become the dominant strain. So The White House’s COVID-19 Team are going to hold this briefing to discuss the next step for boosters. We do expect that the Biden administration we'll be talking about numbers in terms of how many vaccines we have. But the administration has said that, um, they've been planning for the eventuality that we would need boosters and that they would have enough boosters for-for everyone in the U.S. These vaccines could potentially begin in late September and it-they seem to be indicating that it would be among healthcare workers and nursing home residents and potentially the elderly.

NIALA: Axios’ healthcare editor, Tina Reed. Thanks Tina.

TINA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with the Delta variant’s effect on YOUR family’s back-to-school plans.


NIALA: Welcome Back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Yesterday we heard how the Los Angeles Unified school district -- the second largest in the country -- is handling the new school year in the time of the Delta variant. We know parents all over the country have been grappling with this. So -- we wanted to hear from some of you, as well some of our own Axios colleagues:

RAE: Hi, Niala. This is Rae W. from Atlanta, Georgia. I work for Cobb County school district, and my two children attend Cobb County schools as well. Our superintendent has insisted on making masks optional instead of mandated. Students who are identified as close contacts are allowed to return to school the following day, as long as they are asymptomatic and agree to wear a mask for 10 days. And when students decide to self quarantine, their absences are unexcused. After the first week, there were 253 cases in the county. And after the second week, the cumulative number was up to 822.

RUSSELL CONTRERAS: Hi, I'm Russell Contreras, the race and justice reporter for Axios based in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. For a week now, we've been taking my seven year old daughter, Ava, to school. All students have to wear masks, but during the drop-off, not all parents are wearing masks. Over the weekend we all got sick, and now we're waiting for results from our COVID test.

CHAD: Hey, Niala. I have twins entering preschool this year And so far, my biggest problem has been trying to get “meet the teacher” scheduled. Instead of just everyone showing up during this two hour period and risk a spreader event, the poor teachers are having to schedule from like 2 to 7 on whatever day. So yeah, that's a-that's what I'm dealing with so far.

MARGARET TALEV: I'm Margaret Talev, Axios’ managing editor for politics. As my daughter, Abby, gets ready to start her senior year of high school. I'm excited for her, but I'm also really nervous. You know, she spent the last year and a half going to school in her bedroom and grappling with that kind of low grade depression, um, that like every teenager in America has been struggling with, uh, since the pandemic started. But there's a lot that we just don't know yet about how the Delta variant is really going to behave once kids go back, um, or any of the variants that are going to come after Delta. She has been vaccinated, but I got COVID in February, and I was seriously ill and she escaped it then. And I just hope that the vaccine will protect her now.

NIALA: Thanks to Rae, Russell, Chad, and Margaret. You can always send me YOUR thoughts by texting me like they did, at 202-918-4893.

NIALA: With every twist and turn of this pandemic, it seems like it's never going to end. Our mental health suffers, which is why that's quickly becoming a top concern for companies trying to hold onto workers. Axios’ Erica Pandey has been tracking this new workplace priority. Good morning, Erica.

ERICA PANDEY: Good morning, Niala.

NIALA: So we're talking about burnout, but we're also talking about a rise in addiction and overdoses across the country. There's a lot of different things going on under the category of mental health.

ERICA: Right, I mean, we've been talking about one public health crisis, which is this, you know, coronavirus pandemic, but there's this kind of second pandemic of mental health, you know, people have gone through loss, they've gone through isolation. And on top of that, the opioid crisis that we've been dealing with before the pandemic and we'll continue to deal with after it, has gotten worse. Drug overdose deaths are going up, addictions are going up. All of this is seeping into the workplace.

NIALA: What are employers doing about this?

ERICA: Employers are trying a few different strategies. They're doing mental health days. They're offering online therapy. But there needs to be a more of a cultural shift here, right? Like, companies are used to asking workers about work progress, but there isn't really a culture in the U.S. of checking in on people's mental health. And so managers are going to have to learn how to do that, especially if we're going to be remote or hybrid for longer, because you know, when you're out of sight, you're out of mind. You're getting those questions about how you're doing, how your mind is doing even less.

NIALA: And what are you hearing from companies about how they're specifically trying to tackle employee mental health? Certainly taking a day off is not going to help if you have a problem with addiction or something along those lines.

ERICA: Yeah. I mean, it's-it's offering resources to employees. So whether that's therapy sessions, whether that's, you know, helping them or family members get connected to help for addiction, there's all kinds of different things that companies can do. But that starts with just taking the pulse of your workforce, and making sure there's no stigma anymore. You know, one-one thing that really shocked me is this-this survey the insurance company, The Hartford, did that I-that I covered in the story. 72% of employers say the stigmas associated with mental health and addiction are keeping their workers from seeking help. And that, I think, is kind of the number one problem to tackle right now.

NIALA: Erica Pandey is one of the authors of the What's Next newsletter. Thanks Erica.

ERICA: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: It’s been a tough news cycle, and I will share one way I cope with stress: I bake. And I have been baking a lot this week. Maybe you just like eating baking. So on that front from the Girl Scouts, some big FOOD news yesterday, a NEW cookie in for next year’s lineup called The Adventureful. The Girl Scouts describe this as - and I’m quoting: “a brownie-inspired cookie with caramel-flavored creme and a hint of sea salt.”

That’s all we’ve got for you today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter. You can also text me at (202) 918-4893. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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